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?

That alliance goes back to the spring of 1999, when Street was engaged in a tough five-way primary to succeed Ed Rendell. A few weeks before the primary, Fattah decided to endorse Street. To many, that seemed an odd decision. Street had long been affiliated with Lu Blackwell, the man Fattah so unceremoniously ushered into retirement in 1994. But Fattah was encouraged by Street’s education proposals, and their backgrounds are more similar than people realize. Both came up as activists, self-styled outsiders who — through guile and guts — became part of the city’s political elite. “The Street relationship goes back to when Milton and John were hellfires on City Council, and activists in the early ’80s,” says Vincent Hughes. “People in their operation were connected to people we knew and worked with and connected with. … So even though you had differences on politics, you still had relationships that go deeper.”

The real value of Fattah’s backing, though, came in the general election against Sam Katz. As the campaign moved into high gear, it became clear to many in the Democratic Party that get-out-the-vote efforts would be key to the election. And nobody did get-out-the-vote better than Fattah’s organization. “We went in there and looked around, and it was clear they weren’t where they should have been,” says one longtime Fattah operative. “He basically gutted his own organization to help Street.” When Street won by less than five votes per division, there was little doubt to whom he owed his political life.  

The win gave Fattah some major chits with the Mayor. “The payoff for Chaka was that he was one of the few elected officials who were able to get their people placed in places of influence in the Street administration,” says someone who’s worked with Street. Fattah’s former chief of staff, Sandra Dungee Glenn, for example, was named to the school board. Fattah’s education adviser, Jacqueline Barnett, later became Street’s education secretary.

In 2003, Fattah was expected to play the same role he did in ’99. After the bug was discovered in Street’s office, however, Fattah became one of the primary public faces of Street’s response strategy, a line of attack that was both depressing and effective: The party painted the matter as a conspiracy hatched by the FBI in concert with national Republicans.

Few party big shots acquitted themselves honorably in the course of that attack. Yet no one did worse for himself than Fattah. He compared the scrutiny of Street to the persecution of Jesus, and alluded to “pervasive racism” in the FBI. “It’s hard to mention [a black official] who has not been the subject of these types of probes,” he said at the time. Today, as a close friend of Street’s and a member of his administration sit in jail for corruption, he says this: “I’m not offering any regrets. At the time, I said two things. I thought that Street was honest, and I still believe he is, and that if anyone did anything wrong, they should be held accountable.”