Is This Chaka Fattah’s Last Stand?

The Philadelphia congressman is broke, under indictment, and facing a formidable challenger for the first time in more than two decades. Is his political career over?

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah speaks outside of the federal courthouse in Philadelphia on August 18, 2015.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah speaks outside of the federal courthouse in Philadelphia on August 18, 2015.

The crowd of several hundred was waiting, eagerly, for Bill Clinton to speak at a Mt. Airy playground. Later in the day, the Clinton appearance would make national news when he argued with a protester for several minutes. But now, the PA system was cycling through multiple recent pop songs. A bunch of the people in the crowd were dancing, tapping their feet or just nodding their heads to the music.

And, there, bopping along to the beat in the front row, was Chaka Fattah. He was not on stage, as he might have been if this event were held, say, a year ago. (Mayor Jim Kenney, City Councilwoman Marian Tasco and former Gov. Ed Rendell spoke before Clinton did at the event.) No, Fattah arrived early, got a good position to stand up front and stood there the whole time.

Some politicians, when facing trouble, resist the public eye. Some resign. But Fattah has chosen to fight.

Last year, Fattah was indicted on a stunning array of corruption charges: Federal prosecutors accused him of using charitable donations and taxpayer dollars to pay off an illegal $1 million loan to his failed mayoral campaign in 2007. Fattah is combating the charges. And despite the fact that an indictment is hanging over his head, Fattah has in recent months appeared at numerous public events, even getting a handshake from Barack Obama at the State of the Union. He’s frequently made himself available to the media, and, most boldly, chosen to run for a 12th term in Congress. He is confident that he will win the election, and the case. “In any objective look at the race, I think that there would be consideration that the outcome of our winning is not as it’s been postured so far in the media,” he told Philadelphia magazine in an interview last week.

The truth, though, is that his reelection is far from guaranteed. Fattah has three opponents, one of which is particularly formidable, and his campaign is all but broke. Jury selection for his trial starts May 2nd, six days after the primary election, which has drained money and energy from his campaign. If Fattah loses in Tuesday’s primary election, it would mark the end of an era. Fattah has been an elected official in Philadelphia for more than three decades. He has also built a powerful political machine, which has helped elect everyone from Councilwoman Cindy Bass to Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown to state Sen. Vincent Hughes. That political organization would at the very least lose clout — and could possibly die altogether — if its boss were ousted. Even if Fattah ekes out a victory this week, he’ll have to face a jury just a few weeks later. Several members of his inner circle have already pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the federal government.

This may be Fattah’s last stand.

Fattah, 59, first got into politics alongside now-Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. They were in their early 20s. Despite being technically ineligible for the seat — there’s an age minimum of 25 — the pair ran as a two-man slate for City Commissioner. They gave themselves a name that is fascinating in retrospect: “The Youth Movement to Clean Up Politics.” They lost, but won newspaper endorsements and gained respect in political circles.

Fattah was first elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1983. He served there until 1988, when he was elected to the state Senate. He ran first for Congress in 1991, battling three other candidates in a special election to replace William Gray. He finished behind Lucien Blackwell in the four-person race, getting 28 percent of the vote.

But he tried for the seat again in the 1994 primary, and knocked out the incumbent with 58 percent of the vote. Since then, he has been essentially unchallenged in elections. He is always unopposed in the Democratic primary, and routinely clears more than 85 percent of the vote in the general election.

Unchallenged, that is, until this year. After being charged with bribery, racketeering, conspiracy, money laundering, bank fraud and more, local politicians smelled an opportunity. State Rep. Dwight Evans, Lower Merion Township Commissioner Brian Gordon, and former CeaseFire PA president Dan Muroff are all running against Fattah.

Gordon has campaigned heavily on issues of poverty and education. He could pick off votes in the suburbs. Muroff picked up Daylin Leach’s and the Inquirer’s endorsements, and has focused his campaign on gun control. He could potentially earn anti-NRA votes.

But Evans is the most formidable challenger for Fattah. He’s the only other African-American candidate in a majority black district, which covers parts of North, South and West Philadelphia as well as Lower Merion Township. Last year, Philadelphia magazine had Drexel University senior research fellow Kevin Gillen analyze racial voting patterns in five mayoral primaries. The verdict: Philadelphians tend to vote along racial lines. Evans also has a great deal of political clout, and is out-fundraising all his opponents.

What is Fattah doing to fend off such a serious challenger?

In an interview last week, he told Philadelphia magazine that he is relying on voters believing that his seniority in Congress helps bring money home to Philadelphia — and that he’ll be found not guilty at trial next month. “It’s been documented that I’m the preeminent member of Congress working on brain health issues,” he says. “I’ve helped spend billions of dollars in that effort. … I’m the lead appropriator for science- and health care-related issues. So a lot of my work is in that space. We put $2 billion of additional resources into the National Institutes of Health.”

These kinds of comments are meant to contrast Fattah with Evans, who, if he won, would be a 61-year-old freshman in Congress. “Look, I’m in Harrisburg,” Sen. Hughes, Fattah’s ally, says. “You have to be around to get on the right committees. But the seniority system in Harrisburg pales dramatically to the one in Washington, D.C. You have to be there 18, 20 years before you can really get to the right committee to make the right impact. Forget my friendship with Chaka. That’s just the reality.”

