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?

They lost. Still, they also learned valuable lessons about how not to lose. How to form their own street organization, one that was separate and apart from the Democratic Party. How to inspire people, to get them to knock on doors, make the calls, get voters to the polls. “That’s where my learning curve began,” Fattah later told Congressional scholar Richard F. Fenno. “I learned that you couldn’t make speeches if no one was on the phone to take the requests. I learned that you can’t compete and build an organization at the same time. I learned that the organization comes first.”

Luther King Day, and Fattah is driving his black Chevy SUV down Broad Street. He is hauling ass.  

Fattah likes to drive. When he was a young kid, he asked his mother to send him to race-car driving school. Later, he thought about starting his own limo company: “I actually had one of the hats,” he recalls.

This is not to say, however, that Fattah is a good driver. In fact, he could be considered a spectacularly bad driver. Red lights seem to be invitations to speed up before abruptly stopping. Lanes are but vague suggestions. Corners are taken at alarming speed. Any impediment to movement is considered intolerable. “Can I do this?” he’ll say as he pulls through a red light, or out in front of someone. These are almost always rhetorical questions, matters of physics rather than of manners. And every couple of minutes, as he darts around traffic or performs some ill-advised, death-inviting maneuver, he says out the corner of his mouth: “Whoops, you didn’t see that,” or “Don’t mind that,” or even “That’s off the record,” as members of his staff, sitting in the backseat, audibly gasp.

In his defense, he is in a rush. His staff has packed his MLK Day schedule with myriad events: a lawyers’ breakfast, a church service, appearances at Martin Luther King High School and St. Joe’s — with precious little time between them. Fattah, moreover, has decided it isn’t enough, and makes some impromptu stops: another church, a school, an interview.

Also, there is this: “I need a Dunkin Donuts,” he tells a staffer as we swerve around a car. “Do I have time to get a doughnut?”

Right now, he’s driving to the North Philly YMCA, where he’s supposed to speak at a gun buy-back. In return for a $200 voucher good at a local grocery store, people can turn in any firearm to a mobile police unit parked outside the building. Fattah knows pretty much all there is to know about the event. He should. His staff set it up. “I know a lot of people say, ‘Oh, buy-backs only get guns that people aren’t using for crimes anyway,’” he says. “But there was a sawed-off shotgun in there with a pistol grip. Nobody is using that for hunting.”