Women voters hold the key to City Hall in Philly mayoral primary

 Lynne Abraham recently lamented the lack of discussions about women's issues in the mayoral campaign. (Tracie Van Auken/for NewsWorks)

Lynne Abraham recently lamented the lack of discussions about women's issues in the mayoral campaign. (Tracie Van Auken/for NewsWorks)

One outcome of Tuesday’s mayoral primary is already known: In the words of Planned Parenthood Executive Director Sari Stevens, “Women will decide it, at the end of the day.”

In this city, women voters have massive power.

Based on an analysis of Philadelphia voter records, Planned Parenthood predicts that 60 percent of people who vote on Tuesday will be women, and that 60 percent of those women will be African-American.

“They decided the governor’s race, for sure,” Stevens said. “[Gov. Tom] Wolf won by 16 points among women statewide, and while we don’t know the point spread in Philadelphia, we can assume it likely was larger.”

Of the roughly two thirds of Philadelphia’s 920,524 registered voters who choose to identify their gender, women outnumber men by 369,533 to 291,413. Not only that, they’re more likely than men to turn out and actually vote.

That voting bloc swept Wolf into office last year, largely due to anger over the city’s public school-funding crisis. According to the Planned Parenthood analysis, Wolf carried Philadelphia County with 88 percent of the overall vote and 58 percent of those voters were women.

Mayoral-race effects

It’s not the first time women will pack a punch in a mayor’s race.

Many political observers believe that Mayor Michael Nutter would not be in office today if African-American women hadn’t responded so positively to his “Olivia” ad, in which his young daughter spoke about what a great dad he was.

But this primary marks the first time a female candidate is a credible contender for the job.

Former District Attorney Lynne Abraham has already won several citywide races and has huge name recognition. In a city where women voters outnumber men, a win would break the ultimate glass ceiling.

Just days away from the primary, though, Abraham trails Jim Kenney by 27 percent in the campaign’s lone independent poll.

She’s lost the endorsement of allies that should have been hers for the taking, including the police union as well as the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women.

She never attracted big money from political action committees like Kenney and state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams have.

Why not Lynne?

What has many people scratching their head is this question: How did the woman with so much going for her slip so far behind?

“Two years ago, the race was hers to lose,” said GOP media consultant Chris Mottola, who recently moved to California after years of experience in Philadelphia politics. “If she’d gotten started and raised serious money then, she could have frozen out all the other candidates. Every poll would have shown her clearly ahead and nobody would have dared run against her.”

At a glance, Abraham’s resume seems as if it would be appealing to many female voters.

She’s the first female district attorney, the first woman elected to municipal court and one of only two women in her law class.

As DA, she took tough stands on domestic violence, child support and sexual assault.

She’s also the only candidate who vowed to go after the Pennsylvania Legislature in court for full funding of Philadelphia’s public schools.

As would any candidate with such a long tenure in public office, she does have problems, though.

She earned a reputation for harsh sentencing while DA, and some contended she went too easy on political corruption and bad cops.

Then, there’s her age. At 74, many question her appeal to young women. Some female lawyers, for instance, still haven’t gotten over the fact that she once banned the wearing of pantsuits, insisting that the women wear skirts to work.

But all the candidates have some negatives. Williams’ stand on school issues has been controversial, and Kenney gets strong support from the city’s building-trades unions, which has raised questions about where his allegiance will lie after the election.

Of course, women — like just about everyone else — are not single-issue voters.

They’re not going to vote for someone they don’t like, or who they don’t think can win, just because she’s a woman. And this year, polls show that education is their primary concern.

Since Williams comes with controversial support from wealthy donors who supports school choice, voters who feel passionately about public schools may feel inclined to support the person most likely to beat him — be that a man or a woman. Right now, anyway, that person appears to be Kenney.

Gender a non-issue this campaign

Sharmaine Matlock-Turner, president and CEO of the Urban Affairs Coalition, said she thinks it’s odd that gender hasn’t been more of an issue in this mayor’s race, because it is definitely a growing source of support for Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House.

“There’s a lot of discussion about making sure she actually wins this time, and a lot of that conversation revolves around the fact that she’s a woman,” she said.

Matlock-Turner wonders why Abraham didn’t make more of it here in Philadelphia, where issues of race and gender can pack a lot of power.

She recounted the energy and excitement that voters felt during Wilson Goode’s bid to become the city’s first African American mayor, back in 1984.

“That was a race were people were really coming out because they really wanted to be a part of breaking that barrier,” she said. “If I were managing her campaign, I think I would have encouraged her to play up the gender issue a little bit more — especially earlier on, when she seemed to be polling well among elderly women, including women of color.”

Abraham herself seems to agree. In an interview with NewsWorks‘ Brian Hickey, she complained about the subject’s absence in forums, debates and coverage:

I’m really surprised how there have been no questions about the status about women’s issues.

Nothing about women as wage earners, about the safety of women and children who find themselves in dangerous situations, about protecting them from abuse, about women unable to get child support.

Still, it’s never over till it’s over, and some political analysts say it would be a mistake to underestimate how Abraham will finish. All three candidates are on the air with new ads, and there’s a large percentage of the electorate that remains undecided.

Political analyst Larry Ceisler, who has indirect links to both the Kenney and Williams campaigns, said he thinks there’s a general lack of excitement for the entire field in this race, which can result in some voters choosing based on identity — whether that’s gender or race.

He recounted a recent conversation with a female neighbor near his home in Mt. Airy, a liberal enclave in Northwest Philadelphia.

“She says, ‘Well, I can’t vote for Tony Williams because of his stance on the schools, and I can’t vote for Kenney because I don’t like some of the people who support him,” Ceisler recounted. “I think I’m going to vote for Lynne Abraham because she’s a woman.”

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