Just Your Average Politician
TO HIS CREDIT, Fattah has never seemed particularly daunted by the fact that until this year, he served in Republican-dominated Congresses; he has seldom complained about the Democrats’ lack of influence and power, an attitude that probably ingratiated him to Capitol culture. “He’s quite well regarded,” says David Bositis, who studies African-American elected officials as a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “He’s known for being fairly temperate in his politics, intelligent, politically savvy, and — to the best of my knowledge — he hasn’t made any enemies.”
It also helped that almost immediately after he arrived in Washington, Fattah went to work on what would become the most conspicuous legislative triumph of his career: a program to help low-income kids go to college. In exchange for meeting certain performance standards throughout middle and high school, the kids would receive college tuition aid. Fattah managed to shepherd the program, eventually known as GEAR UP, through the Republican-controlled Congress. When President Clinton authorized it in 1998 during a televised ceremony, he pointed to Fattah and announced, “Under the leadership of Congressman Fattah, we will make it work.”
Getting GEAR UP passed was no small feat, and Fattah soon became something of a media darling. Ebony named him one of the 100 most influential African-Americans in the country. He was a regular on the Hannity-Hardball-O’Reilly-Blitzer talking-head circuit, thanks in large part to his smooth demeanor and his steadfast defense of Bill Clinton during the Monica years.
He also began attracting more attention back home. This was partly due to his higher profile among the national media. But it was also because Fattah was being spotted around town with NBC 10 anchor Renee Chenault — one of the city’s most recognizable faces. The two first met in 1992, at the Democratic National Convention in New York. She was there to cover it for Channel 10. He was there as a delegate. Several years later, after Fattah had separated from his second wife, Patricia Renfroe — and after Chenault had made a splash by having a kid via artificial insemination at age 40 — Fattah’s son Chip was at a charity event at the October art gallery in Old City when he ran into Chenault. Chip helped carry some artwork to her Porsche, but never said anything to her about his father. He did, though, remember his father making an innocent comment about Chenault “looking good on the news” several years before, and when he reported back to Dad about the encounter, he encouraged him to give her a call. In September 1999, the couple went on their first date. Six months later, Fattah proposed.
With his 2001 marriage to Chenault, Fattah became half of one of the city’s most prominent couples, well-known to both political junkies and gossip mavens. There were, to be sure, benefits: With Chenault adopting his last name, he essentially had a nightly advertisement for a political brand. At the same time, he was now judged by a vastly different yardstick than the likes of, say, Jim Gerlach.