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April 11, 2016

Amid re-election effort, Chaka Fattah thinks he'll beat federal corruption case

'I've helped more people than anyone can actually count,' says the man seeking a 12th term in Congress

Politics Chaka Fattah
Chaka Fattah Brian Hickey/PhillyVoice

With City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell looking on, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah addressed a ward meeting at West Philadelphia's Enterprise Center on April 7.

For a man facing a couple centuries in prison, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-2nd) remains remarkably confident that he will not only win his re-election primary this month but see his name and reputation cleared should his trial start as scheduled next month.

The legal troubles come courtesy of a federal indictment that accuses him of misappropriating hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal, charitable and campaign funds. Because of delays, Fattah must prepare for trial while he campaigns for his 12th term in Congress.

ReadFattah indictment

Surprisingly in an era of rancorous politics, three Democratic challengers – state Rep. Dwight Evans, former CeaseFire Pennsylvania president and Mt. Airy resident Dan Muroff and Lower Merion Township Commissioner Brian Gordon – have seemingly avoided making the campaign a referendum on the accusations leveled against the incumbent.

During Monday morning's debate held at WHYY's Independence Mall headquarters, each was asked how much weight should be given to the looming trial. 

All three said the race isn't about the indictment, choosing instead to maintain that Fattah deserves his day in court and that the district needs a change from the status quo with issues facing voters' day-to-day lives ranking as more important than mud-slinging.

"Maybe criminal justice reform will mean you are actually innocent until [you go to] trial," Fattah said. "Allegations are merely allegations. I have an American birth certificate. I enjoy these rights [in the U.S. Constitution] just like everyone else."

Over the past week, PhillyVoice caught up with Fattah for a few interviews about the peculiar conundrum he currently faces, what with having to campaign and prepare for trial simultaneously. (Those encounters included the Hillary Clinton rally when the candidate's husband, former President Bill Clinton, got into a verbal dust-up with Philly Coalition for REAL Justice activists.)

"You get your day in court, you know? At the end of the day, everybody gets the same set of rules. Until determined otherwise, you're as good as anybody else. I'm not hung up about it, and the voters aren't hung up about it." – U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah

Much like during his last election campaign, when investigative pre-indictment details were made publicly known, Fattah ticked off a long list of legislative accomplishments and implied that the case was linked to a prosecutorial tendency to investigate ranking members of the House Appropriations committee.

While the issue was broached at the WHYY debate, it went unmentioned during a series of campaign events last week. 

When he sat down with PhillyVoice at the Trolley Car Diner in Mt. Airy for breakfast on Friday, though, it was a focal point of the hour-long interview.

The confidence that led him to say, in 2014, that "I know how this all plays out for me: Since there's been no illegal conduct on my part, I am fully committed to representing this district for another decade" had not waned. 

To Fattah, it all boils down to whether the case as portrayed the media outweighs the case in voters' minds. Specifically, he means whether the importance of what he's accomplished (read: monies brought home from Washington to improve the district) while in office will resonate with voters. 

The conversation was framed as a reflection on how it feels to be a legislator who has faced limited competition through his pursuit of 11 terms on Capitol Hill, now grappling with a namesake son being sentenced to five years in prison on fraud charges and a famous wife leaving her news anchor job to become a noticeable member, for the first time, of his re-election campaign.


Here's how Fattah explained it over breakfast (scrambled eggs with American cheese, chicken sausage, turkey bacon and a waffle) in Northwest Philadelphia:

“Notwithstanding my service in Congress, I have been in some political battles. Every time I’ve won an office, I’ve beaten an incumbent. State House. State Senate. Congress. Being in a tough political battle is not something I’m unfamiliar with.

“Everybody supporting me has supported me in competitive races I’ve been in before. And everybody that’s on another side has been on another side in competitive races I’ve been in before. The support I don’t have I’ve never had in a competitive race. I’m in a very comfortable place, and you can see it in the campaign.

"There are five basic pillars to this deal. The first one is substance. When people talk about why they're supporting me, it's substance. 'You helped my daughter go to college. You got my son a scholarship to graduate school and he's a doctor now. Or you helped me get a small business loan. You supported affordable housing. Whatever it may be.' Substance is No. 1 and it's undeniable, even by my critics. 

"The other pillars are that I have a political base. That's not people who are with you when the sun's shining. These are people who are there standing in the breach with you. Cindy Bass, Curtis Jones, Jannie Blackwell, Maria Quinones Sanchez, district council people, and three state senators, they're supporting me. So there's a political base that's real. It's not made up. It's not being forced along.

"Then, I have the party's support, the city ward structure, which is critically important to anyone's effort, it puts you in the realm of winning. You'll be in the final decision package. Then you add labor. When SEIU or the teacher's union endorsed [Mayor Jim] Kenney, I can show you the headlines saying how important that was, but there's something of a selective amnesia in the media when they endorsed me. Then, the clergy. I have very significant support. 

