Fattah posed for the NOH8 campaign in 2012. Credit: Adam Bouska / www.noh8campaign.com

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Young Chaka Fattah didn’t wait for the Philadelphia Democratic machine to grant him his turn.

He jumped into politics in 1979 at the age of 22. Fattah and his buddy Curtis Jones, now a City Councilman, banded together and ran for seats as City Commissioners. They didn’t win, but the pair attracted a good amount of attention and scored several thousand votes. Anybody crazy enough to challenge Philadelphia’s Democratic Party without its approval would have to be either idealistic or naive, and Fattah and Jones certainly captured those notions perfectly with the title of their coalition: “The Youth Movement to Clean Up Politics.”

Fattah’s youthful idealism and his vows to clean up the system couldn’t seem further away. Elected for the first time to the state general assembly in 1982, Fattah is facing his first true crisis after winning landslide election after landslide election in the U.S. 2nd District in Philadelphia.

Eight years after the start of a federal investigation, the U.S. Congressman and ranking member of a prestigious House appropriations committee was indicted Wednesday on racketeering and fraud charges. Officials say Fattah, 58, and his accomplices misused hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds, inappropriately sold a Porsche and illicitly and illegally paid off his son’s college debt.

This is the story of the rise and fall of a powerful Philadelphia politician, one so entrenched in the political fabric of the nation and the city that the first words from the Mayor’s mouth after Fattah’s indictment were concern for him and his family — “This is a husband, a father” — and not regret or anger over the alleged corrupt behavior and misuse of campaign funds.

But it is also the story of a dysfunctional city Democratic party and machine, one that watched the federal investigation wind on for nearly a decade without once running a competent candidate against Fattah, who’s been up for re-election every two years.

“I just wonder sometimes,” said a former Fattah staffer, “as time has gone on…if he’s that guy he wanted to get rid of when he was 25.”

Unchallenged power

Chaka Fattah (right) stands with state Sen. Vincent Hughes (left) and city Councilwoman Cindy Bass (middle).
Chaka Fattah (right) stands with state Sen. Vincent Hughes (left) and city Councilwoman Cindy Bass (middle).

Whether they’re from Washington or Harrisburg — where Fattah got his political start — it’s difficult to find politicians or operatives to talk about Fattah’s personality. He’s always been a wonk and a political stickler, but more than that, he’s always been guarded. And that struck many in this city as arrogance.

“Maybe it’s just a function of his personality,” said Zack Stalberg, former Committee of Seventy head and editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. “He’s guarded and careful and so forth, but he was never beloved in the Philadelphia political community… My guess is there’s not a lot of people crying about his indictment.”

The former staffer says Fattah was tough but fair. His employees enjoyed working for him, and some would stay with his office for long periods of time. Fattah wouldn’t pressure them, though. He would tell employees to focus on their career trajectory, and do what he could to help.

Away from Philadelphia, Fattah found ways to endear himself to some of this country’s biggest power brokers. When he was running for mayor in 2007, Barack Obama, then a popular Illinois senator, wrote a message to Fattah supporters sent as part of a the Philly Democrat’s email blast to get more support.

“In 25 years of public service on the local and national levels,” the message read, according to a 2007 Inquirer article, “Chaka has never forgotten his early life lesson: The key to breaking the grip of violence in our most hard-pressed communities is to replace desperation with hope.”

Just this month, Fattah flew on Air Force One with Obama and others on the way to the NAACP conference in Philadelphia. When Bill Clinton visited Philadelphia during his presidency, Fattah once said he would meet Clinton at the airport and they’d ride in a limo together to the golf course. In 1996, Don Fowler, then the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, called him one of the “finest congressmen in the country.”

“Boy I wish I had a name like that,” he joked.

Chaka Fattah with Obama aide Valerie Jarrett on Air Force One.
Chaka Fattah with Obama aide Valerie Jarrett on Air Force One.

Fattah won his first election in 1982 by 58 votes, defeating a party-favored incumbent for the 192nd house seat in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Though an outsider and a newcomer to the political arena, he had name recognition in West Philly. His mother and stepfather, Falaka and David Fattah, ran the House of Umoja, a grassroots community organization that worked to mediate gang violence.

