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?

IN 1982, FATTAH was still trying to build his organization when he decided to challenge incumbent Democratic state representative Nicholas Pucciarelli. Fattah ran a smart, vigorous campaign, yet he was savvy enough to know that the odds were on his side. A district that had once been 60 percent white was by then 60 percent black. Fattah won by 58 votes out of 10,000 cast. He was 24 years old.

As a young state legislator, Fattah was considered impatient and extraordinarily ambitious. Almost as soon as he got to Harrisburg, he cut a deal with a retiring member of the appropriations committee to secure the soon-to-be-open slot on the committee, thus bypassing the Capitol’s unwritten rules of seniority. The move was technically brilliant and politically asinine, as Fattah infuriated vast swaths of fellow legislators and got himself branded an egotistical turd. (He was also forced to backpedal on the committee seat.) Though he would eventually prove a capable, engaged legislator in the House, when he moved to the State Senate six years later, he did little to improve his standing on the humility front. To mark his inauguration, he held two days of celebrations, including a $1,000-a-head fund-raising breakfast. Fattah-watchers dubbed the fete “the coronation.”

Fattah was still in his early 30s, yet he had no problem using his juice to get what he wanted — regardless of whom it might piss off. In 1989, for example, he pushed the candidacy of Wendella P. Fox for district attorney over the objections of then-mayor Wilson Goode and Bill Gray, and he repeatedly tried to oust Edgar Campbell, then one of the city’s most powerful ward leaders, after Campbell refused to support him in his state rep race. When Campbell handed over his ward to his daughter Carol, now a city councilwoman, Fattah’s organization tried to oust her, too, to no avail. “That’s one of the reasons we had to build the organization,” says State Senator Vincent Hughes, a longtime member of the Fattah camp. “We kept losing the ward elections.”

Fattah soon got a chance to show just how powerful he was. In the summer of 1991, Gray — then the mightiest black politician in Philadelphia — unexpectedly announced his retirement from Congress. Almost immediately, Lucien Blackwell, a longtime labor leader and city councilman who had just lost a bruising Democratic mayoral primary to Ed Rendell, was tapped to be the party’s nominee for the seat. At the time, Fattah was considered a Blackwell ally. Only months before, in fact, Fattah had sent Curtis Jones to Blackwell’s mayoral campaign. “He told me to go over there and help them out,” says Jones.