The End of an Era: Looking Back on Fattah’s Long, Checkered Career

It took a looming federal trial to knock Chaka Fattah out of the seat he’d held since 1995.

Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., center, walks with Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., left, in Philadelphia, Tuesday, April 22, 2008. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Back in better days for Chaka Fattah, he walked with then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in Philadelphia on April 22nd, 2008. | Photo by Jae C. Hong/AP

Update, June 21st, 2016: Chaka Fattah was found guilty on all counts in his federal corruption trial.

Chaka Fattah was great at politics.

I write “was” because, yesterday, longtime state Rep. Dwight Evans defeated him in a primary election for the Congressional seat in Pennsylvania’s 2nd District. This might seem like a no-brainer since Fattah had been indicted last July on corruption charges. But this is Philadelphia. When Fattah led with 55 percent of the vote in early returns against Evans and two other challengers, political observers had the same thought: He might actually pull this off.

He didn’t. Evans won the Democratic primary — the de facto election in a district as liberal as the 2nd — with more than 73,000 votes. Fattah was well behind with more than 60,000 votes, 42 to 36 percent. (Lower Merion Commissioner Brian Gordon had more than 23,000, votes while former CeaseFire PA director Daniel Muroff had 17,500.) James Jones, who ran unopposed on the Republican side, will face Evans in November. Sorry, James: Evans will win.

Arlen Specter was in the U.S. Senate for 30 years. In 2010, after switching parties, he lost to Joe Sestak in the Democratic primary. I covered his Election Night party, held in the same room as my high school’s senior prom. It was so sad. My prom was incredibly fun, and this party nearly ruined my memories of it.

Fattah’s last-night-in-politics party was much worse. There were 30 people at the nurses’ union hall on Locust Street off Broad over the course of the night. At most. The only conversation I had with any Fattah supporter was about the roast beef. It was over before 11 p.m. There were so few people there, I was able to grab a “FATTAH 2016” hat for my girlfriend. She loves Renee.

Twenty-two years earlier, Fattah stood at the same podium he did last night. The Dr. Joseph Leidy House was a much happier place in 1994 for Fattah. (Full disclosure: Per reports. I was 11.) Fattah defeated incumbent Rep. Lucien Blackwell in the Democratic Congressional primary, 58 to 42 percent.

“The gentleman I ran against in this contest tonight, the numbers did not add up for him,” Fattah said at the time. “But it is true that he has made a significant contribution in the life of this city.”

It is incredible. Last night, Fattah used the same wording. “I stood here on a night 22 years ago where the numbers added up for me and not for the incumbent on that night,” he said. Fattah referenced his Baptist faith to end his concession speech: “This is a day that the Lord has made. We will rejoice, and we will be glad in it. Thank you, and good night.”

Every politician knows his talking points. Every politician knows to reference his or her faith. Most of them don’t do it as smoothly Chaka Fattah. Check the 2nd Congressional District map: The nurses union hall isn’t even in Fattah’s district! He knew its historical value to his career, and wanted to mark it.

Fattah has always been one to make his mark. Andrew Putz profiled Fattah when he ran for mayor in 2007 for Philadelphia magazine, and reported that when Fattah won a state Senate seat in 1988, he held two days of celebrations. Fattah called it “the coronation.”

Eek! But: Why not? Philadelphia’s leaders have been into themselves since King Charles II renamed Sylvania “Pennsylvania.” Somehow, William Penn — long after he died — got the state’s largest city to put a giant statue of himself on top of its City Hall and have its citizens create a “gentleman’s agreement” to keep it the tallest building in the city for 80-plus years. A guy who coronates himself isn’t that bad in comparison.

Chaka Fattah is the type of leader Philadelphia has produced since it was founded. His mother was an ambitious, hippie do-gooder: Her House of Umoja was founded in part because one of Chaka’s brothers was in a gang and she wanted to take in the other members. When his mother changed her name, Arthur Davenport became Chaka Fattah.

In 1994, the Inquirer called him a “young turk who has made a career of defying the party leadership.” Four years earlier, a 33-year-old Fattah faced had Lucien Blackwell for Bill Gray’s old seat in the House of Representative. He lost in that first race against Blackwell, just like he lost in 1980 when he and now-City Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. ran for City Commissioner as “The Youth Movement to Clean Up Politics.”

But, standing at the Dr. Joseph Leidy House four years later, he announced that he had routed Blackwell for that seat. And it took a federal indictment, 22 years later, to even get another Democrat to run against him. (To note, Evans said he would have run anyway.) Fattah was so entrenched that people were surprised voters booted a guy who is charged with racketeering, conspiracy, bribery, money laundering and bank fraud, among other offenses.

Philadelphia is a city where a nobody really can make his mark. Fattah went from being raised by his grandmother on an anonymous street in South Philly to a tony house in East Falls, married to a woman who was a popular news anchor on NBC 10.

Think of Chaka Fattah as an Eagles quarterback. Even if you didn’t like them as players, didn’t you mark the end of the Eagles tenures of Ron Jaworski or Donovan McNabb or (most likely) Sam Bradford? Whether you loathed him or loved him, Chaka Fattah made his mark on the city. Yesterday was a monumental shift in for Philadelphia.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.