Lynne Abraham: Can a Woman Win the Philadelphia Mayor’s Race?

A veteran urban warrior who has always gone after what she wasn’t supposed to be able to get begins her final quest.

Photograph by Colin Lenton

Photograph by Colin Lenton

It seems an unlikely thing to be doing with Lynne Abraham.

On a cool, breezy Friday in New York in December, we’re at the Frick, looking at paintings. Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid is a favorite of hers, and we gaze intently; it depicts a servant handing her lady a letter. Abraham points out the lady’s ambiguous expression, either worry or hope over the letter’s contents, and perhaps the servant has already read it — we don’t know. “Vermeer was a great master of light,” Abraham notes. Sunlight floods the lady’s writing desk and picks out her pearl earring, bathing the moment’s tension. “What’s the message she’s getting?”

Abraham goes to the Frick, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, often; also to the Met, to the theater, to opera. She is a connoisseur of art.

We move on to a Thomas Gainsborough portrait: “Look at the lace, how he’s imagined the lace, and the folds of her silk gown. Magnificent.”

This side of Lynne Abraham is a surprise. She’s also a voracious reader and traveler, and a big-league talker who might be waxing on criminal justice one moment and then launch into a dead-on impression of George Carlin the next. As a young prosecutor she carried a .38 under her belt, and cans of cat food in her legal brief bag in case she spied any hungry strays. She loves jazz and sweets. She built a Japanese garden in the backyard of her rowhouse in Old City. Few people know any of that; she’s seen as the hard-edged D.A. — a job she had for nearly two decades before bowing out five years ago — who would often proclaim things like: “This assassination has been made a circus by those people in the world and this city who believe falsely that [convicted cop killer] Mumia Abu-Jamal is some kind of a folk hero. He is nothing short of an assassin.” Tough and uncompromising and grim. In fact, that was always her stance, because it was the only way she got anywhere to begin with.

When Frank Rizzo appointed her to clean up the Redevelopment Authority more than 40 years ago, he called Abraham “the best man we’ve got.” As D.A., she went toe-to-toe with whatever came her way in this city and never backed down, never gave in to anybody’s idea of what she was supposed to do or say or be. No wonder our idea of her follows a straight line.

But now, with her eyes set on this spring’s mayoral primary, she needs to change that, to broaden our view. Abraham was in New York in December to attend the Pennsylvania Society’s annual alcohol-fueled smorgasbord of parties and power conversations for politicians, lobbyists and deep-pocketed interests from all over the state, held at the Waldorf. Lynne made the rounds — sort of. She skipped out early after a brief appearance at union boss John Dougherty’s monster fete on Friday night just off the lobby, and headed for bed instead of consultant Larry Ceisler’s shindig upstairs. On Saturday morning, at a breakfast in the Waldorf’s Starlight Room, Abraham sits with Dick Klein, a retired judge whose father, Charles, heard her cases back in the ’60s. Time for old home week:

“Charlie Klein called me ‘Cookie,’” she remembers. “He didn’t mean any disrespect. I was trying a rape case, and he said, ‘Cookie, can I talk to you?’ The jury was in the box. He said, ‘I want you to go to the bathroom and take off your eye shadow — you’re much too young for eye shadow.’ I certainly did it. And I won the case.”

“May I make a suggestion?” Dick Klein says. “Don’t bother talking to me — I’m already on your team.” Abraham takes his advice and gets up to schmooze other tables.

I suggest to Klein that perhaps what the City of Philadelphia really needs is fresh blood, new energy. He disagrees: “We need an old-school leader. We don’t have Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, but she’s the closest we have.”

Abraham quickly returns with State Senator Anthony Williams, one of the other mayoral candidates considered to have a realistic chance of winning. “This is before the fight begins,” Abraham says, laughing. Williams appears a little startled as she introduces him to me and someone takes his picture with Abraham.

