Hardscrabble sections of West Philadelphia – from the 52nd Street strip to Lancaster Avenue – were long considered bastions of support for embattled U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah.
The residents there, his constituent base in his 2nd Congressional District, have supported Fattah ever since he entered politics. He’s won elections in that district by huge margins, destroying his last opponent, Republican Armond James, with 88 percent of the vote.
Fattah was charged by federal investigators last week with 29 counts of racketeering and improper use of campaign funds. Two people, political consultant Tom Lindenfeld and staffer Greg Naylor, have entered guilty pleas in connection to the case. Prosecutors say Fattah secured an illegal $1 million loan in 2007 Philadelphia mayoral campaign, and improperly used funds from his nonprofit to repay it, among other charges. Fattah has said he’s “provably innocent” of wrongdoing, that he intends to fight the charges and he has vowed to run for re-election.
But conversations with residents at barbershops throughout those neighborhoods show that sentiment may be turning. People’s reactions vacillated between disbelief, anger and resentment.
“I’m not surprised Chaka would get caught up like that, but all of these black politicians around here seem to be getting caught up in some type of corruption,” said Jamaal Omari, standing outside of Spencer T’s barbershop on Lancaster Avenue near Preston Street. “You have one taking bracelets, and didn’t [State Rep.] Vanessa Brown get caught on tape taking a bribe? We keep supporting these people, keep electing them, but they always end up doing dumb shit.”
Omari wondered who black folks could turn to as an honest politician, recalling Fattah’s status as somewhat of a hero in the community, visible at everything from playground openings to rec center re-openings.
Omari also raised an often-mentioned undertone: Was Fattah the target of a racist political system that already charged the Congressman’s son, Chaka “Chip” Fattah, Jr.?
“Who knows, man; maybe Chaka and his kid were both set up,” Omari said, with a slight hint of sarcasm. “I don’t follow too much politics, but I know Chaka was getting that dough. No matter what good he did, I can see him stuffing a few of those bucks into his own pockets.”
Back on the 52nd Street strip, others thought Fattah’s legacy would be forever tarnished by the indictment.
“Chaka did this to himself. No one told him to take any money, and if the allegations are true, then his legacy is shot,” said Michael Overton, standing outside Taylor Made Cutz on South 52nd Street. “But what do you expect? Chaka is from that old-school black political crew, like the Blackwells and the Goodes. But Chaka was moving a lot of money, and I guess the temptation was too great.”
For Overton, in the end, it doesn’t really matter the specifics of the indictment. In his view, all politicians look out for themselves first.
“When have we really mattered to these politicians, be they black or white?” Overton said. “To think that they really care about what we think about this is all bullshit anyway.”
The younger the West Philadelphian, the more cynical the response.
“Whatever Chaka does, or whatever happens to him, really has no bearing on my life,” said James Tyson, 25, leaving the ESPM Hair Zone barbershop, 5929 Girard Avenue. “He only really comes around when he’s up for election, and even then, we only get to see him for a minute. I actually hope the charges are true, to knock him down a peg or two.
“Because all of these black politicians have been dirty, corrupt, or caught taking some bribe,” Tyson added. “Again, I don’t know what Chaka did or didn’t do, and I don’t care either way; to me, he doing what all black politicians seem to do.”
The sentiment wasn’t any softer on Westminster Avenue, which contains another strip of homes, businesses, barbershops and hair salons.
At a barbershop on 52nd and Westminster, the vibe was that Fattah was certainly getting what was coming to him.
“How long have there been rumors of Chaka snatching dollars on the side? And for his wife [on-leave news anchor Renee Chenault Fattah] to act like she didn’t know? That’s the insult,” said Marcus, who did not want to provide his last name.
“I happen to follow West Philly politics, and Chaka just joins a long list of politicians that are supposed to represent us, but instead use their power for their own pockets. That shit’s not right, and I hope they throw the book at him. Maybe this will show these politicians that they have to be held responsible.”
Damon C. Williams covers politics for the Philadelphia Tribune, the nation’s oldest newspaper covering the African-American community. He is a former staff writer for the Philadelphia Daily News.