Lynne Abraham on why she’s running, personal responsibility, gender, race and more

 Lynne Abraham, the lone woman in the Philadelphia mayoral-election field, spoke with NewsWorks about an array of topics this week. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Lynne Abraham, the lone woman in the Philadelphia mayoral-election field, spoke with NewsWorks about an array of topics this week. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

On Tuesday morning, NinetyNine sat down with mayoral candidate Lynne Abraham in a 31st-floor Liberty Place conference room for a chat about her quest to lead the City of Philadelphia.

Over the course of a half hour, the 73-year-old former district attorney touched on an array of issues. The interview, in its entirety, appears below, but the context-lacking money quotes include:

“Women have real power, and this is their opportunity to exercise it.”
“A mayor has to be the mayor for everybody. I am appealing to every person, across racial, ethnic, religious, language, culture, socio-economic spectrum. We’re all in this together.”
 “Let me add parenthetically that I don’t believe I can ‘fix’ the educational system. [The problems] didn’t get here overnight; [the problems are] 50 years in the making and will continue to be a problem for the next mayor. But, it can get on a better road, a better path.”
 “I truly believe Philadelphia is on the cusp of greatness.”
 “I plan not to promise more than I can deliver. It has to be an agenda that’s workable and attainable, with reasonable expectations in the first four years of my tenure.”
 “I’ve said many times [that] if the commonwealth of Pennsylvania abolishes the death penalty, I’m fine with that.”
“Oh no no no. I’m not a lunatic.”

Read on for more.

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The interview

NinetyNine: Let’s start with a simple question: Why are you running, from a personal perspective?

Lynne Abraham: I absolutely adore this city, and I am concerned and distressed about some of the things that have remained either unaddressed or things that have been addressed in an unsatisfactory manner.

Our pension obligations are choking. Our impoverishment rate is stunning. Our educational situation, which you know all too well, is very problematic.

One of the issues facing us: Men and women of your age having children, and having to put them in school, leave. That will never help the city grow.

Let me add parenthetically that I don’t believe I can ‘fix’ the educational system. [The problems] didn’t get here overnight; [the problems are] 50 years in the making and will continue to be a problem for the next mayor. But, it can get on a better road, a better path.

I think we have to encourage, to do more with our developers to make sure they have a welcoming environment. We cannot afford to chase business away by bad policies, bad taxation and all the obstacles we put in front of the development community.

That doesn’t mean that, at the same time, we shouldn’t or couldn’t — in fact, we must — take care of neighborhoods, communities.

We can balance the need of large-scale business and development in the center of town with extraordinary opportunities for growth of our economic structures. Science. Technology. Medical research. Think tanks. Venture capitalists coming here. We can do everything.

But then, we need to make sure we’re addressing the issues that affect our communities, whether it’s building affordable homes, doing better on infrastructure, repairs and maintenance of pipes and so forth, making sure that Licenses and Inspections works the way it should, fixing the issues that people have when they interface the city most which is, for example, the Department of Human Services, Department of Health, service deliveries that deal with community problems.

We really need to sit down and come up with plans so people out in the communities don’t feel left out of the equation, because most of the energy of any one mayor is going to be Center City.

While it’s true that an economic driver is going to be our ability to attract businesses, venture-capital startups, tech companies, more and better opportunities for economic advancement, we can’t forget communities that aspire to work in those industries.

99: Do you plan on continuing, or tweaking, Mayor Michael Nutter’s “green-city” initiatives?

LA: Sure, sure. There are those who want to make Philadelphia an energy hub and that may very well be, if not the engine, an engine for future economic growth. But, we have to have energy not at the cost of the environment.

We already know — if what I read is correct, and I have no reason to doubt it — that last year had the warmest recorded temperature, heat if you will, in recorded history.

99: Since the year before.

LA: Yes. Yes. You see, it’s not going back. It’s going up. So, we don’t yet know. If you read history, we’ve gone through a series of ice ages and thaws, and ice ages and thaws. I don’t know what the future brings when we have global warming, but it’s not all going to be good.

We have horrible air pollution, we’re killing our trees, we’re killing animals. We’re in a partnership. In big cities, we have trees and jungles and water and air and all those things upon which we are interdependent and they on us. We can’t kill our habitat and our environment; pollute our waters; have the river and ocean levels rise; kill off species, whole species; and not be dramatically affected in a negative way. I think we can balance the interests of both.

We have a very strong parks system, environmentalists, a bicycle coalition, wastewater issues, recycling. Obviously, these are things that I’m not just going to continue, but I’m going to build upon.

99: I would hate to see Fairmount Park become a barren wasteland of dying trees in the summer.

LA: So would everybody! We improve our air when we have trees. In fact, I would like to see many more trees.

The problem, of course, is that the city has put in trees, but then nobody waters them. ‘I want a tree on my street. I want a tree! I want a tree!’ So, the city digs up the sidewalk, puts in a tree and the people who wanted it never bother to water it! They say ‘the city will do that.’ Well, no they won’t, and the rainwater isn’t enough.

