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?

A WEEK BEFORE MLK Day, a group called Pennsylvanians for Effective Government released a poll. The survey confirmed what everybody had been saying for months: Of the five men vying to become mayor of Philadelphia, Chaka Fattah was the clear front-runner.

At the time, the poll provided a bit of good news during a particularly dismal stretch for Fattah. In the days and weeks after he announced his candidacy in November, he seemed to bounce from one bad headline to another. In a Daily News article about his formal education, or lack thereof (he has a master’s degree but no B.A.), he managed to come off as both smug and defensive. Then he looked like he was trying to have it both ways on a Congressional bill involving Mumia Abu-Jamal, a move that got him bashed by the FOP and Mumia defender Pam Africa, two parties who normally can’t agree on the color of the White House.

Then, in early January, Fattah’s fortunes — amazingly — got worse. He had organized a press conference at Mercy Hospital in West Philadelphia to unveil his plan on combating crime and violence. Fattah’s proposal, the first substantive policy rollout of his campaign, called for more surveillance cameras and more police officers, including special units trained to look for people carrying illegal firearms. During the announcement, he also explained his reason for unveiling the plan at Mercy: As a young man, he’d been shot while trying to intervene in a gang altercation, and was taken to the hospital for treatment. It was no surprise what happened next: Instead of creating a splash with his plan, Fattah essentially invited reporters to wonder why, in nearly 30 years of public life, he had never before mentioned his impromptu meeting with a bullet.

Taken separately, none of these hits would have been considered all that damaging to Fattah’s campaign. Periodic beat-downs are simply the price one pays for being the front-runner. "I think the other candidates have basically realized that the only way they’re going to win is by going through Fattah," says Dan Fee, a political consultant who has worked for Ed Rendell, John Street and Jonathan Saidel. But taken together, the incidents seemed like a tasting menu of all the reasons some people are so ambivalent about Fattah’s campaign — and about Fattah.

Over the past 30 years, you see, Chaka Fattah, 50, has been one of the most dynamic and thoughtful political figures in the city. He has also been one of the most ambitious. That ambition has been responsible for more than its share of good: It’s helped the city sidestep financial ruin, helped countless low-income kids stay on track for college, and secured millions of dollars for local scholarships. It has taken Fattah from rabble to respectability, from obscurity to celebrity, from a West Philly rowhouse to an East Falls manse he shares with his TV anchor wife, Renee Chenault-Fattah. But it has done other things, too, things that aren’t particularly noble or pure or good: It has transformed Fattah from outsider to insider, from reformer to player, from someone who once idealistically raged against the machine to someone who has hackishly defended its most conspicuous sins.