Can Dwight Evans Beat Chaka Fattah?

A clash of titans is in the making, as Evans confirms he'll challenge the embattled 20-year Congressman.

Fattah-Evans

It’s official. Dwight Evans, the reborn political king of Northwest Philly, will face off against Chaka Fattah, the trailblazing 20-year Congressman who is now serving under the dark cloud of a federal indictment.

This should be a hell of a contest. It’s a matchup of two titans. Both are bruised and battered, both remain far more powerful than their detractors would like, and both — despite the advanced stage of their respective careers — once more have a lot to prove.

Evans’s interest in this race has been plain for a while. I think Citified insider Mustafa Rashed was the first to predict Evans’s run, but the 34-year state representative made his intentions public yesterday, formally filing his federal paperwork and telling the Inquirer’s Chris Brennan that he was in.

With Evans in, this race is officially crowded. Popular State Rep. Brian Sims is in. So too is Philly ward leader Dan Muroff and Lower Merion Township Commissioner Brian Gordon (the 2nd Congressional District is comprised of most of West Philly, Northwest Philly, the western half of North Philly, and Lower Merion Township).

There’s not been a lot of turnover in the city’s delegation to Washington D.C. , which is comprised of Fattah, 17-year veteran Bob Brady, and the newly-elected Brendan Boyle, who replaced Allyson Schwartz after she resigned to clear time for her ill-fated gubernatorial bid. Boyle’s election was hard-fought and competitive, but he was gunning an open seat. The last time a U.S. Rep. from Philly faced a truly close primary challenge was 1994, when Fattah knocked off the late-Lucien Blackwell.

The point is this: when Philly elects someone to Congress, job security is usually part of the package. You win, and you’re golden.

The lowest general election vote percentage Fattah has posted these past 20 years is 85.9 percent. You read that right. That was the low water mark for Fattah. As for primary challengers… Well, Fattah hasn’t had any. That’s right. Not one. Zippo.

And now? Fattah has four challengers, and potentially more waiting in the wings.

For a bit there, the abundance of challengers actually looked like good news for Fattah. Sure, it meant that his rivals sensed blood in the water, but if Fattah was still in the race and fighting the charges come the primary next spring, and his only foes were three white guys, well — his primary victory seemed likely. After all, the mere fact that a member of Congress has been targeted for alleged crimes or ethics violations is not enough to ensure their defeat, particularly if — like Fattah — the politico in question is well-loved by the district he or she serves.

But Dwight Evans is not your typical challenger. Not by a long shot.

  • He’s got a rock-solid base in Northwest Philly. True, Evans has underwhelmed — to put it mildly — as a citywide and statewide candidate. But this isn’t a citywide or statewide race. And Evans’ base comprises a big, reliably-voting chunk of the district.
  • Gov. Tom Wolf and likely Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney may well endorse him. Evans astutely got behind Wolf. And he was smart enough to heed the advice of his close ally, the prescient Councilwoman Marian Tasco, who told him to endorse Kenney. In both cases, Evans acted early. He can — and had — argue convincingly that he played a key role in getting both Wolf and Kenney elected. That’s juice. Will they stand by his side when the time comes for a formal announcement event? If they do, that’s big: it would send an unmistakeable message to both potential challengers and donors that Evans is the anointed Fattah-alternative.
  • Evans has the resume and experience to go toe-to-toe with a two-decade veteran of Congress. Nobody questions Evans’s gravitas. This isn’t some upstart taking on a beleaguered Goliath. Evans is a brand name in Philadelphia politics. Voters who might have newfound qualms with Fattah — given his problems with the Feds — may well feel more comfortable voting for Evans, a name they know, rather than for a Sims, Muroff or Gordon.
  • Evans should have the resources to compete, and then some. Fattah’s political operation is broke. His campaign had $822 in the bank as of Sept. 30, according to his filings. Donors are staying well clear of Fattah. With his announcement. Evans immediately becomes the top challenger to Fattah. And if Wolf and Kenney get behind him, as I expect, cash will flow freely to Evans.

Ok, but what’s working against Evans?

  • Fattah’s enduring popularity. While political obsessives and the media might be following every tragicomic turn in Chip Fattah’s trial, normal people are not. Will typical voters focus on the allegations next spring? Or will Fattah’s long years of service, and his potent brand name — strengthened as it is by his wife, NBC-10 anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah — trump the talk of corruption?
  • Reports that cast doubt on Evans’ own conduct. State and federal investigators have probed the dealings of a West Oak Lane nonprofit organization founded by Evans. Then there was the hard-hitting report from the city’s chief integrity officer, the late-Joan Markman, over Evans’s lobbying of the School District of Philadelphia to help secure a contract for a schools nonprofit with close ties to Evans. No charges were filed in either instance, but the headlines certainly will make it challenging for Evans to hit Fattah directly on ethics.
  • Lingering doubts about Evans’s clout. The controversies mentioned above, combined with his many electoral defeats and his humbling demotion as ranking Democrat of the powerful House Appropriations Committee in 2010 created a powerful impression that Evans’ career was winding down. He’s countered that narrative in a big way, with his timely endorsements of Wolf and Kenney.  But the perception that Evans is capital-O Over may linger in some quarters.
  • Evans’s inability, to date, to inspire voters outside of his Northwest Philly base. For whatever reason, Evans has consistently been unable to connect with voters in other sections of the city. The 2nd Congressional District doesn’t include the northeast, or South Philly, where Evans posted truly wretched totals during the 2007 mayoral race (which featured Evans, Fattah, Brady, Tom Knox and, of course, Michael Nutter). But the district does include tons of wards in West and North Philly where Evans consistently placed 5th, not to mention Lower Merion, which is something of a wild card here, inasmuch as it was only made part of the 2nd district in 2012.

Can Evans break out of that geographical box? Will Wolf and Kenney support Evans, in a big and public way? Does Fattah need to raise any money to actually compete in a district where his name is already so well known?

We don’t (entirely) know the answers to any of these questions yet. But it’s a pretty big deal that any electoral questions are being asked in Pennsylvania’s 2nd Congressional district.