The neighbors who want trees have to have a role in responsibly having those trees fed and watered. It’s not a big expense.

99: You’re talking about personal responsibility, about people wanting things done for them?

LA: Well look, those days, if they’re not soon to be over, are going to be greatly diminished because the government of the United States of America, and the government of every city, cannot shoulder the responsibility of doing things for people. This has to be a true partnership.

So, when the city of Philadelphia, for example, has a recycling program, we should have many more people in this city recycling. It’s clean, and neat, and we make money from it! It helps the environment! It means that all that junk that people are putting in front of their houses, unseparated, goes to a landfill. How much land can we use for landfills? How much?

And, the stuff we’re putting in the land never biograde. These are plastics that never melt, metals that never go away, computers, stuff that pollutes the ground.

Now there are countries that do this — which is itself a dangerous industry — when computers are gathered up and taken places such as, but not exclusively, India.

There are whole cottage industries — if that’s the right word — where young people, kids, take apart the computers and harvest a little bit of gold, a little bit of lead, but they’re paying a heavy environmental and health price because they’re breathing in all the toxic fumes while they’re recycling.

There’s a price to pay for that because it’s not done by modern technological methods. On the other hand, it feeds them for the day, they may get a dollar a day. All things are not in equilibrium.

Somebody in this country — some young, smart man or woman, or group of men and women — are going to figure out a way they can recycle all those materials in a computer in a way that is environmentally satisfying and not health-damaging. It will happen.

It can be profit-motivating too. Entrepreneurial effort is not only social entrepreneurship — which I totally support — but also wealth-building and job-creating.

99: Breaking down the race, how much credence do you give the impact of racial dynamics on it?

LA: Here’s what I believe: A mayor has to be the mayor for everybody. I am appealing to every person, across racial, ethnic, religious, language, culture, socio-economic spectrum. We’re all in this together.

If one candidate says, ‘Well, I’m going to appeal to this constituency,’ and another says, ‘Well, I’m going to appeal to that constituency,’ that is not a mayor of Philadelphia. That is a mayor of an individual constituency.

So, I want to encourage everyone to commit to a different way of governance.

First and foremost, I’d be the first woman, if elected, to serve [as mayor] in 334 years.

Women have real power, and this their opportunity to exercise it.

It’s also an opportunity for men to realize and accept that if Angela Merkel can run Germany, and Christine Lagarde can run the International Monetary Fund and Janet Yellen can run the Federal Reserve [System], Lynne Abraham can run the city of Philadelphia.

99: Do you find that people are doubting that?

LA: I think that some people are stuck in backwards mode, but the force is irresistible that women are taking their place, as they should, in all places of governance, slowly but inexorably.

Look at our new governor who’s being sworn in today [Tuesday]. On his cabinet, lots of women from a variety of backgrounds. Why did he do that? Because women are a force to be reckoned with. They may not, depending on the individual person, view things the same way as men. We’re different. We may not think about it the same as you, but what’s the difference?

We have a new way of thinking about things, a new approach, and we cannot be afraid to take thoughtful risks on moving the progress of Pennsylvania forward. No risk, no reward.

99: Regarding Nutter, what good do you see that he’s done, and what could he have improved upon?

LA: I’m really not running against Mayor Nutter. He’s had his eight years.

The Inquirer did their scorecard on him. Everybody expects the chief executive to be the perfect person. Every one of us in this race — myself included — aren’t, to some extent, going to be able to fulfill everything we have on our agenda.

So, I plan not to promise more than I can deliver. It has to be an agenda that’s workable and attainable, with reasonable expectations in the first four years of my tenure.

While I have a tremendous amount of passion, and I think I am possessed of a conscience and courageousness and am doggedly determined, I also know you can’t change the city of Philadelphia in four years.

99: That would be a Herculean task.

LA: That would be an impossible task. Anybody who says ‘I’m going to change Philadelphia. We’re going to turn everything around inside out and upside down and, in four years, I promise you, it’s going to be different’ is not being candid or honest with the public. I don’t think anybody is saying that, but if they did say that, it’s just not true.

99: What was the day you decided to run, if it can be whittled down to a moment?

LA: There’s no day per se.

In the past, I was asked to run for mayor at least two times. My husband [Frank Ford, who died in 2009] was alive then. He was absolutely against my running for mayor because he believed it was a thankless, impossible and, no matter what you did, you’re going to be perceived as failing even if you’ve succeeded.

People’s expectations of their government, and that’s across all spectrums — city, town village up to the president of the United State — we aspire to so much and we forget that the person in charge is only human, and that the ship can’t be pushed quickly or easily in any one direction.

It takes a lot of cooperation and collaboration and not everybody’s on the same page. Indeed, there are some people who want to deliberately scuttle your ambitions so they can say, ‘I told you so.’ That’s the way things are in life. If you want to be president of the company, and they don’t want you to be, they’ll say bad things about you, or rate you poorly, so you don’t get to be the president. There’s sort of this schadenfreude idea.