Fun and games in New York. Her attitude seems to be, What do I have to lose? She’s going to a Wagner opera that afternoon. Certainly, Abraham isn’t about to waste three days in New York just sucking up to donors and fellow pols. She shows me not only the Frick, but also the Chelsea Market and the High Line, and we take in a play, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. She jokes that I’m her date for the weekend, and says she’s not just playing hooky from politicking; Abraham’s talking to me to broaden the pool of those who know the real Lynne. That she’s not a one-note tough-girl D.A. That she’s smart and interested and complicated and funny.

Which is good, because she’ll have to break out all those qualities to become mayor of a city that desperately needs to move forward, not back. Her own poll conducted in November gave her a big early lead: She drew 31 percent of the vote, with nobody else getting more than 12 percent. (Williams was at nine.) Chalk those early numbers up in large part to name recognition.

Philadelphia has never had a woman running the show. She’s 74 years old. Abraham says she’s ready to smash the hidebound way the city’s government conducts business. As if she’s brand-new.

It’s a hell of a bet she’s making. Lynne Abraham believes that Frank Rizzo — not simply long gone, but about as old-school as one can imagine — is still right: She is the best man we’ve got.

ON DECEMBER 11TH, before she left for New York, Abraham stopped at City Hall, parked herself outside the office of Council President Darrell Clarke, and railed to the press about his “shameful failure of leadership” over the blocked sale of the Philadelphia Gas Works. A lot of other people agree with her — that a pissing match between Clarke and Mayor Nutter got in the way — but in getting so aggressive so early in her campaign, Abraham made herself vulnerable to the oft-leveled criticism that she’s behind the curve on racial sensitivity. The PGW deal has next to nothing to do with race; even so, a Clarke acolyte’s attack — he tweeted that the city wanted to “elect a mayor, not a gunslinger” — recalled old talking points for the press: In 1995, the New York Times Magazine anointed Abraham “America’s Deadliest D.A.” over her penchant for the electric chair, and in 1998 she went to great pains to scuttle the nomination to U.S. District Court of Frederica Massiah-Jackson, who would have become the first black female from Philadelphia on the federal bench.

The contretemps with Clarke wasn’t really a big deal — Abraham spoke her mind, got some early attention — but it told us that her approach hasn’t changed. She likes to fight. Going on attack has long been Abraham’s M.O., and for a good reason: It brought her a long way against great odds.

Abraham’s father was a bookie; her mother suffered from debilitating depression and had to be institutionalized. “I remember as a four-year-old,” Abraham says over coffee in New York, “my mother being carried out of the house in West Philly in a straitjacket on a regular basis. It was very, very pathetic. I couldn’t understand what was going on. I couldn’t understand why my mother was so sad.” Lynne and her sister, Beverly, four years older, were Jewish but were raised for a time by a Catholic family. Lynne’s mother killed herself in the mid-’80s.

At Germantown High and then at Temple, Abraham wasn’t a particularly good student. She wanted to become a surgeon — “the temple of the human body” fascinates her, she says — but for a Jewish girl with no money and bad grades, med school wasn’t an option. She got into Temple Law by killing the LSATs — one of two women out of a class of 135, she says. It was assumed they were looking for husbands and wouldn’t last. Lynne got cracking.

Not that sticking around for a degree would get a Jewish girl a real shot in any law firm in mid-’60s Philadelphia; she got a job at HUD. But she soon took a graduate class in criminal procedure taught by attorney Dick Sprague. After three classes, Sprague called her up to the front and asked who she was.

“Lynne Abraham.”

“I know your name,” Sprague said. What he meant was, where was she working? He wondered why she hadn’t applied at the D.A.’s office. She had, but since she didn’t even know the name of her ward leader, the D.A. at the time had rejected her. “That’s ridiculous,” Sprague said. He was the first assistant under the new D.A., Arlen Specter, and would set up an interview for her. “Do I have to know my ward leader?” Lynne asked Sprague. “Because I still don’t.” Arlen Specter wanted to hire her. “I have a condition,” Abraham told him. “I’m not going to 1801 Vine.” That was where all the female prosecutors were stuck, working on juvenile cases, family
cases. There was an unwed-mothers court at 1801. Abraham wanted to be with the boys.

Arlen Specter stared at Lynne Abraham, who was 26 years old. “Young lady,” he said, “I’m the district attorney of Philadelphia. I’m going to decide where you go.”

