Pulse: Power: What Makes Chaka Run?

Chaka Fattah doesn’t really want to be mayor. But that may not stop him from being a candidate

The other day, Congressman Chaka Fattah was doing what he seems to enjoy doing most: taking an original idea and talking it up. This time, it was a proposal to abolish the federal income tax and replace it with a transfer fee on all economic transactions.

“There’s one new idea about tax reform in the last 20 years. And it’s mine,” Fattah says. There is a clear division of labor between Philadelphia’s two full-time congressmen: Bob Brady is the local political operator, and Fattah the lawmaker. Fattah, 48, who two and a half years ago joked that his successor “hasn’t been born yet,” has long looked like a lifer, waiting for the committee chairmanships and party leadership posts that will be his due. So why is he close to giving it all up to run for mayor?

“There are a lot of people who want me to run,” says Fattah, who was lured into the campaign fray by Mayor John Street and Governor Ed Rendell last fall, but has been on his own as he makes the rounds looking for support. (“He’s definitely running,” one top Democratic fund-raiser said after meeting with Fattah. “He’s just trying to convince himself.”) To aid that process, those around Fattah have been talking down the current crop of candidates — not yet announced, already running too hard — with more pessimism than most Democrats. “This is a really weak field,” says one insider. “There’s no one who stands out.” Fattah promises to shake things up. “I’m going to be a responsible adult and work to make sure we have a quality candidate, and I’m not going to take myself out of the equation,” he says, musing about whether Pew president Rebecca Rimel or Penn president Amy Gutmann could be goaded into running. So how does the rest of the current field, which includes a four-term city controller and a handful of accomplished city and state legislators, react to the disrespect from the Fattah camp? “Congressman Fattah can rest assured there will be qualified and quality candidates,” Controller Jonathan Saidel says, with a frustrated smirk.

Fattah calls serving in Congress “the most important thing I can be doing at this point in my life,” and says he’d give it up only if he were desperately needed elsewhere. Indeed, he views a mayoral candidacy the same way he views an illness in his family. “If in order to be responsive to the needs of my family, I had to leave public life altogether, I would do it,” he says. “That, I think, is the context.”