Abraham says racially charged comments from 1990s were brought up in 'political context'
In 19 years as district attorney, Lynne Abraham earned a few mixed-emotion nicknames — “the Deadliest D.A” and “tough cookie” among them. In best light, she was portrayed as a Herculean force against violent crime. Harsher criticism painted the picture of a racist, draconian witch. Comparing careers, Abraham has defended herself against allegations of racism more so than any other candidate in the mayoral pool.
Today, Abraham has both committed white and non-white supporters in this city. But the racial charges against her time as D.A. haven’t entirely faded into historical oblivion.
Early in her career, Abraham was called out for overspeaking about race relations.
In 1990, Philadelphia Magazine reported on a closed-door meeting in which Abraham told a defense attorney that “There's only one group of people who have problems with Blacks more than whites in this city, and that's Puerto Ricans.”
Shocked, a Black colleague responded that Blacks and Puerto Ricans get along better than Blacks and whites in the city, to which Abraham reportedly responded “You must be living in a different city than I am living in.”
The remark didn’t incite controversy until the heated District Attorney’s race in 1997.
Abraham, the two-term incumbent, released an incriminating video of her opponent Jack McMahon giving racially biased instructions to jury selectors in training.
As these political mudslinging wars go, someone retaliated by digging up Abraham’s own jury-related quote about Blacks and Puerto Ricans, which urged a heated response from both Latinos and African Americans in the city.
Writing for the Philadelphia Daily News, Frank Burgos criticized the DA for her minority voice-over, calling her “the Margaret Mead of local race relations”:
“Thanks to Lynne Abraham, what little bit of knowledge people may now have is this: that Puerto Ricans are outpacing whites in the racism department. Finally, somebody else can take the rap for the ugly race relations in this fractured town.”
Mayor Michael Nutter, then a councilman, told that Daily News “I am really quite shocked at these remarks, one, from any public officials, and, two, from the person who at the time was a judge in a highly sensitive and volatile case.''
For context, the 1990 murder trial was a tense, high profile, and unambiguously gruesome case. A group of nine Latino teenagers bludgeoned a Philadelphia cop’s son with baseball bats, and an African-American teenager shot him in the head. The trial resulted in five first-degree and five third-degree murder convictions between them. But the due process that got it there was objectionable, according to the defense.
As judge, Abraham did not question the then-assistant DA Michael McGovern’s prosecution tactic of trying to remove 37 African-Americans from the jury. James Lineberger, one of the defense attorneys in the case, challenged McGovern under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1986 Batson ruling, which bars prosecutors from dismissing a potential juror based on race. It was then, in a private room among the attorneys, that Abraham made the racially charged comments.
On the campaign trail in ‘97, Abraham’s press office wrote off the criticism as “a few sentences” taken out of context from an over 4,000-page trial transcript, and that the comments didn’t reflect Abraham’s attempts to create a fair trial for all defendants.
AL DÍA asked Abraham what she learned from the comments from 1990, and if she could understand the criticism she received in ‘97 for many thought was misspeaking about race relations.
“That was in 1997, this is 2015. And that was brought up in a political context by one of my opponents. I believe that my record on balance is inclusive, sensible, sensitive. I don’t pretend to speak for anybody else,” she said.
“I respect Frank Burgos’ opinion. And it’s not my intention to do anything but to work collectively and collaboratively with everybody. But at the same time, we all have to agree to look at what we see around us and face some perhaps unpleasant truths. I’m not saying I agree with anything...but you know what, here’s my point, I’m not going to amplify differences except to say that in a world of difference we all ought to be allowed to be different. Because we are different.”