Chaka Fattah on the moment he realized he lost his Congressional seat

The veteran Philly politician looks back at a decades-long career as his federal trial looms: “When the game is over and you lost, you look at your record.”

Congressman Chaka Fattah, a Philadelphia Democrat, speaks to the center for American Progress in 2010.

Congressman Chaka Fattah, a Philadelphia Democrat, speaks to the center for American Progress in 2010.

PHOTOGRAPHER RALPH ALSWANG VIA FLICKR

Chaka Fattah recites number after number: He’s one of only 11,000 or so people to ever serve as congressman; the average tenure for a congressman is about eight years; he’s helped tens of millions of people.

He asks whether I received an email that details even more of those numbers, most of them attached to accomplishments from his initiatives and sponsored legislation over the years. These numbers are never far from Fattah’s mind, but he says thinking about them is mostly what he’s done in three days since his primary defeat.

“When the game is over and you lost,” he says, “you look at your record.”

Fattah has been a public official since the early 1980s and a Congressman since 1995. Once this year ends, he won’t be. State Rep. Dwight Evans beat him by seven percentage points in the Democratic Primary. Since Tuesday, Fattah insisted during a phone conversation with Billy Penn, all he’s thought about are the years he’s put in as a congressman and plans for the next few months — not his impending criminal trial.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday. The feds have accused him of securing a $1 million illegal loan during his 2007 mayoral campaign and misappropriating funds to pay back it and other debts. This is a subject he largely declined to discuss, saying he has to compartmentalize.

“All I’m doing at the moment is reflecting on my work in the Congress,” he says. “I have very good counsel from a world-class law firm. They’ll handle that matter.”

He says he didn’t realize he was going to lose until about 9:30 Tuesday night. That’s when the results started pouring in from Evans’ Northwest Philly stronghold. They had looked good at first. Fattah’s Twitter account shared screenshots of the early returns. After the first few thousand votes were calculated, he had a massive lead. He still led by about 2 percent around the time half of the votes were in.

“Then it tightened, and then it became pretty obvious,” Fattah says. “I’ve been through this a number of times. I’ve run in 36 elections. I’ve lost four and I’ve won 32. You remember the ones that the numbers don’t add up for you.”

Evans’ campaign raised $27 for every $1 Fattah’s did. Fattah hadn’t run a competitive election since 1994, when he toppled Lucien Blackwell to win his congressional seat. Still, Fattah says he wouldn’t change anything major with the way he ran the campaign.

He and Evans served as state representatives at the same time a few years in the 1980s. Fattah says they even used to sit next to each other on the state House floor. He declined to offer any insight on what the biggest priorities should be for Evans, only that as Pennsylvania’s lone black congressman, Evans will need to speak up for issues affecting African-Americans, in addition to representing the 2nd District.

“Dwight will do fine,” Fattah says. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Fattah, obviously, hadn’t planned on losing. But he says now that the election is over he’s getting more excited about leaving public office, mainly because ideas won’t take years to develop and receive all the necessary approvals. Fattah would like to continue work in some of the fields that have involved his biggest accomplishments: education and neuroscience.

“I put about $400 million in youth mentoring programs,” he says. “I could end up doing some work in that space.”

He’d also like to relax:

“The first thing I’m going to do after 34 years as a public official is I’m going enjoy being a private citizen and take my wife out to dinner a little more and do some things that you want to get done. When you get done and retire you don’t say I wish I had spent more time working.”

Of course, if the schedule keeps, Fattah will be sitting in court in a few weeks, fighting federal racketeering charges. It’s a guarantee Fattah won’t be a congressman at the end of the year. It’s a possibility he won’t even be a free man.

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