Why a Special Election to Replace Chaka Fattah Could Get Messy

Dwight Evans — who defeated Fattah in the primary — seems like the obvious choice, right? Here’s why he might not be.
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L: U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP) R: State Rep. Dwight Evans (Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Philadelphia U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah resigned Thursday after apparently realizing that Republicans (and, hell, even some Democrats) weren’t cool with his plan to stick around for an extra three months after being convicted of corruption.

Soon, Gov. Tom Wolf might schedule a special election to fill Fattah’s seat in the 2nd Congressional District — and if he does, things could get messy.

During special elections, a/k/a/ elections held to replace officials who quit or die or are sent to prison before the end of their term, ward leaders choose the nominees. In Philadelphia, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-to-1, that means Democratic ward leaders essentially handpick the winners of every special election. (That’s how we do it in the birthplace of American democracy, everybody!) You might think Democratic state Rep. Dwight Evans would be the natural pick for ward leaders here: Evans defeated Fattah in the April primary, and is expected to win the general election against Republican James Jones.

But don’t be so sure: I asked Philadelphia Democratic Party boss Bob Brady if Evans would have enough support among leaders to be nominated if a special election were held. “I don’t know if there’s enough support,” he said, “but there will be [some] support for him.”

Evans may be part of the increasingly powerful political alliance known as the Northwest Coalition, but that doesn’t mean he has strong bonds with all of the ward leaders in the 2nd Congressional District, who would decide whether to nominate him. During the primary election, ward leaders endorsed Fattah over Evans, and that was long after the Congressman had been accused by federal prosecutors of stealing charitable donations and government funds to pay back an illegal campaign loan. It’s also worth noting that Evans’ fellow Democrats unceremoniously stripped him of his appropriations chairmanship in 2010.

So, it’s no surprise that rumors have swirled around Philadelphia’s political circles over the last couple days about who might be nominated instead of Evans in a potential special election: Former Mayor Michael Nutter, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and Sheriff Jewell Williams are a few of the names I’ve heard. (BillyPenn reported that former state Rep. Frank Oliver’s name has come up, too.)

Needless to say, it would be an incredible rebuke of Evans if ward leaders didn’t pick him to finish out the rest of Fattah’s term. It would also be messy, and terrible for Democratic unity, all in the midst of Philadelphia’s Democratic National Convention. And that’s why, in the end, ward leaders very well might go with Evans if a special election is held, even if most of them didn’t endorse him in the primary.

Asked for a comment on the matter, Evans said, “I continue to fulfill my job as a state legislator and await to hear from Gov. Wolf regarding a special election for the 2nd Congressional District.”

Wolf spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said the governor has not yet decided when to schedule an election. However, according to Sheridan, the law is unambiguous in its requirement for Wolf to set it up: “The election code says the governor must call a special election within 10 days of the effective date of the resignation, and an election cannot be held before 60 days from the day the governor sets the date.”

That means Wolf could schedule a special election for late August at the earliest. He could also decide to hold it the same day as the November general election. That would save taxpayers money, and it would also probably benefit Evans: The winner of the special election would only hold the seat for two months at that point, making it less likely that ward leaders would deny it to Evans. Seeing as how Evans is a top ally of Wolf’s, I wouldn’t be surprised if the governor took that route.

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