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June 13, 2016

Thank goodness Chaka Fattah lost the ’07 mayoral primary

After the bug was found in John Street's office, a successor facing a racketeering trial could've destroyed Philly

Closing arguments in the racketeering-conspiracy case against outgoing U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and four co-defendants kicked off Monday morning at the federal courthouse located a block from the Liberty Bell. They’re expected to last much, if not all, of the day.

About 20 minutes before the jury entered U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III’s 16th floor courtroom, Fattah and his wife Renee waited in a long line to pass through the metal detector in the lobby. Like everyone else there – whether they held a briefcase, badge or pocketbook – Fattah emptied his pockets, took his phone out and removed his belt before walking through.

By the time he got upstairs, he saw more than a dozen people waiting outside a courtroom that featured no vacant seats. It seems as if everybody wanted to catch a glimpse of what could be the final act of a long-time public servant's tenure. As he sat near the front of the room, Fattah smiled and laughed a lot, despite his very freedom being on the line.

Soon, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Kravis would start detailing – again – the intricacies of the alleged five-scheme fraudulence.

Kravis labeled it “a white-collar crime spree that stretched from Philadelphia all the way to Washington D.C.” essentially stemming from one poor decision: In the face of new campaign-finance laws, Fattah’s campaign secured a $1 million loan from close friend Albert Lord to prop up a flagging 2007 mayoral candidacy.

Old heads remember that race as the one in which Fattah was a presumptive favorite early on.

That held true in the polls projecting John Street’s successor, at a time of worry about bugged offices and corruption. About three months out, they spotted him a 10-percent lead. With a month to go, he trailed by 14 percent. He’d end up finishing fourth (44,301 votes), with a total closer to that of perennial write-in candidate Queena Bass (950) than ultimate winner Michael Nutter (106,805).

It’s folly to try and whittle down a successful or unsuccessful campaign to singular moments, but if you were to do so with that primary, you’d likely point to this ad:

Here’s how campaign expert Neil Oxman explained the impact of that memorable spot in an interview with NPR:

“Nutter was in last place. In a five-way primary he was - the leader in the campaign was in the 30s, and he was dead last at 7 percent of the vote with the least amount of money. And none of the candidates were sort of making the campaign about anything particularly relevant. And we decided to make the campaign a referendum on who would be least like the mayor who was there then, a guy named John Street. And we ran a couple weeks of TV, and we moved from last to second. But we were having a problem with African-American females, who weren't connecting, for some reason, with Nutter. I could never figure out why. Michael Nutter is an African-American. And so we ran this ad. And when we did, he went into the lead and started doing overwhelmingly better with African-American females and won that quadrant of the vote very handily.”

I got to thinking about that in Bartle’s courtroom on Monday morning.

The specific thought?

“Thank goodness Fattah didn’t end up winning that race, because it would have set Philly back instead of moving forward.”

That’s not a condemnation of Fattah, per se. While polls would likely set the prospects of conviction as high, I won’t presume to speak for the jury before its members speak for themselves in the form of verdicts or post-trial comments to the media.

But imagine that that seven-figure loan paid off in the form of comeback victory. Instead of eight indictment-free years under Nutter, we’d have gone from a mayor whose office was bugged by the FBI to a mayor facing a wide-ranging array of federal charges. (Caveat: This pre-supposes Fattah not being able to covertly fundraise the allegation-tentacled debt away while coasting to victory against Al Taubenberger in the general.)

When I spoke with Nutter near the end of his tenure, he cited a push for campaign-finance limits as one of his most noteworthy successes on City Council.

After leaving council to run for mayor, he sued Fattah and other primary opponents to abide by them. Just six weeks before the election, a Commonwealth Court ruling re-established $2,500 and $10,000 limits on donations from individuals and political action committees, respectively.

It was during those six weeks, as the polls started shifting against him, that Fattah allegedly (and successfully) sought the $1 million loan that brought folks to the courtroom on Monday. After all, Fattah had incorporated big loans into his strategy and that ruling meant he had to react with quickness if he were to win.

It’s not much of a stretch to think the ad and Nutter’s councilmanic legacy helped land Fattah in that courtroom. But what would Philadelphia look like today had Fattah won?

Considering we’d have had back-to-back mayoral administrations facing the specter of corruption whispers or full-on charges, would a Mayor Fattah, distracted by charges, been able to navigate the Great Recession waters as Nutter did? Would layoffs and terminations have been abundant? And, if so, what sort of city service reductions or eliminations would we all have faced, possibly even till this day?

Would there have been a push toward empowering the Board of Ethics or creating chief integrity officer position, as Nutter prided himself on? Or would it have been patronage-business as usual?

Would Mayor Fattah have flown overseas to all but beg Pope Francis to visit his fair city? And if so, would the pontiff’s representatives be so wary of sending him somewhere beset with a mayoral corruption trial that Philly never would have appeared on his U.S. itinerary?

Would there have been a Fourth of July concert featuring The Roots, or the ceding of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the high-profile Made in America show? (And would that even have mattered?)

Would those cranes have popped up throughout Center City, or would they be constructing Comcast towers and the like elsewhere?

How would Philadelphians cope with an inability to refute that old “corrupted and contented” yarn? (Not well, I think.)

With eight tainted mayoral years hovering overhead, would voters finally shake their aversion to electing a Republican mayor because of Fattah? And what would that have done to Philly, for better or worse?

Nobody can have all of those answers unless, of course, palm readers and Ouija boards are legitimate arbiters of future events.

Regardless of what the Fattah jury decides, though, it’s safe to presume a Fattah mayoral tenure ending in a corruption trial – because he was alleged to have cheated to win – would’ve had horrendous implications for the city and region. 

It could've created an air that things will never change for the better, even if Fattah didn't do a damn thing that the feds said he did. Image is everything, after all. Say what you will about Nutter and Kenney, but their failings (perceived or real) don’t even come close to matching what could’ve been if we had a mayor distracted by the prospect of prison time rather than responsibilities to the citizenry.

So, score two points for the voters of Philadelphia. While we/they didn’t know these charges would be coming, we may have averted a situation where a mayor would walk out of City Hall one day and into a courthouse the next.