Inside the grand ballroom of the Pennsylvania Convention Center last month, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., moved easily among tables filled with some of the city’s most recognizable movers and shakers.
Schools Superintendent William Hite was there for the Urban Affairs Coalition breakfast event, along with legendary music producer-turned-community developer Kenny Gamble and plenty of City Council members.
At the front, near the stage, Fattah chatted energetically with the Rev. Mark Tyler before saying hello to UAC President Sharmain Matlock-Turner.
“I’m not campaigning in a political sense, but it is an opportunity,” Fattah said before an awards program began. “When you are the incumbent, the best thing you can do for your campaign is to do your job.”
Fattah, 58, is running for a 12th term in Congress. Until now, re-election has been a cakewalk for the veteran lawmaker. He’s routinely won in November with 80 percent of the vote, often much more.
He hasn’t faced a competitive primary race for Congress since 1994, the first year he was elected to serve the 2nd Congressional District.
This year could be different. Fattah is facing corruption charges, which could end his political career and send him to prison. And, not coincidentally, four men have already signaled their intention to run against Fattah in the April Democratic primary.
Fattah, at least outwardly, isn’t concerned by either prospect. He said he’s innocent and that the charges against him are “frivolous, ” a smear campaign. When it comes to the Democratic primary, he said he’s excited to have competition.
“It’s a rejoiceful moment. What we can do now, is we can have the voters of the district ratify the work that I’m doing and authenticate the fact that I’m representing their interests in Washington,” Fattah said in an interview.
Charges focus on repayment of $1 million loan
In July, federal prosecutors released a stunning 29-count indictment against Fattah and four associates.
The group consists of Herbert Vederman, a former deputy mayor of Philadelphia; Fattah’s congressional district director Bonnie Bowser; former aide Karen Nicholas; and Robert Brand, a campaign contributor.
Fattah’s former chief of staff, Gregory Naylor, and political consultant Tom Lindenfeld have previously pleaded guilty.
The dizzying 85-page indictment charges Fattah with racketeering, conspiracy, bribery and other offenses in connection to five schemes the group allegedly participated in for personal and political gain.
In the alleged scheme at the heart of the case, Fattah is accused of using a pair of nonprofits he founded to help repay part of an illegal $1 million loan made to assist his unsuccessful 2007 mayoral campaign.
Fattah’s trial is scheduled for early May, six days after the Democratic primary, the election that will effectively pick the next representative of the 2nd Congressional District.
Roughly 80 percent of voters there are registered Democrats.
So far, state Reps. Dwight Evans and Brian Sims have said they plan to run in the primary, along with Philadelphia ward leader Dan Muroff and Lower Merion Township Commissioner Brian Gordon.
Potential candidates have until Feb.16 to file their nominating petitions.
The Congressman is confident
Fattah is confident he can win. He said his track record will overshadow the allegations against him when voters hit the polls.
“What it comes down to are families and communities and what impact I’ve made in their lives,” said Fattah.
Still, he’s not taking any chances. Fattah has a two-man campaign team led by former city managing director Joe Certaine, and he said he’s carved out days on his calendar for hitting the campaign trail. He said he’s looking forward to talking to voters about what he’s accomplished during his two-decade career.
“There are tens of thousands of families who have benefited from my mortgage foreclosure-relief effort. There are tens of thousands of senior citizens that have benefited from the work I’ve done that provides support services to seniors,” Fattah said. “There are young people who have benefited from my work in education.”
Not to the mention the millions he’s steered toward streetscape and transit projects across his district, which comprises Northwest Philadelphia, West Philadelphia, parts of North Philadelphia, and now parts of Montgomery County.
The list of projects includes the complete makeover of Wayne Junction Station in Germantown and the expansion of the Schuylkill River Trail, a recreational path.
Talk to ward leaders and voters in the district, and you’ll find that Fattah’s confidence isn’t just hot air. There is certainly concern, but there doesn’t appear to be panic, at least not yet.
“I haven’t heard any reason not to support him if he says that he’s innocent … and so I got to take him at his word,” said Gregory Spearman, one of about 20 African-American ward leaders across the district who recently moved to back Fattah.
The 2nd Congressional District includes parts or all of 35 wards.
“He’s a household brand name, so he’s good for the people,” said Mark Davis, a stylist at Contender’s Barbershop in West Philly. “Everybody has some type of problem, some type of past or something has been done. God will forgive.”
Voters in the suburban parts of Fattah’s district may be less forgiving.
In 2010, redistricting reconfigured the lines of the 2nd to include nearly all of Lower Merion Township. More than a few people there aren’t too pleased about that.
Merion resident Rich Watman said the indictment will cost Fattah his vote.
“Where there’s smoke there’s fire. Every politician who gets in trouble like this, the first they do is say, ‘Yyou know, people are out to get me.’ Well, I just got to believe that there’s some truth to it somewhere, or else the allegations wouldn’t have been made,” Watman said.
Narberth resident Larry Marshall is a bit more blunt about his distaste for Fattah.
“He was a loser before, he’s a loser now. So would I support him? No,” said Marshall.
Campaign war chest lacking
Fattah probably won’t need Marshall’s vote to win. But he will likely need a lot more money.
A successful candidate in a competitive Democratic primary can easily spend $3 million or more. A one-week run of one television ad in Philadelphia can cost a candidate $500,000.
As of the end of Sept. 30, the most recent filing, Fattah had $2,607.59 on hand.
For veteran political consultant Mark Nevins, that total represents the “beginning of a [funding] crisis.”
“That would be like the Eagles going into a game with only one quarterback, assuming that the person is never going to get hurt,” said Nevins. “I’d rather go in with a full squad and having all the resources I need to win the game.”
Fattah’s response: Money isn’t everything. It’s the votes that’ll get him re-elected.
“I will be disappointed if I lose any neighborhood. Period,” said Fattah.