The moment I decided, to get back to your question, was when my husband died, I started to think about what was next in my life.

Back then, there wasn’t a mayor’s race to get involved in, so I became an attorney in private practice, which I’ve enjoyed very much.

With the approach of the end of Mayor Nutter’s tenure, I decided to think about this race, and started to ask people about my candidacy. I decided that, on balance, everything that I heard was very encouraging.

Therefore, I said to myself, here’s what my main thought was: I’ve always wanted to do this, but my husband didn’t. I acceded to his request because that’s what women do; men don’t do that. Now that he’s no longer here, I decided there was no impediment to doing this and that if I didn’t, it would be something I’d live to regret.

The try is more important than anything. Succeeding, of course, is what I want. I’m not in this for fun; I’m in it to win it. But, not doing it is something I couldn’t handle. I just had to do it.

99: Was he always comfortable with you being DA?

LA: Absolutely. He absolutely was comfortable and wanted everything for me that was good. He encouraged me in every possible way. He was a fierce defender of me. He said go out as many times at night as you need to, don’t worry about what time we eat; you do what you have to do.

But his position was: ‘Aren’t you doing enough for the city of Philadelphia? Why do you have to do more?’ And I said, ‘I just have to.’ Which answers the question of why I want to do this. I just have to do something more.

99: Would you just be pacing around rooms if you didn’t run? What would it be like to be around you if you didn’t?

LA: Oh no no no. I’m not a lunatic. Look: There’s no guarantee that I’m going to win anything. There are six candidates right now [Ed. note: This interview was conducted before Ken Trujillo dropped out of the race]

[The field is] getting set. Whoever’s in the race, let’s say there’s eight, someone’s going to win and seven people are going to be disappointed.

So what do you do? You just go on. You don’t sulk. You leave it up to the people, and you trust that the people have seen something in you that they find admirable, they have trust and confidence in, and they want you to be their next leader because they’re hoping for something better in their own lives, and in the lives of their children, and where they invest their time and money and their effort.

And, I think Philadelphia, I truly believe Philadelphia is on the cusp of greatness. However, we can’t get there with one quarter of our population living in poverty.

Abraham gives notice that there’s time for one more question before her next appointment.

99: I’ve seen in previous interviews that you’ve shied away from the DA questions, so I won’t ask you about the death penalty, and whispers of a possible moratorium-push in Pennsylvania…

LA: There already is a moratorium. What would [Gov. Tom Wolf hypothetically] be calling for? Look, he can call for a moratorium, but there already is a moratorium.

99: No one executed since Gary Heidnik in 1999.

LA: I was the judge in that case. I’m not against [Wolf] doing that. Don’t misunderstand me.

When I took an oath — and when I take an oath — the oath is very simple, it’s the same for every city employee. ‘I swear, or affirm, that I will support, obey, and defend the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter, and that I will discharge the duties of my office with fidelity.’

We have a death penalty. And I believe that the people, you, us, we all are the ones that should get to decide whether one of our fellow citizens should pay the ultimate price.

It’s not a decision that the DA [or a judge] makes. … They go before a jury because they know that jurors might call for a death penalty — ‘Yeah! I’m for the death penalty. I could be fair’ or whatever they say when they take their seats on juries, but when it comes to actually doing it, it puts the burden of making that decision on the people, where it properly lies. They have to make that very weighty decision.

This is what I believe about the death penalty: We have it. It should be used in appropriate cases. And the jury has to make the decision, with aggravating and mitigating factors. The good thing is, the jury has to be unanimous before the death penalty is imposed.

The conscience of the community. That’s what I believe the death penalty should be. And if the community consistently says no, then, the governor [would be] right, and it’s hardly surprising that he’s doing that. We’ve sort of been heading in that direction anyway.

I’ve said many times — on recordings just like this — if the commonwealth of Pennsylvania abolishes the death penalty, I’m fine with that.

Let me say one last thing about that: The mayor really has nothing to do with the death penalty. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

The mayor should not weigh in on those issues. That’s for the prosecutor. I will not weigh in on that issue if I’m elected mayor.

I’m interested in economic development, making our city safer, obviously I want better policing to make sure our homicide rate continues to fall as it has throughout the country, except in rare circumstances like Chicago and places in Philadelphia. We sometimes don’t understand why it goes up and why it comes down, but as a mayor, I’m not going to say anything about the death penalty.

The mayor has a lot to do with policing, because the police commissioner works for the mayor but, as to the death penalty, it’s nothing that the mayor deals with, so I don’t want to spend too much time on this because it’s something that we talked about in the past but, obviously, I’m going to stand on my record.

If you can’t defend your record, you have no right to be in public office.”


Throughout the mayoral campaign, readers and listeners are invited to send us questions they’d like to see asked of the candidates via the comments section, email, Twitter or phone (215-351-1293).

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