Could Fattah scandal send Michael Nutter to Congress?

     Mayor Michael Nutter and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah hold oversized scissors at the 2013 ribbon cutting for the Shawmont Trail project in Northwest Philadelphia. (NewsWorks, file art)

    Mayor Michael Nutter and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah hold oversized scissors at the 2013 ribbon cutting for the Shawmont Trail project in Northwest Philadelphia. (NewsWorks, file art)

    I’m getting ahead of things here, but only in saying out loud what a lot of Philadelphia Democrats are talking about after last week’s stunning court filing by federal prosecutors: Can U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah hold onto his congressional seat? And if he can’t, who gets it?

    Fattah went to Congress in 1995 after unseating Lucien Blackwell, another giant of Philadelphia politics. He’s served for almost 20 years, focusing on his areas of policy interest, spawning nonprofits run by friends and former employees, and running unsuccessfully for mayor eight years ago.

    But a filing last week by the U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia and the Public Integrity Section of the Department of Justice in Washington asserted that Fattah had engaged in conduct that is clearly criminal. He wasn’t charged, but you have to believe hard times are ahead for him.

    (Neither Fattah nor his attorney have responded to our queries about the case, but Newsworks blogger Solomon Jones interviewed Fattah yesterday in his new gig as a morning host on WURD-900AM. He asked Fattah some tough, direct questions about the federal filing, and Fattah declined to respond to any in detail. Fattah criticized media coverage of the events and said he was “fascinated by the lack of legal analysis of this not yet fully-formed allegation.” He did say he’d never do anything to embarrass his family or his constituents. You can hear that interview here.

    UPDATE: In response to this post, Fattah emailed me a brief statement saying, “In all of my years as public servant I have never engaged in any illegal conduct.” He added that he’s committed to continuing his work on education, brain research and jobs which has helped millions of Americans “for the next ten years in Congress.”

    Fattah is on the Nov. 4 ballot against unknown Republican Armond James, and barring some rapid developments in the federal probe, he should win an easy re-election to the 2nd District seat. (I called the National Republican Congressional Committee to see if they might be interested in putting some money into the race, and the district wasn’t even on their radar.)

    If some ghastly revelation or criminal charges were to emerge before November, Fattah might be pressured to withdraw from the race and let the party (in the form of the district’s ward leaders) name a replacement. If circumstances were to compel Fattah to resign from office during his term, a special election might be called, which would also put the congressional seat in the hands of the ward leaders.

    Who’s next?

    A leading candidate to contend for Fattah’s congressional seat, should it open, would be Vincent Hughes, who took and still holds the state Senate seat Fattah occupied before going to Washington.

    City Councilman Curtis Jones is another thought. Like Hughes, he’s a longtime associate of Fattah. In fact, Jones and Fattah ran a low-budget campaign for the two Democratic slots on the city commission in 1979 when they were too young to take office if they’d been elected. The joke was they had one suit between them, so one guy wore the pants and the other the jacket. That’s going back together.

    There’s also City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, a former employee of Fattah’s and the only one of my potential field I reached yesterday. She pointed out there’s no vacancy in the office and that she’s “one thousand percent behind the congressman and the work he’s doing.”

    But, she said, should a vacancy occur, “Pennsylvania has never elected an African-American woman to Congress, and it’s time.”

    A longtime association with Fattah could be a liability if the congressman were to depart amid scandal. But if it comes down to the choice of Democratic ward leaders — well, let’s just say they can be a little more forgiving.

    I see our friend Tom Fitzgerald of the Philadelphia Inquirer has a piece today on potential replacements for Fattah, adding District Attorney Seth Williams, City Council President Darrell Clarke, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green to the mix.

    I asked Democratic city committee chairman U.S. Rep. Bob Brady yesterday if he’s hearing from people interested in his support for Fattah’s seat. He said not really, but added that if he were, he probably wouldn’t tell me.

    How about the mayor?

    The other interesting possibility is Mayor Michael Nutter, who’ll be looking for work when his second term ends at the end of next year. He lives in the district. Would he do it?

    On the one hand, becoming a legislator could be a major come-down after being chief executive of the nation’s fifth largest city. You go from giving orders to everybody around you to being one of the pack. You go from starting a buzz at every restaurant you enter to becoming pretty anonymous walking around Washington.

    On the other hand, Nutter was a legislator 19 years on City Council. He got a lot done and had a lot of fun with it. I’d imagine those days are behind him, but I could be wrong.

    Nutter will be 58 when he finishes as mayor. That’s plenty young enough to have a major second act in your life. But maybe older than you’d want to be joining an institution where power comes from longevity as much as talent and hustle.

    Of course, maybe the investigation will fizzle and Fattah will serve another 20 years in Congress. Like I said, I’m getting ahead of things here. But people are talking.

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