Philly mayoral field gets a makeover

     Former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham formally announced her mayoral candidacy Wednesday. (Matt Rourke/AP photo)

    Former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham formally announced her mayoral candidacy Wednesday. (Matt Rourke/AP photo)

    The head spins. Over the past week, I’ve learned City Controller Alan Butkovitz won’t be running for mayor of Philadelphia after all. I’m also finally convinced former District Attorney Lynne Abraham will run and could actually win, and I heard former Republican candidate Sam Katz say he isn’t ruling out a run as an independent candidate next year.

    Let’s start with Abraham, who’s toyed with the idea of running for mayor and abandoned it so many times in the past, I was skeptical of her recent statements that she would run.

    But after attending her formal announcement, I’m convinced she’s serious. She packed a room with an ethnically diverse crowd of about 250 and spoke with energy and conviction.

    And the departure of Butkovitz gives Abraham (and others) extra hunting grounds for votes. Larry Ceisler, publisher of the website PoliticsPA, told me you have to take Abraham seriously.

    “As we sit here today, I think Lynne Abraham is actually the front-runner in the race, because she’s the one with the name recognition,” Ceisler told me. “And that will get her started in this race, but I don’t think it will allow her to finish it.”

    The candidate of tomorrow?

    I think Ceisler is right. Abraham has a start, but faces two obvious challenges. First, she has to convince voters and donors she understands and can tackle issues beyond crime and punishment, like education and jobs.

    In a 40-minute announcement speech, Abraham said very little about crime and a lot about other issues, including the sorry state of the city’s schools and the need to create economic opportunity. I didn’t think the ideas she presented are particularly original, but that’s true of a lot of candidates.

    She summarized her pitch to voters this way: “For those who want a leader who will transform Philadelphia under the banner of reform, who has the experience to get things done, plus the grit, the desire and the courage to break some china along the way, and in the process turn Philadelphia into a great American city, I am your candidate.”

    In other words, it’s not just about ideas. It’s about being a tough, decisive leader.

    Second, Abraham has to convince donors and voters that she isn’t a candidate of the past. The crowd at her announcement was older than average. A string band played “Happy Days are Here Again.” And some of the anecdotes in her story were decades old and involved characters long deceased.

    Some will accuse me of sexism for raising the delicate matter of her age, but I also raised it with Frank Rizzo Jr., when he talked about getting into the race. If Abraham wins, she’ll turn 75 the month she’s inaugurated.

    In a spirited exchange with reporters after her announcement, Abraham addressed the issue directly.

    “I’ve got lots of dreams, lots of energy,” Abraham said. “Nobody’s going to outrun me, out-campaign me, out-talk me, out-think me. I’ve got more energy than all the other candidates put together. You will see it on rich display in this campaign.”

    I’ll add another thought here: Abraham doesn’t need to convince that many young ‘uns she’s the candidate of the future. Older people vote. Younger ones, not so much. And remember, in a multi-candidate field, a half a loaf goes a long way. Michael Nutter won the 2007 mayoral primary with 36 percent of the votes  cast.

    Abraham will also need to mount the fundraising effort of her career over the next couple of months to make this thing fly. We’ll see.

    Others in the hunt

    State Sen. Anthony Williams is also officially in the race now, bringing some serious political connections and very favorable racial math, as the only well-known African-American in the race.

    It remains to be seen how effective a candidate he will be, and he’s interesting for another reason. His 2010 governor’s race got the bulk of its funding, roughly $5 million, from three suburban investment bankers committed to vouchers and school choice.

    They can’t legally give that kind of money to a city candidate, but they can spend as much as they want in an independent expenditure effort. If they do, Williams will become the school choice candidate, and teachers unions may weigh in with huge sums against him, creating a fascinating battle that cuts across racial lines in a way that will make for interesting politics.

    Sam Katz – again?

    Among those who appeared at Abraham’s announcement was businessman and now video historian Katz, who ran as a Republican for mayor in 1991, 1999  and 2003. He said he came because he’s Abraham’s friend and she asked him. He said nice things about her, but didn’t endorse her candidacy.

    When reporters (OK, actually it was just me) pestered him about whether he would consider running for mayor next year, he said he wouldn’t run as a Republican, but wouldn’t rule out running as an independent in November. He said it wasn’t likely.

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