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 WEEK after Martin Luther King Day, and Congressman Chaka Fattah is standing in the middle of his campaign headquarters in North Philly, being Chaka Fattah. He’s joking with staffers, asking for somebody to get him another doughnut.

We sit down in an office and run through an array of questions about his background, education, time in Congress. But there is really only one thing, at this point, I want to find out: whether or not he’ll distance himself from someone who has been such an obstacle to the sort of political reform in Philadelphia a lot of people — including me — think is necessary.

After spending weeks reading, talking, reporting Chaka Fattah, I’m well aware of what he’s done over the past three decades. I know what he has accomplished, where he came from, and what — given his background — he probably could do as mayor. And as inspiring and frustrating as he can be, it’s hard to see him as the second coming of John Street. This is not because Fattah doesn’t have flaws. He’s got plenty. But Street’s failings have always seemed to be products of passivity, of allowing things to happen — corruption, crime. Of giving the city permission to suck. For all his faults, Fattah doesn’t do passive. And if you look at the things he’s actually proposed, it’s clear he doesn’t envision four or eight more years of business as usual.

“On a basic level — picking up trash, filling potholes — we’re going to be as competent as any administration before us,” says Fattah. “But we’re also taking this chance to talk in very different terms — about creating opportunities for anyone in the city who wants one. We’re trying to tell a story. It’s about not seeing Philadelphia as it is today, but as it can be. That’s the idea.” If he’s elected, he may be a spectacular failure, but he’s going to be an active one.

Still, you don’t know where to go until you know where you are, and Fattah’s silence on the current administration is a red flag for anybody who worries that he just doesn’t get it — ethics plan or no — when it comes to the city’s dysfunctional political culture. And when I ask him to grade the Street administration, he gives it a B on most fronts: fiscal policy, housing, anti-blight programs, promoting the city. The only F he gives is in public relations: “I think Mayor Street’s inability to get along with the press, his inaccessibility, has made it much harder for the public to get a sense of what his administration was doing.”

It seems an honest, if unsatisfying, answer. It would have been easier to throw Street under the bus, especially when almost two-thirds of voters consider the city to be on the wrong track. And while it’s tempting to parse such an ambivalent response into the ways it comports with Good Chaka or Bad Chaka, it’s more accurate to say that the sentiment probably comes from both — or neither. It probably comes from something approximating the real Chaka, the guy who has been a hero and a hack, the one who has been the machine’s bête noir and its best friend, the one who cares passionately about policy and politics, the one who has helped so many kids get to college and shivved his share of enemies.

It is, in the end, not an unusual dichotomy for political figures to embody, something that everybody from Machiavelli to Michael Nutter can recognize. Chaka certainly has. “You can’t do policies,” he once said, “unless you win the election.”