If Chaka Fattah Goes, Who Fills the Void?

Chaka Fattah's political organization is one of the few left in the city. Can it survive a resignation, or worse?

The city’s political class is abuzz with talk of potential replacements for U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, who could be politically finished after his former chief of staff Gregory Naylor pled guilty to diverting campaign funds for the personal use of “Elected Official A,” widely reported to be Fattah. Naylor’s plea memo, which can be read below, is a damning document, and many city political observers think it is only a matter of time before Fattah is indicted or resigns. (Fattah feels differently. After initial silence, he’s started to suggest the Feds have “crossed the line.”)

But set aside, for the moment, speculation about the next congressman from the second district of Pennsylvania.

If the Fattah organization goes down with the Congressman, it would represent a fundamental shift in the balance of power in city politics.

And what is the Fattah organization, exactly? It’s the political mini-machine built by Fattah, an organization that helped elect not just the congressman, but State Senator Vince Hughes and City Council members Curtis Jones Jr., Blondell Reynolds Brown, and Cindy Bass. Fattah was part of an early wave of black Philadelphia politicians in the 1980s who successfully defied the party, took on incumbents, and won by building political operations of their own.

The organization has been constructed on a foundation of well-funded nonprofit organizations (which have provided jobs for Fattah’s supporters) and a ballyhooed get-out-the-vote operation which has something of a national reputation.

Naylor has been a central figure in Fattah’s election day operation, and indeed, he’s worked on behalf of candidates like Al Gore and Barack Obama as well, pumping up their vote totals in Philadelphia. Even if Fattah emerges from this scandal with his job, his organization won’t have Naylor — its lead political strategist — on election day.

And that’s probably the best case scenario for Fattah and his allies. Veteran city political observers and officials I spoke with yesterday think it’s likely that the Fattah organization would not survive if Fattah is forced to leave Congress. Even if he endures, these insiders say, would-be challengers will be emboldened and scrutiny over federal earmarks to Fattah-affiliated nonprofits would be so intense that the organization would likely crumble over time.

This isn’t particularly surprising, of course. Vince Fumo’s organization did not survive his conviction. Bill Gray’s Northwest Coalition is a shell of what it was when Gray was alive and in office.

“These organizations are not Tammany Hall or the Lucchese crime family that continue on for generations after losing a boss,” said one city political operative.

So how big a deal would it be if the Fattah organization faded away? On that question, you hear different answers. As formidable as the Fattah turnout machine was in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, a lot of insiders consider it now to be something of a paper tiger, or at best a machine that can really only be relied on in West Philadelphia. That’s a conclusion that was borne out by Fattah’s fourth-place finish in the 2007 mayoral primary. And even before Naylor’s plea, the eight-year-long federal investigation of the Fattah camp has taken a toll on the organization’s clout.

Still, there’s no getting around the fact that no other faction in town has as many elected officials in place. “Chaka’s is the most impressive political organization in the city,” a different political insider told me. John Dougherty might disagree, but the point stands that Fattah’s organization, albeit diminished, is still a major force in the city.

If the organization does die out, those Fattah allies in public office could well face fundraising problems, far weaker election day support and, potentially, challengers. Vince Hughes isn’t going anywhere (unless it’s Fattah’s congressional seat), and I’d be stunned if Curtis Jones had trouble winning re-election. But Cindy Bass and Blondell Reynolds Brown are on shakier ground. Council President Darrell Clarke has enjoyed pretty robust support from the Fattah camp, so it doesn’t help any mayoral aspirations he might have if Fattah goes down (but it’s probably not all that huge a blow, either).

Who benefits from the Fattah organization’s likely demise?

Dougherty would face one less rival camp in Philadelphia’s parochial Game of Thrones, but he was never likely to make a lot of inroads in the middle class African-American neighborhoods where Fattah’s support is strongest. Brady and the party could tighten their grip on these neighborhoods. Jannie Blackwell could prosper, and it might open up some opportunity for a fading Dwight Evans. But it is probably mayoral aspirant and State Senator Anthony Williams who has the most to gain. The collapse of the Fattah organization would open up a vacuum in West Philadelphia that Williams could move to fill. He may even end up playing a pivotal role in filling Fattah’s seat; as chair of the African American ward leaders, Williams would have significant say in choosing a Democratic candidate to replace Fattah if he were to resign.

About that. No matter who were to win a special election to replace Fattah, odds are that the freshly minted member of Congress will face some serious challengers when the new regular election rolls around in 2016.

Plea Memo – Naylor