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?

One need not think very hard to find examples of this. In January, the Capital Grille filed a police report against Chip Fattah over an unpaid bill for nearly $15,000 in charges related to his business, American Royalty, a concierge service. Chip says the disputed bill wasn’t for charges racked up by him, or any one individual; it was an account that American Royalty clients could use at the Capital Grille, which is the only restaurant in town with which the company has such a deal. When asked directly, Chip also says his father has never made any calls on behalf of his business. “If people ask what I’m doing, I’m sure he tells them,” he says. “But he’s never directed anybody to me. He would never do anything like that.”

Still, the whole affair only raises more questions. Did the fact that Chip’s full name is Chaka Fattah Jr. help get him the account? (The only comment both Capital Grille management and Chip offer on the matter is that it has “been resolved.”) Would any other candidate’s kid get the same scrutiny?

Fattah’s marriage did more than make him prone to closer scrutiny, however. It also put him in a new tax bracket — one planets removed from his days on Frazier Street — and reanimated dicey issues of class as a subtext to his political status. This isn’t new when it comes to Fattah. His ’94 victory over Blackwell didn’t just put him in Congress. It marked a generational and geographical shift in black power, from Gray’s Northwest Alliance, with its base of middle-class and affluent black voters, to Fattah, with his working-class base in West Philly. It was a shift that reverberates today, and it partly explains why stuff like Fattah’s kids and his wife and his education is such a big deal to some people. To them, it’s less about whether Fattah is smart or honest or ethical. It’s about his worthiness as a successor to Bill Gray, a man who defined the black elite in Philadelphia. It is, in short, a status thing, one that, like it or not, probably isn’t going anywhere. “When that political nexus shifted to Fattah, that was more than some of those cats could bear,” Curtis Jones says of Fattah’s enemies. “That’s why you see so much sniping now. It’s ego.”

ON THE TUESDAY after Martin Luther King Day, Fattah called a press conference to announce his ideas on ethics and government accountability. Fattah promised that his administration would effectively end no-bid contracts, set up a waste- and fraud-reporting hotline, and “disconnect, for the first time in the city’s political history, contributions to political campaigns and contracts.” He also promised to spend roughly one day a week in city neighborhoods, and to hold meetings with residents one day every month.

It was an ambitious, if insufficiently detailed, plan to deal with one of the most important issues facing the city. But it was also a tacit rebuke of the current administration, which has been dogged by corruption investigations and by gripes that it is closed off to both the media and the public, and it spoke to the weird dynamic at work between Fattah and the Mayor. Fattah prides himself on being a policy wonk, a “best practices” guru who made his bones taking on the Democratic machine. At the same time, for the past eight years he has been allied with the Mayor, which is pretty much the definition of being part of “the system.”