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?

When Fattah talks, particularly when he talks about anything remotely substantive, he likes to use his hands. This should make the folks at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shudder in fear, but it’s hard to avoid. Fattah likes to talk. Especially about government and politics and public policy. Spending a day with him is not unlike riding shotgun with the most eager-beaver poli-sci major you’ve ever met. When I ask if he considers any mayor, of any city, a model for what he’d like to do, he launches into a 10-minute monologue touching on the successes and failures of various programs under Henry Cisneros (in San Antonio), Harold Washington (Chicago) and Willie Brown (San Francisco). That, in turn, leads to him talking about how, if he’s elected, he wants to hold a quarterly meeting of former Philadelphia mayors. Which in turn leads to him explaining how he decided to run for mayor in the first place: “I asked myself if there were enough things I could do here vs. what I could do in Washington,” he says. “I decided I only wanted to do it if I felt we could make Philadelphia a lot better. Not a little better. A lot better.”

Though Fattah tends to carry himself with a regal bearing, his comportment belies a sort of secretary-of-the-student-council dorkiness. His daughter Fran, a lawyer with Wolf Block, recalls how when she was growing up, the only place where her father ever told her she could buy anything she wanted was the bookstore. These days, he’ll often call her after he’s seen an article in the New York Times he thinks she should read. “If I haven’t read it by, like, 9 a.m., he gets frustrated,” she says. His son Chip says that though his father is a rabid Eagles fan, if he has to choose between watching the game and watching a news show, he tapes the game. And no matter what he’s doing at home, he constantly checks various news websites. “He’s probably hitting the refresh button as we speak,” says Chip.

He is, by all accounts, a dedicated and enthusiastic parent. Both Fran and Chip, his kids from his first marriage (he also has a young daughter and a stepdaughter with Chenault-Fattah), say that though he was often away from home when they were growing up, he was never out of reach. When Chip was younger, he and Chaka would play tennis every Sunday morning at the local public courts. And at some point each summer, Chip would come downstairs to see his bags packed for a trip, just the two of them. Indeed, if anything, Chaka could be a little overenthusiastic. When Chip was in eighth grade, he went on a visit to Drexel after expressing some interest in becoming an architect. Not long after, Chip received a letter from the president of Drexel encouraging him to maintain his grades and saying that the school looked forward to perhaps having him as a student. Only later did Chip realize that Chaka had asked the president to write the letter. There are, of course, a couple ways to look at that anecdote. If you’re inclined toward Good Chaka, it’s evidence of Fattah simply being a smart, devoted parent. If you’re inclined toward Bad Chaka, it shows a rather striking sense of entitlement.