“No you’re not. I’m not going to 1801.”

Specter was stunned, Abraham remembers (and she does a very good Arlen impersonation). But he gave her a shot in the trial division.

As a prosecutor, Abraham started doing her own investigations, because the cops weren’t thorough enough to suit her. It was an era of gang warfare in many parts of the city. “Oh, the gang boys were captivated by me,” she says. “They used to call me ‘Miss Ann,’ ‘Miss Ann,’ which was slang for ‘white woman.’ But I loved these kids. They were bright, they were very good at what they did, for all the wrong reasons.” She started carrying the .38. “I was really stupid, walking around 33rd and York at 2:30 in the morning, but I figured that no harm would come to me — and you know what? No harm ever came to me.” She never had to draw her gun.

Lynne Abraham loves old war stories about pounding the pavement, about going anywhere in her city in the pursuit of justice. She loves even more the stories about taking on the old boys.

She once went to the office of Police Commissioner Rizzo, whom she had never met, to confront him over shoddy police work on a case of hers that ended in a hung jury. “He looked at me like I had landed from Mars,” she says. A week later, Rizzo told her he had demoted the cop who had messed up, and shared a secret with her: He was running for mayor, and he wanted her to work for him. What did it pay? she asked. Nothing — Rizzo wanted her to volunteer. No thanks, she said.

But when Rizzo won in 1971, he tapped her to run the corrupt and bloated Redevelopment Authority, with the mandate to clean it up, anointing her with that “best man we’ve got” calling card. There was one small problem: She took him seriously. When Rizzo sent Abraham patronage hires, she refused them. Abraham remembers a German woman Rizzo wanted her to hire as a secretary. She told him, “‘Frank, she doesn’t speak English. She barely reads English.’ Oh, he was not happy: ‘Just hire her! Just hire her!’”

When Rizzo had Abraham fired in 1973, she went back to the D.A.’s office. She won election as a Municipal Court judge four years later, and then went to Common Pleas in 1980, staying until her fellow judges picked her to replace Ron Castille as D.A. when he ran for mayor. She’d serve for almost 19 years.

LYNNE ABRAHAM TELLS the story of her life as a litany of confrontations. She takes them on, all of them. We watched it play out when she was district attorney.

Abraham has a tendency to clip anything out of newspapers that interests her. A decade and a half ago, she started seeing tiny articles in the New York Times about priests getting in trouble for sexually molesting their parishioners. Then, in ’02, the scandal of pedophilia within the Catholic Church in Boston was exposed by the Boston Globe. Then-archbishop Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia was asked by the Inquirer whether his archdiocese had had any similar problems; he said that in the previous 50 years, there had only been 36 “credible cases” of priests abusing children.

That didn’t smell right to Abraham. “It couldn’t be,” she says, “that we’d won the lottery” of good behavior here. She had her people search the D.A. office files: How many priests had ever been prosecuted for the sexual abuse of a child? One.

Abraham ordered a meeting with Stradley Ronon, the law firm representing the Archdiocese. She wanted the names of those 36 priests Bevilacqua had mentioned in passing; more important, she wanted the Church’s secret files. She gave the lawyers a deadline. If they didn’t come through, Abraham told them, she’d impanel a grand jury.

In retrospect, her pursuit of deviant priests was a moral no-brainer. But at the time, in 2002, Abraham’s announcement of the grand jury’s impaneling looked like it might end her career. Like it would likely end her career. All the political heavyweights in town called her and told her she was committing political suicide, that she had to back off; people on the street begged her to leave the Cardinal alone. Of course, that only strengthened Abraham’s notion that she was on to something.

A year later, Cardinal Bevilacqua had retired, and a grand jury was investigating the Church. She went to the new cardinal, Justin Rigali, and made an offer:

“I said to him that this is not going to be good, but if you are willing to work with me, and tell me everything, no matter how bad it is, I’ll stand next to you on the steps of the Cathedral and tell the whole world how cooperative you were and how anxious you were to get the truth out. And he said no. I said, ‘Here’s the deal, Cardinal — I know you speak Italian, I only speak a few words of Italian. I will do this senza paura, without fear. Without fear of anything.’”