In 1995, Fattah made his first run for Congress and set set his sights largely on educating young minorities. His 1998 GEAR UP law has since helped millions of students across the country go to college. He became a ranking member on a sub-section of the Appropriations Committee, the group of people who direct billions of federal dollars. His major focuses as a member have been technology, NASA and neuroscience. Fattah recused himself from that ranking role this week after being indicted, in accordance with party rules — effectively disenfranchising Philadelphia from the appropriations process.

In his West Philly district, Fattah has been winning re-election by unheard-of margins. He’s never won less than 85 percent of the vote against usually-Republican challengers in the general election, and has rarely had any Democratic opposition in the primary. In 2000, he defeated a Libertarian by garnering a staggering 98 percent of the vote.

Many area politicians respected Fattah for his campaign strategies. Fattah won his seat as a state representative in 1982 through a sophisticated field system, and they have tried to emulate his tactics or enlist his help since. When John Street first won election in 1999, he used a Fattah field team to squeak by independent Sam Katz.

“The one thing that Fattah has always understood,” the former staffer said, “is how do you build influence and power.”

Philadelphia Building Trades union boss Patrick Gillespie, who this year fundraised for Fattah to help the embattled congressman pay his legal bills, has known him since his days in the state House, and praised the embattled Congressman for creating jobs in West Philly. He said he doesn’t know “anyone” who doesn’t like Fattah.

“We were always impressed with his work ethic and his passion that he had for helping people,” Gillespie said. “And he was true to that up to and including the present time.”

It wasn’t all rosy, though, among other Democrats in Philly. The anti-machine tendencies of his early days never completely dissipated. While Democrats like to put on a front that they’re all united, especially African American politicians, they’re in many ways divided. Major factions and alliances exist, and Fattah led his own anti-establishment group in West Philly.

He’s always gotten along well with people like city Councilwoman Cindy Bass and state Sen. Vincent Hughes. But longtime Philadelphia political consultant and writer Jay A. McCalla has observed a proverbial line in the sand between the West Philly powerhouse politicos and the dominant members of the Northwest Alliance like Councilwoman Marian Tasco and state Rep. Dwight Evans.

Fattah wasn’t close with these two and sparred with members of the Northwest Alliance because he frequently backed political candidates — like Curtis Jones — who were running against the tickets the Northwest politicians supported.

“There’s an invisible wall,” McCalla, a former city managing director, said. “Within West Philadelphia, Chaka is not that loved. [Other politicians] try to throw their elbows. Chaka thinks he owns West Philly. Jannie Blackwell thinks she owns West Philly. It’s a whole different culture.”

The wall between Fattah and other city politicos is why he drew criticism when he appeared on the city fundraising scene prior to his mayoral run. He wasn’t known around the city for supporting other Democrats or working to raise money for them. But all of a sudden he was working to raise money for himself.

“He doesn’t have any relationships,” Tasco told The Inquirer in 2006. “Now all of a sudden he wants to run for mayor and he shows up dispensing checks. Where’s he been?”

The mayoral disaster

Chaka Fattah stands with state Sen. Anthony Williams.
Chaka Fattah stands with state Sen. Anthony Williams.

The Democratic party in Philadelphia wanted nothing to do with a Fattah mayoral administration. He’d made a name for himself in West Philly as anti-establishment, and vowed to dismantle the city system as it was. He was anti-ward. He was anti-city-Democratic-committee. The patronage that’s so often entrenched in Philadelphia politics would have ended under him if he had his way.

So when Fattah pulled ahead by 35 points in the polls early in the race, the party and its longtime boss, Congressman Bob Brady, wanted to pull votes away from Fattah and support either their top choice, or a former councilman named Michael Nutter. Former city controller Jonathan Saidel, the party’s guy, abruptly dropped out of the race, and Brady ran himself.

With competition coming from well-connected Brady, well-liked Nutter and deep-pocketed Tom Knox, Fattah started falling behind. Money doesn’t win elections for candidates, but it can come close to doing so. And Fattah needed money to dig his way out.

The 2007 election marked the first major election in which Philadelphia operated under new campaign finance laws. At the time, contributions were capped at $2,500 for individuals and $10,000 for groups (later doubled to $5,000 and $20,000, respectively, when Knox dumped more than $250,000 of his own money into the race). Fattah resisted these limits from the start of his campaign, raising money for his mayoral exploratory committee from local millionaires like Gerry Lenfest, who gave him $200,000. He and union maven John Dougherty challenged the campaign finance limits in a lawsuit, but a state court upheld them in April 2007.