It’s been difficult for Fattah to get out this message through traditional campaigning: In the first quarter of 2016, which ended April 6th, Fattah had a paltry $7,673 on hand. So he’s been relying on alternative communication methods. He tweets, constantly. He makes appearances and sends out press releases about them. A search on PRNewswire shows 25 releases since January 1st. He’s also using taxpayer dollars to send out mailers, invite voters to telephone town halls, and air ads on radio stations. He told the Inquirer he “must make sure my constituents know about my work” because the media won’t do it. (He refused to say how much taxpayer money he’s spending promoting himself.)

Fattah has managed to keep much of the Democratic establishment behind him, and he believes this will provide a potent get-out-the-vote effort for him. The Democratic City Committee has endorsed him. So have Council members Jannie Blackwell, Bass, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and Jones. Fattah says a majority of the wards in the district are backing him. He’s picked up support from a bunch of unions as well: the AFL-CIO, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, AFSCME. “Blue-collar workers in the city are supporting me,” he says. “These workers are actively campaigning for me.”

The big question, of course, is how Fattah’s indictment will play with voters. “It doesn’t come up” in the 2nd Congressional District, Fattah claims. “Brian Gordon, who is running against me, told the Inquirer editorial board that it’s a non-issue in Philadelphia. He had canvassed in all sections in the district.”

Fattah insists he is innocent, and “he’s confident” he’ll win at trial. “I know that when an allegation is made, and it’s untrue, it doesn’t give me any concern,” Fattah says. Fattah claims the charges are part of a federal vendetta against him. “This has been an eight-year effort by some in the Department of Justice to link my public service career to some form of wrongdoing,” he said in a statement after the indictment.

Oddly enough, none of Fattah’s opponents have made the indictment a major issue in the race, despite the fact that they almost certainly wouldn’t have run had he not been charged. At a debate held by WHYY two weeks ago, the challengers said the race should be focused on the issues and not Fattah’s looming trial.

“I think the issue is about who best can make a difference in addressing the concerns in these communities,” Evans says when Philadelphia magazine asks him about the Fattah indictment. “My focus has been who best has the leadership necessary to address the issues we have.”

Fattah’s challengers may be avoiding the subject because it could backfire in a time in which many voters believe the nation’s criminal justice system is deeply flawed, and rigged against people of color.

But perhaps Fattah’s chief opponent, Evans, is not bringing up the indictment because he doesn’t need to.

Evans has raised, by far, the most money. Evans had $323,945 on hand as of April 6th. (In the first quarter Muroff raised $81,757, while Gordon raised $11,219.) Evans is also an experienced politician with tons of connections. He’s been in the state House since 1981, and gained political clout with his early endorsements of Kenney in the mayor’s race and Tom Wolf in the gubernatorial election. Evans is also a leader of the Northwest Coalition, a powerful alliance of black leaders in Northwest Philadelphia.

Evans has nabbed a boatload of endorsements, too. Kenney endorsed Dwight Evans, as has Ed Rendell. Gov. Wolf has, too. Ditto Michael Nutter. He’s also picked up endorsements from the Philly FOP, the nurses’ union, port workers, the Philadelphia Daily News, the Philadelphia Gay News and others.

Evans, like Fattah, has pointed to his record of bringing money to the area, in places like Ogontz Avenue in West Oak Lane. “I put in supermarkets in food deserts,” Evans says. “The Obama people have embraced that idea — it is now national policy in the farm bill. They have taken the initiative that I have started in 2004.” Evans argues that it’s his leadership, not his seniority, that brought home the bacon.

All of this isn’t to say that Evans is indestructible. In fact, he’s been remarkably unsuccessful every time he has run for an office besides the state House. When he campaigned for governor in 1994, and mayor in 1999 and 2007, he lost.

But this year could be different for Evans. He commissioned an internal poll that showed him leading Fattah in the race by double digits — among both black and white voters.

This has been a bad year for the Congressman’s entire family. His son, Chaka “Chip” Fattah Jr., was found guilty of 22 counts of various crimes: stealing from the School District of Philadelphia, filing false income tax returns, making false statements and failing to pay taxes. In February, he was sentenced to five years in prison and immediately taken into custody.

His wife, former NBC 10 anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah, was labeled as “Person E” in his indictment; she is accused of being a participant in falsely reporting the sale of her Porsche to a lobbyist for $18,000. Feds say the Fattahs used the money to buy a vacation home in the Poconos, but Chenault-Fattah kept the car anyway. Chenault-Fattah denies the Porsche story. Chenault-Fattah was placed on leave by the station over the summer and parted ways with NBC 10 earlier this year. She has been out on the campaign trail with Fattah, who told Philly Voice she has “taken a lead role in the campaign,” calling her “[t]he most important asset that the campaign has.”

Tuesday could not only be Chaka Fattah’s last stand, but the entire Fattah family’s last stand. His son is in prison. His wife lost her job. And now he faces an election battle for the first time in more than two decades. Despite all that, Fattah remains relentlessly — almost unbelievably — sure of his chances.

“I think that the voters are going to ratify my work,” he says, “and give me another opportunity.”

Follow @dhm on Twitter.