If the probably decisive Democratic primary for the 99th mayor of Philadelphia were being held today, former DA Lynne Abraham would be the winner. And what an historic occasion this will be. After all, Philly's got 98 mayors, but, um...a female has not been among them. It would also represent something of a throwback Tuesday to the law-and-order era in the city's history, a past that comes dressed in a leisure suit and bearing a pet rock. But before that '70s show can premier on the 2nd floor of City Hall, the Abraham administration has to deal with its very first crisis.
The election isn't being held today.
Instead, it take place on May 19, and you can bet your bottom dollar -- or $500,000 a week, if you have much dough that laying around on your dresser -- that the other candidates will devote much of the next several weeks to chipping off huge chunks of the ex-prosecutor's support. And you have to think their chances for success are really, really good.
This, behind the scenes, is the real work of the 2015 mayoral election. And it's a task largely for the two candidates with the most money and high-profile endorsements behind them -- state Sen. Anthony Williams and ex-city councilman Jim Kenney. But the real question for May remains this: Where will Abraham's soft supporters -- low-information voters who right now are simply picking the one familiar name in the race -- end up on Primary Day?
If you look back, the candidate leading in the polls this time of the year rarely wins. Ask Mayors Marty Weinberg and Tommy Knox how that works. The candidate who does lead in March typically is the one whose name is most out there, either with a huge early ad buy -- that's what happened with Weinberg in 1999 and Knox in 2007 -- or is simply well known like Abraham, whose long tenure as DA stretched from 1991 through January 2010. But Abraham is like that runner you see on the Olympics, who's leading the first few laps of the 10,000 meters and gets ignored by the announcers, waiting for the early pacesetter to fall back and for the favorites to make their expected move.
That might be a tad unfair to Abraham. In a city where crime is always near the top of voter concerns, her law-and-order credentials certainly appeals to a segment of the electorate. She runs much stronger with black voters than many election pundits realize. And her effort as a 2015 candidate has been better than might have been expected, considering her five or so years largely away from the public arena.
But her disadvantages are many. While Abraham does well with individual contributors, the city's campaign finance law and its tight limit of $2.900 per donor means she won't be able to keep with the millions that will be spent on so-called "independent expenditures" for Kenney (by organized labor) or Williams (by three billionaire "school choice" advocates). And her campaign has been far from flawless. Education is now ranked as the No. 1 issue by voters, yet Abraham wasn't on stage for last week's education forum. Despite her law-and-order cred, Kenney outhustled her for the local FOP endorsement, so much so that Abraham earned only a paltry two votes from the FOP 72-member executive board.
But the other campaigns believe their secret weapon in knocking Abraham out of her frontrunning perch for good is her own lengthy record as DA. Kenney signaled this new phase last week when he attacked Abraham -- famously described in a New York Times profile as America's "Deadliest DA" -- for her zealous support of capital punishment. In a city where nothing riles voters more than crooked politicians and crooked cops, Abraham's record of prosecuting both is somewhere between mediocre and poor. Black activists will be eager to remind voters with short memory that the then-DA successfully led a coalition in 1997 to block what would have been the first black woman named to the federal bench here in Philadelphia, Frederica Massiah-Jackson. And there's even more in her oppo research file.
It could get ugly, and that's only the first half of it. If and when a negative ad blitz successfully peels away African-American voters from Abraham, where do they land? With Williams, the most prominent black candidate in the field? Or will they reward Kenney, who's staking his claim as the most progressive mayoral wannabe? When a "tough cookie" crumbles, who picks up the pieces?