This is the story according to Lynne Abraham. And as self-aggrandizing as the tale is, we know how it played out: with the widespread and horrific exposure of the Archdiocese’s conduct. But the story she tells should give us pause for another, trickier reason: because it is believable. “I think I can fairly say that I’m fearless,” Abraham says now, “and I’m not afraid to stand by myself against all the winds. It doesn’t make any difference. I’ll stand there by myself.” This is how she thinks of herself. Righteous Lynne. Fearless Lynne. Unstoppable Lynne. At all costs, she does the right thing.

ED RENDELL MADE the leap from D.A. to mayor. But Ed was different. Prosecutors under him in the D.A.’s office — Abraham was one of them — say he operated at a slight remove, that it was clear from early on that he was thinking about higher office. Abraham, like Ron Castille before her, seems defined by criminal justice.

That raises some questions about Abraham’s style and perspective, Rendell says in his office at the Bellevue: “Whether she has” — he hesitates; it’s a harsh point — “the temperament to deal with the multifaceted demands of being mayor. The D.A. is a hard charger at eight, at 11, at four o’clock. You can’t be a hard charger all the time. Important negotiations that I had with unions — you have to give them something to take away, so it’s not a complete rout. I’m not sure Lynne is capable of doing that. I’m not sure she doesn’t want to crush an opponent. I’m not sure there’s a softer side when it comes to social issues. You can’t be a bulldozer in dealing with them. In fairness, I’m not sure we know. It’s a question mark.”

Rendell has other questions. Whether Abraham will listen, for one. A high-ranking member of former mayor John Street’s administration remembers a side of Abraham that suggests she doesn’t play well with others: “One of the challenges when she was D.A. was getting collaboration out of her.” Managing prison-system costs means aligning the courts, the police, the D.A., getting everybody into a room. But Abraham wouldn’t play ball. “A lot of people come to the table. You’ve got to be able to sit there and make concessions,” the aide says.

“She’s very stubborn,” Rendell says. “If she thinks she’s right, it’s very difficult to get her to move or compromise.” And then the former mayor cuts to a certain bottom line: “If anybody knew how much time you spend as mayor on your knees sucking people off, they’d be amazed. There’s a question of whether she will do that.”

“Something I’ve learned,” Lynne Abraham says, “is when you go into another guy’s tent, you have to bend at the waist; you can’t just walk in straight up. You have to bend a little. I get that. I’m not going to do what Ed said he did — I’m not built that way.”

Abraham’s need to win comes into sharper relief when she talks about some of the hot spots in her tenure as district attorney. Her protracted criticism of Massiah-Jackson’s nomination for the federal bench — warranted, in Abraham’s view, due to the judge’s outrageously pro-defendant bias and her courtroom demeanor — drew charges of racism, and simply bringing it up gets Abraham in fighting mode:

“Men and women prosecutors in my office, many of them African-Americans, came to me and said, ‘This nomination cannot happen.’ They were mistreated by this judge.” Plus, detectives were made to stand up in Massiah-Jackson’s courtroom and turn around, Abraham says, so that she could identify them as undercover cops. She invited everyone to take a good look at them, so that if they came to a neighborhood, residents would know they were cops. (Massiah-Jackson declined to talk about Abraham, but denied that she ever exposed undercover cops in her courtroom.)

This is, it probably goes without saying, a different Lynne Abraham, in her office at Archer & Greiner, the law firm she’s worked for since leaving as D.A., from the one who shared her passion for paintings in New York.

Her sensitivity over issues of race — principally, her reputation for pushing for maximum sentences for defendants, a stance that resonated badly in the inner city — will certainly come up during her campaign. At the Pennsylvania Society, I lose track of Abraham for a bit and end up meeting E. Mitchell Swann at a brunch. A 56-year-old engineering consultant active in civic affairs in Philadelphia, Swann, who’s black, says Abraham’s track record is etched in long memories: “If you’re over 40 and African-American, you remember her. Arrrrgh!”

