Chaka Fattah, left, and Brian Sims, right

Chaka Fattah, left, and Brian Sims, right

In Chaka Fattah’s West Philly stronghold, voters ask: ‘This Sims guy… who is he?’

Will Chaka Fattah’s voters give Brian Sims a chance?

Sims, the first openly gay candidate to win a state house seat, will challenge the indicted congressman on his home turf, Pennsylvania’s 2nd Congressional District.

Despite the negative headlines he’s attracted, the people in Fattah’s West Philly district know him. Fattah’s average margin of victory in a general election has hovered around an overwhelming 86 percent of the vote. When Billy Penn set out to ask whether they’d consider a challenger, the general consensus was “who is he?” — regardless of Sims’ vocal support of issues critical to residents in Fattah’s district: Equality and raising the minimum wage.

“I’ve read that Fattah and his son got caught up, but who is going to knock him off? I don’t even think Fattah is being challenged,” said Ezekiel Dunbar, standing at the bus stop on 60th Street and Haverford Avenue.

Fattah was indicted last summer on a number of federal corruption charges related to his failed 2008 mayoral campaign. He’s since announced that he will both fight those charges and seek reelection.

And he’s not shy about fighting for both his seat and his name. He launched a website – Fattah2016.com – that solicits separate donations, both for his legal defense and for reelection bid. After being informed of the challenge from Sims, Dunbar thought for a second, and couldn’t recall once ever seeing the state Rep in his neighborhood.

“I don’t know Sims, never met him or even heard of him until just now. But I don’t think he will have a chance against Chaka. Everyone around here at least maybe heard of Chaka, know of his family. This Sims guy… who is he?”

It’s that lack of visibility that will pose a problem for the Sims campaign. Sims is well-liked by the media and the causes he trumpets — LGBTQ equality, supporting State Sen. Christine Tartaglione’s efforts to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour — would seem to play well, at least in the West Philadelphia section of Fattah’s district, which also includes portions of North Philly and Germantown.

Back on the ground in West Philly, it seems folks are willing to forgive Fattah for his legal implications, even it means supporting a politician who may be convicted of corruption.

Better to go with whom you know than a mystery, said James Green, who said he has intensely followed the Fattah drama. Green, 56, has witnessed the evolution of many powerful black political families. For him, Fattah’s indictment is secondary, when compared to all the good works the congressman has done for the district.

“I’m not too sure Fattah is even guilty of what they are charging him with. Wasn’t he accused of using office money for campaign money? It’s all the same money,” said Green, waiting for the 10 trolley at 60th Street and Lancaster Avenue. “I know that Chaka has been a huge supporter of us here in West Philly. Whenever the community needed something done, his office would always help us out.”

And as for Sims? “I have heard of him, but have never seen him around here,” Green continued. “You told me he is big on unemployment and gay rights. Well, I’m not gay so I can’t speak on gay rights, but there are lots of unemployed around here. Does Sims know that?”

When reminded that this unemployment exists under the watch of Fattah, Green argued that Fattah’s workforce development plans are taking root.

“That is true. But I have personally attended workforce programs sponsored by Chaka’s office,” Green countered. “At least we can see what Chaka is doing. I haven’t seen anything of what Sims is doing, or saying he’s doing.”

Others throughout Fattah’s district echoed similar sentiments — that they simply don’t know who Sims is. And that’s a problem, even for people who have grown tired of Fattah.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing Fattah defeated. His time is just about up,” said Felix Drummond, standing outside of Foot Locker on 52nd Street. “I am personally sick and tired of these corrupt politicians, just taking our money and our vote. We should send a message that we won’t stand for that.

“But who is going to come in and fix it? Can a gay white man with no real connections here do what Chaka couldn’t? I’d be wary of anyone coming in here saying they are going to be everything that Chaka ain’t.”

Damon C. Williams covers politics for the Philadelphia Tribune.

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