U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, an East Falls resident who has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1995, is currently seeking a 10th term on Capitol Hill.
A senior Democratic member of the House Appropriations Committee, the 55-year-old faces challengers Robert Allen Mansfield, a Republican Iraq War veteran, and James Foster, publisher of Germantown Newspapers Inc.
Having received 89 percent of the votes in 2010, Fattah has not been actively campaigning, even though the redrawn district chipped away at the northern edge of the Second and added a chunk of Montgomery County.
Amid a flurry of recent events in the district, however, Fattah spoke with NewsWorks and answered seven questions related to his public-service tenure and his non-campaigning campaign season.
NewsWorks: Parts of your district are emblematic of the most severe urban woes out there. Crime. Faltering public education system. Lack of jobs. How is life better at Germantown and Chelten today than it was when you were first elected?
Chaka Fattah: For the seniors at Center in the Park, they’re a lot better off, with an elevator installed and computer center we helped open.
At Germantown High School, the GEAR UP program is working with young people, getting them ready for college. It is one of the more successful programs around, and we created that through federal legislation. With the CORE Philly Scholarships, thousands in Germantown have gone through in the seven years it’s been there.
The section of the city which has benefited most [since I was elected] is Northwest Philadelphia. There is $2 million in landscaping along Germantown Ave. and the Mount Airy USA program that I provided grant funding for. The Nicetown housing development is right down the street. Federal grants for the tax credits for development.
In Chestnut Hill, parking lots were made more secure; they were refurbished and resurfaced with a quarter-million dollar grant I earmarked for that activity.
The reality is that Philadelphia as a city, not just any section, has seen nine years of improved graduation rates and test scores. There was the first increase in population in our lifetime.
Because of the work I’ve done to help local many businesses through the manufacturing extension partnership, manufacturing is expanding. The Boys and Girls Club, in Germantown and Nicetown, I’ve supported organizations and helped provide services for young people.
Wayne Junction, we brought the U.S. Transportation Secretary there; one year later after promised funds for that, we delivered.
The gist of it is this: I’ve worked very hard to responsive on a wide range of issues, and that’s not just appropriations and grants. Look at the Emergency Mortgage Relief Law. That has saved many families in the neighborhoods ravaged from foreclosures, providing real tangible help. I tried for that in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008 but it didn’t pass until 2010. We worked on that for many, many years. Talk to Philadelphia Unemployment Project, look at the thousands of homes saved in Northwest Philadelphia neighborhoods because of it.
NW: How do you balance local needs with national initiatives?
CK: They’re one in the same. Boys and Girls Clubs, for example. There are 4,000 nationwide, and they’re also in Philadelphia. They’re in dozens of states, and their national headquarters is here. A mentorship project, working with youths whose parents are incarcerated to make sure they don’t follow down the same path.
With national legislation, members [of Congress] want to vote on something that benefits their own communities. If you’re crafting a proposal, besides offering an explanation of how it works in Philadelphia neighborhoods, you need to show how it benefits other places, too.
I’m going into an event at PECO in a few minutes about $3.4 billion in energy efficiency savings. This speaks to all American cities and how they can cut their energy bills. With 80,000 traffic lights switched over, that’s $1 million a year in savings. With that million dollars, you can pay less for energy and more for police, fire and other services. Now, with $200 million to do a smart grid and smart meters, almost every home in Northwest Philadelphia will get smart meters; those savings can be used for other services.
NW: What accomplishments are you most proud of?
CK: The GEAR UP program passed 13 years ago. [Then President Bill] Clinton came to Philadelphia to do a big announcement, it’s helped 12 million young people, credited for helping them in every state in the country.
There are college awareness and preparation scholarships at Germantown High and other schools across the city.
I’m not resting on past achievements, though. I’m in the prime of my career. I’m younger than most of my peers but with more seniority. I have a very active agenda, comprehensive. Manufacturing. Technology. Education. We are very focused on the work at hand.
It doesn’t hurt the region that I’m the ranking [Democrat] on the appropriations committee.
NW: What haven’t you accomplished that gets stuck in your craw?
CK: As chairman of the Congressional Urban Caucus, I realize this country needs to have comprehensive urban plan to help cities. We have done some things in the House, but it’s at the margins. We have much more have to do to across the country. I’m very interested in that.
Most of my time now is focused on my Neuroscience Initiative, [bolstering] brain research to help with diseases affect older Americans, those who’ve suffered traumatic brain injuries, also looking at a healthy brain for purposes of better understanding cognitive functions. There is new legislation to provide incentives to pharmaceutical companies. An Alzheimer’s medication, in 1995, was the last drug approved. There is very little going on with new pharmaceuticals in this area. It’s a major challenge.
NW: How does it feel to be part of a legislative body that the public doesn’t exactly like right now?
CK: The Congress’ lack of approval is well earned. We have not done much over the last two years, and there are real challenges facing the country. In the two years prior [to this recent stretch], there were 300-plus bills passed. It was the greatest amount of activity, unparalleled even to the days of [Presidents] Lyndon Baines Johnson or Ronald Reagan. Equal pay. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But, that also produced change and change produced a negative reaction that brought a new Congress [in 2010] with a new majority that thinks its principal job is to do nothing. The speaker of the House [John Boehner] even said compromise is a bad word.
We’re at a standstill. The public has to make a decision. We moved in one direction in 2008, and then slammed on the brakes. In three weeks, they can weigh in again. If you look at the long history of the country, moves in a more progressive direction just take time.
The challenge of getting 217 peers to agree with you requires patience and work. There can be resistance to ideas. But, when you show that it’s costing federal taxpayers $130,000 for every foreclosure, that it’s not just happening to some family down the block or somewhere else, that can have an impact, and did.
NW: Does it feel different having dual opposition this year?
CK: I’m not actively campaigning all the time; I’m helping others get elected to congress, helping the president. I’m doing substantive work and political work for other democrats.
It’s somewhat misleading to talk about past results. The point is not how many elections you win, it’s what do you achieved, what have you gotten done?
When first elected, there were major issues I talked about, and I think I’ve [addressed them]. The Allen’s Lane train station. The Cheltenham bus loop. Clean energy buses. Those are a few examples.
The point of all this, for me, is that winning an election not the issue. What can you achieve through legislative successes or leadership in the appropriations which allows me to embed things we need in an appropriations bill?
You won’t see specific bills listing some of my accomplishments, because they’re buried in other bills. I know how the process works.
NW: Since you’re not actively campaigning, why should voters in the district – specifically in new post-redistricting areas – vote for you over Mansfield or Foster? What would the campaign signs say if there were any?
CK: ‘Real help for real people.’
For example, the free home heating-oil program through the Energy Coordinating Agency of Philadelphia. Many people have benefitted from that in Germantown and throughout Northwest Philadelphia.
Both inside and adjacent to the process, where there has been a need, we’ve addressed it.
This is the final installment in a three-part NewsWorks series about the candidates running in the second congressional district race.