As for her support of the death penalty, Abraham says that punishment no longer really exists in Pennsylvania, given that the last person put to death here was Gary Heidnik. Abraham, the trial judge in that case, was the one who sentenced Heidnik to death row. A mayor has no direct say in the death penalty, Abraham says. She isn’t backing down, though. Abraham would still like juries to decide if the worst criminals should be put to death. “There are people in this country who deserve not to live and have us pay for their meals. … And we do have the death penalty now — we have people arming themselves with guns, and when they break into your house, they kill you.”

Abraham will certainly hit back at critics with just how involved she has long been in trying to solve inner-city problems: She chairs the board of a 500-student charter school in Reading that opened in 2011; on the home front, she’s pushed initiatives on literacy, adult education and breast-cancer awareness aimed at African-American women.

Still, when you think about what she’ll invariably face while she runs, you begin to wonder just why Abraham wants this job so much. Consider some of the other reasons not to run: There is, as she concedes, “no more low-hanging fruit”; the remaining problems blocking the city’s progress are big and difficult. It’s a 24-7 gig with no letup. City Council is an intractable mess. Nobody believes in government anymore.

Abraham says she’s a realist, that she knows all that. But the only reason she didn’t run for mayor eight years ago, when Michael Nutter got elected, was because her husband, radio personality Frank Ford, was sick and had asked her not to. “He had to put up with so much, constant work, dinner at 10 o’clock at night,” she says of her tenure as D.A. He was much older — 60 when they got married; Lynne was 36. “So I knew where that was headed.” Ford died in 2009, at age 92.

Those years taking care of her dying husband may be the only time in Abraham’s life when she wasn’t pushing the envelope, when she drew back. Now that she’s a widow, the way is clear. Lynne Abraham, who has been the first woman in this city to accomplish a lot of things, is, once again, going after what she’s not supposed to be able to get.

Early one afternoon over the holidays, as she sat on a park bench in downtown Philly, a young guy driving by rolled down his passenger window to yell, “That looks like the next mayor of Philadelphia!”

“It certainly does, doesn’t it!” Abraham yelled back without missing a beat. She laps up the attention, but it’s more than that. Running for mayor, especially at the ripe old age of 74, isn’t chasing a job. It’s a mind-set. The ultimate challenge of taking on the boys, of maxing out the bet on herself.

So Abraham doesn’t back off an inch when I ask about the widespread belief that she didn’t pursue political corruption as D.A. — “That allegation is not a falsehood, it’s an absolute lie. Look at all the examples on my résumé — I know I have it. … Here it is. Here are the investigations. … ” When I bring up the Inquirer’s embarrassing four-part series at the end of her tenure as D.A. that hit her with some dismal numbers — for example, in Philadelphia, nearly two-thirds of defendants accused of violent crimes escaped conviction — Abraham attacks the very premise: “What some D.A.’s are doing, they’re lowering the charge from what it is, or not arresting at all, so you cook the books” — an obvious reference to Seth Williams, the successor she groomed and now loathes — “and make people feel there’s less crime than there really is.”

In Abraham’s view, lessening charges against some criminals to reduce the horrendous backlog in the city courts risks perps getting back out on the street too quickly. But Ben Lerner, a longtime Common Pleas judge who has presided over many non-jury murder cases and is respected in all corners of the city’s judicial system, says that for a long time, this city had “one of the most inefficient and ineffective criminal justice systems in the country. I know this firsthand.” Indeed, Lerner tried to get Lynne Abraham to see the wisdom of sizing up criminals early on, to separate the dangerous from those who weren’t so risky. He got nowhere. “Williams has made changes that were 20 years overdue,” Lerner says.

Which leads back to the question Ed Rendell raises, of whether Abraham’s mind-set can change. And whether she can go at the job of mayor in a new, broader, bring-everyone-into-the-tent way, where she’s not so thin-skinned and primed for the kill.

Anyway — what happened to the Abraham I hung out with in New York?

