Why Indicted Congressman Chaka Fattah Will Probably Win Reelection*
Democratic U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah had his first day in court Tuesday, and it was an absolute circus. The 20-year Congressman didn’t simply declare that he was innocent. He fiercely went after prosecutors, made irrelevant remarks about the Eagles to reporters, and told a federal judge that he was not guilty long before it was the appropriate time to enter a plea.
This scene, believe or not, underlines just how difficult it will be for a challenger to defeat Fattah in his bid for reelection next year.
At first blush, one might think Fattah is done politically, no matter how his case turns out. He has been charged with bribery, racketeering, conspiracy, money laundering, bank fraud and more for, among other things, allegedly using public dollars and charitable donations to pay back an illegal $1 million loan to his failed 2007 mayoral campaign. Plus, a qualified candidate is already nipping at his heels: Daniel Muroff, a Democratic ward leader who has worked on Capitol Hill, filed paperwork last week to run against Fattah in the April primary.
But it will be enormously challenging for Muroff or anyone else to defeat Fattah. Here’s why:
- Fattah is already hard at work crafting his campaign message. Outside of the courtroom Tuesday, Fattah personally attacked the federal prosecutors who brought charges against him. “I understand their desire to come after me, but to take innocent people — to take people in my family — and smear their good name, that says a lot about character,” he said. Just a day earlier, Fattah called on a House committee to investigate the prosecutors in the case, saying they acted in “unconstitutional” and “immoral” ways. These aren’t just courtroom theatrics. This is a campaign pitch to his constituents, one that argues he is innocent and federal prosecutors are corrupt.
- The 2nd Congressional District’s demographics work in Fattah’s favor. The district that Fattah represents is 58 percent black. Fattah is African-American, whereas Muroff is white, which matters in a city where residents tend to vote along racial lines. (No Republicans have announced that they will run against Fattah.)
- Many black Democrats who theoretically could pose a challenge to Fattah are very unlikely to run against him because they’re his longtime allies. That includes state Sen. Vincent Hughes, Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., Councilwoman Cindy Bass, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown and maybe even Mayor Michael Nutter.
- Plenty of federal lawmakers who have been accused of wrongdoing have been reelected afterward. Take longtime New York U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel, who won reelection in 2010 after being charged with 13 ethics violations by a House committee, and then again in 2012 and 2014 after he was found guilty on 11 of those charges. Or former New York U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm, who won reelection in 2014 after being charged with filing false tax returns, wire fraud, mail fraud and other counts. Or former Illinois U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., who won reelection in 2012 after word spread that he was under investigation by the FBI. Grimm and Jackson later resigned, but the point is they won reelection with a cloud hanging over their heads. In fact, Fattah himself won reelection last year even though everyone and their mother knew the feds were investigating him. This doesn’t always happen, though. Former California U.S. Rep. Laura Richardson was found guilty in 2012 by the House Ethics Committee of pressuring her Congressional staff to campaign for her. Richardson claimed she was being singled out because of her race and gender. When she ran for reelection that same year, she lost by a whopping 20 percentage points. One key difference between Richardson and Fattah, though, is that the district that she represented as an African-American was mostly white.
- The Democratic Party has not turned its back on Fattah, at least not yet. Gov. Tom Wolf hasn’t called on Fattah to resign, as he did with indicted Attorney General Kathleen Kane. Likewise, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the head honcho of Philadelphia’s Democratic Party, is not showing any signs that he will desert Fattah. Comparatively, Brady said he would support former District Attorney Lynne Abraham if Kane decided to step down and Abraham wanted to temporarily fill her position. And big-name Democrats like Nutter, former Gov. Ed Rendell and U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi have simply called Fattah’s indictment “sad,” as opposed to, say, denouncing him for allegedly misusing public and charitable funds.
Now, there is one way that Fattah could maybe, just maybe, be defeated. If the city’s Democratic establishment chose to abandon Fattah and unite around a single alternative candidate in the April primary — say, Dwight Evans, a longtime state representative who is African-American — that would probably discourage anyone else from running, and thus give their guy or gal a good a good shot of beating Fattah. Though it’s very unlikely that party leaders would do that, it’s not impossible. After all, the party may decide it doesn’t want to risk seeing a wide-open election take place if Fattah is convicted and forced to resign. Then anyone, not just the party’s favorite, could win.