Fattah was in trouble. By late March, his lead had turned into a tie with the fast-spending Knox and the only way he could gain campaign cash in the last six weeks of the election was through small donations. Faced with trouble, Fattah secured a $1 million loan from then-Sallie Mae CEO Al Lord, according to federal investigators. The loan itself was illegal, in violation of the campaign finance laws. And the way Fattah paid it back piqued the Feds’ interest.

In the indictment of Fattah released Wednesday, federal investigators allege Fattah paid back $600,000 of the loan by using charitable and federal funds through his nonprofit the Educational Advancement Alliance. The funds used to pay back the loan came from money given to the Educational Advancement Alliance by Sallie Mae and NASA, according to the indictment.

Fattah has also been charged with accepting a bribe from a lobbyist in exchange for an ambassadorship, and using campaign funds to pay back student loans for his son, but his legal troubles began with the election. His actions during his attempt to become Philadelphia’s mayor in 2007 led to the federal indictment for corruption charges, and he didn’t even come close to winning. For all his troubles, Fattah ended up in fourth place.

The beginning of the end?

President Obama stands with Chaka Fattah at the State of the Union Address.
President Obama stands with Chaka Fattah at the State of the Union Address.

Reports trickled out in 2012 that Fattah’s inner circle was being investigated by the Feds when The Inquirer reported the FBI raided the home of Chip Fattah, Chaka’s son. The Feds were investigating why a company he owned was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by an education firm that received even more money in contracts from the School District of Philadelphia.

Chip was later charged with stealing money earmarked for Philadelphia schools and fraudulently gaining loans from businesses. Other members of Chaka Fattah’s inner circle were implicated in illegal schemes, including Gregory Naylor. He pleaded guilty last year after being charged in connection with illegally using campaign and federal dollars during Fattah’s 2007 mayoral run.

Another recent member of Fattah’s inner circle to be implicated in his alleged schemes is his wife, Renee Chenault-Fattah, an NBC10 anchor and the other half of a Philadelphia power couple. Chenault-Fattah was not charged, but she was named in federal documents that allege she and her husband used her Porsche to cover up $18,000 in money from a lobbyist. She’s denied the allegations and is currently on indefinite leave from NBC10.

There’s no deadline for when Chenault-Fattah has to come back into the public eye. But there is for Fattah. He’s back up for re-election next spring.

Fattah has the political clout in his district to change the narrative — if he’s successful, he could make a run for re-election when he’s up again in 2016 and win. McCalla, who worked on crisis communications for former Councilman Rick Mariano when he was indicted on charges of bribery, said it’s all about the spin.

McCalla said Fattah should get out in front of the accusations and paint them as a witch hunt that began when George W. Bush was president. True or not, Fattah can spin these charges as the product of an overzealous Department of Justice out to get him and his wife and son, too.

“We don’t kick black politicians when they’re down,” McCalla said of Fattah’s largely black voter base. “There’s a friendliness and empathy we feel for people who are accused by the system. We identify with the oppressed and the beleaguered.”

And if he can convince voters to stay on his side or come back to his side, a Democratic primary challenger — Nutter, District Attorney Seth Williams or one of other names that have been tossed out — will either struggle to beat him or won’t have the wherewithal to even run.

If Fattah wants to be re-elected and the party wants him to be re-elected, he’ll likely be re-elected. Brady expressed sadness and regret that the indictment came down. When asked by reporters about the charges, Nutter showed little concern at the potential of millions of dollars of campaign and public funds being misappropriated.The Democratic mayoral nominee, Jim Kenney, hasn’t said anything publicly.

Fattah has contributed a great deal to this city and this country during his 30-plus years in office. Some observers don’t buy it as an excuse.

“I’m kind of offended when I read these quotes about the contributions he’s made. He’s supposed to make a contribution. He’s a US Congressman,” Stalberg said. “The standard in Philadelphia is so low that a guy who somewhat does his job is getting excused by other politicians.”

He continued: “This is not just a Fattah story. It’s about the system that kept him in place and the system that’s keeping quiet now. And just because he did his job fairly well doesn’t let him off the hook.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.