Just Your Average Politician

Intellectual. Lightweight. Humble. Arrogant. Reform-minded. Status quo-loving. Power to the people. Married to a rich TV anchor. Chaka Fattah has been called many things over the past 25 years. So which one will he be if he's elected mayor?

IT’S THE MORNING of Martin Luther King Day, and Congressman Chaka Fattah is standing in the back of the field house at Saint Joseph’s University, figuring out how to be Chaka Fattah.

Every year at Saint Joe’s, there’s a big celebration in honor of King, and today — 21 years after the slain civil rights leader’s birthday became an official holiday — the event is bigger than ever. The stands are packed, a band is playing, folks are clapping. It’s the perfect place for a Congressman-cum-mayoral-hopeful to make an appearance.

But at this moment, Fattah is just standing, scanning the floor like he’s working security at the Linc. He’s wearing what passes for the uniform of the political elite: dark suit, striped tie, patrician smile. But he’s got nowhere to go. All the seats up front — the prime real estate — are full.

He surveys the arena one more time and announces, "We’ll go up front." And before you have a chance to remind him that there’s no room up front, he’s off: all six feet of him, bouncing down the middle of the arena with long, loping strides as hundreds of people look over and think, Isn’t that … ? It’s about then you realize: When you’re Chaka Fattah — seven-term Congressman, mayoral front-runner, the man to beat — you know there will always be room up front.

He finds a spot in the first row. (Of course.) But he’s soon on the move again. Up. Over. Closer to the stage. Passing the word: The Congressman wants to speak. And sure enough, when the song ends and the band stops playing and the people stop clapping, State Rep Louise Williams Bishop, who’s hosting the event, takes the podium. "You are in his district," she says, "so it is only fair we invite him to say hello. Please welcome your Congressman, Chaka Fattah."

Long, loping strides. Hands on the lectern. Big smile. "It’s good to be here," says Fattah. "And let me just say, I plan on spending a lot more time at home." Big applause.

After a few more comments, he’s off again, as quickly as he came in: down from the stage (more hugs, more shaking of hands), out the back of the arena. There’s just one problem: no car. A Fattah staffer has moved it, and now nobody seems to know where it is. Fattah wanders out into the parking lot, scanning the horizon like a man watching his dog run away.

Just then, a woman walks by. She’s around 30, dragging her young son behind her. When she notices the tall, dapper middle-aged black man standing in the middle of the street, she tilts her head and looks at him for a moment.

"Hello, how are you?" he calls out, loudly.

"Hello," she says, and pauses a beat: "Are you a politician, or a television news person? I know it’s one or the other."

Chaka Fattah considers this for a moment.

"Which one do you want me to be?"