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?

For proof, look no further than his relationship with John Street. Fattah didn’t just use his mighty organization to rescue Street’s faltering campaign in 1999. (He was, say some, the campaign’s "unsung hero.") He also shamelessly defended the Mayor in 2003, comparing the FBI’s City Hall probe to a "crucifixion."

It is, of course, an altogether familiar story, and perhaps that’s what makes it so depressing. There is little doubt that Chaka Fattah, the Good Chaka, has the potential to be among the most innovative and energetic figures ever to lead the city. And yet one has a nagging sense that the other part of Chaka, the hack in Chaka, perhaps wouldn’t be much different from John Street — would ignore, or even defend, so much of what is wrong with the city.

All of which raises a question we should, perhaps, consider for a moment.

Which one does he want to be?

THERE’S A STORY that Chaka Fattah’s mother, Sister Falaka Fattah, likes to tell about the fourth of her six sons. "When he was a baby, his three older brothers used to fight over who would take him out to get air," she says. "He was so pretty. And not only was he attractive-looking, but he was very friendly with people."

If this anecdote seems a rather apocryphal and convenient bit of biography, it’s worth noting that it isn’t any more improbable than much of Chaka Fattah’s early life. Perhaps no Philadelphia mayoral candidate has had his upbringing so finely, if accidentally, tailored to the demands facing a modern American city.

Born Arthur Davenport, he was still young when his father, Russell, passed away, and his mother, then known as Frances, took her boys to live with their grandmother in South Philly. Arthur wasn’t yet a teen when Frances, who’d become involved in the civil rights movement, attended a local conference on black power where she met a young student activist, David Waters. They quickly fell in love, married, moved to a small house on Frazier Street in West Philadelphia, and — flush with the ideals of the Black Nationalist movement — took on new names that emphasized their African heritage. As a surname, they chose "Fattah," an Arabic word meaning "opener of the gates of sustenance" or "revealer," depending on your source. Frances changed her first name to "Falaka," and gave her sons fresh names as well. Arthur, not yet a teenager, became "Chaka," for the famed Zulu chieftain.

The civil rights movement had imbued Sister Falaka with an almost religious sense of devotion to the community, and she soon found a way to translate ethos into action. She began publishing a magazine called Umoja — Swahili for "unity" — that explored issues facing African-Americans. In the course of reporting a story about gang warfare, Falaka made a disquieting discovery: Her own son, Chaka’s brother Robin, had become a member of a gang. Rather than throw Robin out of the house, Sister Falaka did the only thing she could think of: She took everybody else in, inviting the gang to move into her home. By replacing the boys’ dysfunctional home lives with an entirely new sort of family, she reasoned, she might be able to turn them around and save her son.