"There's a lot of support for what I'm trying to do, and that's getting one more vote than anybody else.


"The media is doing what the media normally does. They have a view that I should be embattled, that I should be mired down, by the legal issues that have been raised. That's where they start at. They don't want to focus in on how I'm the pre-eminent legislator in the country when it comes to brain science, that there's $7 billion in the appropriations bill that the president signed in December, that the president has commended my work on that's been recognized locally, nationally and internationally. It affects the lives of tens of millions of people.

"That's important and the voters won't get to hear about that. The question on the ballot about whether I'm going back to Congress or not is actually a question about whether that work will continue. It didn't happen before me. We've shown real results. The voters in my district have not been presented that information to date. That's been absent from any coverage to date. 

"My opponent Brian Gordon was at the editorial board of the Inquirer and he said it's a non-issue when he's canvassing. Dan Muroff has said we have polling that shows the congressman can win this election. That's not clear in the reporting.

"Sometimes, what people are doing is taking their own view and applying it, even against actual evidence of what is going on. That's the way it is, the world we live in. But the good thing is that the framers of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, had a different idea about it. You get your day in court, you know? At the end of the day, everybody gets the same set of rules. Until determined otherwise, you're as good as anybody else. I'm not hung up about it, and the voters aren't hung up about it.

"The most important asset that the campaign has is my wife [Renee Chenault Fattah]. This attack on my family was supposed to weaken me. I don't think that's the case at all." – U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah

"I haven't missed any [campaign] appearances [because of trial preparation] and I don't plan on it. My wife's also taken a lead role in the campaign. She's loving it. She's a force unto herself. The most important asset that the campaign has is my wife. This attack on my family was supposed to weaken me. I don't think that's the case at all. The worst thing in the world, for those who wanted to see me lose, is now they have my wife out there on the campaign.

"The trial should have been at the end of last year but the government filed a motion [to delay it until six days after the primary]. ... But will there be a trial? We're in a pre-trial phase right now. Even though the press hasn't paid a lot of attention to it, which is surprising, there have been a variety of rulings on pretrial motions. It got almost no coverage last week, but one of the charges was [dropped] by the judge. One of the things they said happened didn't. You won't find that in the newspaper of record.

"This is the first time that you're even beginning to test the assumptions made by people who have been fairly consumed and aggressive [with investigating me]. The people speak with such certainty about things that are not, the one thing about them is that they're not certain. We have a system that's adversarial in nature. Until the issues are confronted, you don't know what the story is going to be.


"You don't get the perks of high office without the burdens. You don't get one without the other. You have to put it into perspective. I'm not yet 60 [years old], I'm a senior congressman on one of the most powerful committees. I'm going to be the chairman of the appropriations committee. And beyond the titles of that, the substance of that is that I've helped, without dispute even from my critics, tens of millions of people already. Nobody disputes this. The whole deal is to live a life of significance. I've helped more people than anyone can actually count, in tangible ways. And I have the respect of my community.

"The one thing I don't have is stress. I have a certainty that we've helped a lot of people and a confidence that we're going to help a lot more. That confidence is based on the fact that I'm going to win the election and dispense with these allegations

"If I were to lose this election and you're a family member of one of the five million people suffering from Alzheimer's, is that a good thing or a bad thing that I lost? If your kid was at the Nicetown Boys and Girls Club, is it a good thing that I lost or a bad thing? People talk about this being a race between me and someone else. No matter who wins, we're all going to be fine [speaking of the primary field]. The question is, it's kind of the reverse of sports. In politics, it's the people in the stands who are winning or losing. That's how voters should be viewing political contests: Do I win or lose if someone wins or loses the election?

"I know that when an allegation is made, and it's untrue, it doesn't give me any concern. I'm represented by a world-class law firm, so I don't have any concerns about legal representation at all. There's a Biblical quote. Jeremiah 20:11. It basically says people who persecute will be disgraced and it'll never be forgotten. Assuming that I know what I'm talking about, this is much ado about nothing, it's going to go away and you'll be writing stories in a couple years asking 'Who let this happen?'

"I'm comfortable about where we are with the election and in the legal case. I don't want anyone to be under the impression that the people we're dealing with are infallible or haven't in the past been reckless. Getting me is a big deal, a career maker. Why do you spend nine years, tens of millions of dollars, in this pursuit? Because they see it as something they'll be rewarded for if they pull it off.

"I'm completely innocent of the charges. We will dispense of them pretrial or at the trial. I plan on winning this re-election, I plan on getting these charges behind me and I plan on being the lead Democrat on the appropriations committee."