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?

The shelter would come to be called the House of Umoja, and Chaka would become as much a child of it as he was of his parents. He thrived in the environment. He was energized and engaged by the new kids, young men who’d led lives so different from his own. Recovering drug addicts, former prisoners, Vietnam vets, they taught him to play chess and dance and hit on girls. "Chaka was one of those kids who would just eat up everything," says Falaka. "He welcomed the whole thing like an adventure."

As his parents became increasingly involved in the community and local politics, so did Chaka; he went along to community meetings, to protests, to pass out literature. His mother, witnessing his curiosity and compassion, thought he would probably end up a social worker.

Chaka had other ideas. At the time, urban politics was undergoing a profound shift all over the country. In Philly, white leaders had run the city’s Democratic machine more as a feudal society than as an expression of voter will. But in the early 1970s, that started to change; black leaders began to demand more power, and Fattah wanted to be a part of it. One day, while still in junior high, he saw a march for Hardy Williams, one of the first black candidates for mayor, and felt compelled to help the campaign — so compelled, in fact, that he walked out of class to do so.

Williams lost his bid for mayor, but the Good Chaka was born, and he spent much of his time over the next few years organizing young voters — 18-year-olds had just been given the right to vote — while plotting his first run for office. His chance came in 1979, when he was 22. He and Curtis Jones Jr. — whom Fattah had befriended at a House of Umoja event — hatched a plan to run for the city commissioner’s office, the very people in charge of city elections. Campaigning on a reform platform, they billed themselves as the Youth Movement to Clean Up Politics, and put up pictures of themselves holding brooms. Every day, they would call the campaign offices of mayoral candidates Bill Green and Charles Bowser to get their schedules. Then they would show up at the events and start talking. Their energy — and their stunts — put the pair on the political map, and they earned endorsements from the Inquirer and the Bulletin. “I just remember being impressed that these guys had the nerve to believe that they could take on the political establishment,” says Carl Singley, who was later First Deputy City Solicitor in Green’s administration. “I think they probably didn’t know what they were up against, but it took a lot of courage.”