TWO WEEKS LATER, I see her, coming toward me in South Philly, as if she’s risen from the neighborhood: all five-foot-one of her, wearing baggy dungarees (as she calls them), a faded blue sweater, a black leather jacket, white sneakers. My uncharitable reaction on seeing her is, Oh, Lynne

Immediately, though, Abraham’s native at-home cheeriness, never wavering, overrides that judgment. Sitting at a booth inside the Famous 4th Street Deli, Abraham announces to no one in particular, “The trash man is smiling at me.” She knocks on the window, nodding and smiling at a guy pushing a broom out on the sidewalk; he smiles some more, and Abraham gives him a thumbs-up: the sheer pleasure and goofiness of having a moment — You know who I am and I sure like it! — with a regular guy.

She couldn’t be further from the grim-faced D.A. (or, for that matter, whispering art-lover). In New York, I told her that her humanity and humor had surprised me when I met her informally years earlier, that I had expected the rigid hard-ass from the evening news. “You can’t be joking around,” she says, “when you’re talking about how many killings or rapes. Robberies. Pillaging.”

But it’s a mistake if Abraham doesn’t show voters the full spectrum now, the parts of herself that she shares with me: After a photo shoot, we tool a few blocks to her dry cleaner in her brand-new red Subaru — her sister Bev made her trade in a gray one and get red, because gray is so drab — listening to Wagner on WRTI, then Tchaikovsky:

“He had a highly conflicted sexuality,” Lynne tells me. “He was married, but I don’t think he consummated. He had liaisons.”

With men, you mean?

“Sure, sure. He tried to disprove rumors — it did not work. He lived a lie. I visited his grave in St. Petersburg.” And: “The reason I got this car is that it has a heavy feel to it.”

Inside the dry cleaners, she greets the Korean family that owns it and tells me that their daughter Sally “is going to pharmacy school. A woman of many talents.” A familiar song is playing on the radio: “‘Mr. Postman,’ holy smokes!” Lynne Abraham crows.

Whatever she lights on, her mind bouncing here and there, she enthuses over — Lynne ought to show a little more of that side of who she is.

Because the bet Abraham’s made, at least so far, is purely on herself. Her record as D.A., of course, is part of the persona. But if she gets defensive and thinks she can only survive by showing that image to the public, she’s making a mistake, given that she is so much broader. Personality might not create leadership, but it can certainly undermine it.

She says she’s spent the past year or so deciding if she should run, asking people she knows if they think she can be a good leader for the city. Her grasp of the issues seems pretty superficial. In New York, she identified the mess of public education as far and away the most important one facing Philadelphia, and we talked about it for some time, but the only interesting idea she offered was to go to Governor Tom Wolf and demand that he keep the School Reform Commission. On other parts of the problem — funding, say, or how to handle the teachers union — she’s suggested nothing new. Her adviser, lawyer Michael Sklaroff, says a plan on education will develop during the campaign. The same goes for other issues — on city finances, or Philadelphia’s future role as an energy hub, Abraham has many questions but no concrete answers.

When I challenge her now on what her appeal would be to a 30-year-old Philadelphian, when I ask what about her might be transformative, Abraham says, “I’ll tell you what, I’m going to use a different word: authenticity. They have to be convinced that I’m the real deal. Not that I’m somebody that’s going to give them a lot of baloney to try to cute them along — here I am. I’m standing here. This is the real me. You’re not going to get any different person on Tuesday than on Friday. I don’t lie, so I remember what I say. I’m a terrible liar. I can’t lie, I can’t do it, I can’t carry it off — it’s a failing, I know.”

In South Philly, we walk to her bank, just a couple blocks from the dry cleaner. Ella Fitzgerald greets us there: “Oh, Ella was the best,” Lynne says. “She had diabetes, you know. They took off both of her legs. But she kept singing.”

Carrying on. Abraham is a big believer in facing reality and carrying on. If taking care of her husband in the last years of his life and then going off to quietly practice law seemed like the end of her, we’ve misjudged.

“The ship came by the second time,” she says as we head back to her car. “It doesn’t often do that, so I am going to jump on board.”

And then she offers to let me drive her shiny new red Subaru.

Originally published as “New Philly, Old Lynne” in the February 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.