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?

Loyalty, however, had never trumped opportunity in the calculus of Fattah’s career, and it wasn’t about to now. Fattah decided to get in the race, much to the surprise and annoyance of Democratic leaders and Blackwell supporters. “We had no use for him after that,” says Singley, a Blackwell supporter. Even those closest to Fattah found the prospect of taking on Blackwell unpleasant. “For many of us, that was the organization’s darkest days,” says Jones. “It was like a civil war, North against South, because we really liked each other.” The one person who seems to suffer no angst over the contest is Fattah himself: “Lu Blackwell’s supporters always talked about how he voted the right way on everything,” he says. “Well, I thought a congressman ought to do more than that. I thought a congressman should initiate legislation.”

Fattah, who was forced to run on the Consumer Party ticket, finished a distant second, but the special election proved a couple of things to him. One was that Blackwell was vulnerable. The second was that the Democratic machine still mattered — and that it would be easier to co-opt the machine than to outflank it the next time around.

For that next time, Fattah proposed an ambitious goal for his organization: get half the district’s ward leaders in his camp by the time of the 1994 primary. To reach his objective, he played nice with some leaders. With others, he didn’t. “We wanted to let people know that we had an organization that could attack a ward and take it over,” he’d remember. By the time his rematch with Blackwell rolled around, six wards in the district had new leaders.

Still, Fattah left nothing to chance. As a state senator, he had a hand in reapportioning congressional districts, and when the lines were redrawn in 1992, he pushed to have some wards moved from the Second Congressional District — Blackwell’s district, his district — into the First Congressional District. The wards chosen just happened to have gone for Blackwell in the special election.

It was brilliant, and it was ruthless, and Blackwell didn’t stand a chance. In 1994, Fattah won with 58 percent of the vote.