It should never have been so close.
Philadelphia U.S. congressman Chaka Fattah should have gone into Tuesday's Pennsylvania as an out-and-out political pariah. In a few short weeks, Fattah, a fixture in Philadelphia politics since the 1980s, will stand trial on practically an Old Country Buffet of criminal charges that include bribery, racketeering, money laundering, bank fraud, mail and wire fraud, and filing false statements. Prosecutors say that Fattah devised an elaborate scheme to pay off $1 million debts for his failed 2007 mayoral campaign by funneling federal aid and charitable funds, and that a lobbyist paid the congressman $18,000 -- purportedly for a car that he never took possession of -- and helped pay other personal costs like his son's Drexel University tuition.
In the legal system, Fattah is presumed innocent; he's entitled to his pending day in court. But in the political hall of justice, the jury should have come back on this guy after deliberating for maybe 15 minutes, tops. The media in Philadelphia has long chronicled Fattah's history of winning questionable dollars for non-profits established and run by his close political associates. A solid but not spectacular liberal voting record during his 22 years in Congress, including a few worthwhile projects on education access and funding inequities, didn't outweigh his massive ethical failings.
Yet while Fattah's many red flags flapped in the Philadelphia wind, some leading liberal groups -- groups that I've praised in the space over the years for fighting for causes like the $15 minimum wage and uplifting America's struggling working class -- didn't seem to see them. The Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, which fights like pit bulls for the rights of janitors and low-wage health care workers, and which invented the iconic fast-food workers movement out of nothing, came out and endorsed the tainted congressman.
Said the SEIU's state directory Gabe Morgan: ""We know that when we're in a fight, often with some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country, whether they're an airline or sometimes a city government, whether they're a major landowner or corporation, Congressman Fattah has stood with us." Other key labor unions --1199C Hospital Workers, a steelworkers' union local, and District Council 33, Philadelphia's blue-collar municipal workers -- quickly fell in line. So did the city Democratic Party and its labor-backed boss, Rep. Bob Brady.
With that kind of support, Fattah made a race of it on Tuesday -- even jumped out in front as the early returns came in. But at the end of the night, common sense -- and state Rep. Dwight Evans -- won out....barely. As a political journalist in this town, I've known Evans (also Fattah) for two decades. He's not the candidate that progressives would create in a lab; on one key issue, the charter schools that Evans zealously supports, I could not disagree with him more. And he's not perfect in other ways -- called out several times for over-the-top support for pet projects and allies in his West Oak Lane neighborhood. But he's smart, decent, and a tireless lawmaker. I'd be shocked if he embarrasses the 2nd Congressional District (assuming he defeats nominal GOP opposition in November) in the way that Fattah has.
There have been many troubling political developments in 2016. Encyclopedias could be written about the dangers of the reality-show bluster and no-longer-coded racial and sexist appeals of Donald Trump, for starters. Yet in some ways the pathetic Trump ascendancy isn't all that shocking -- just an outrageous chapter in what historian Richard Hofstadter called out more than 50 years ago as "the paranoid style in American politics." But what has shocked me, and left me heartbroken at times, is how quickly and willingly that folks who call themselves "progressives," or "liberals," have blown off political corruption as an important matter. They call it things like "a distraction from the real issues," or try to shush erstwhile allies who bring it up: "You're only giving ammunition to the other side."
I'm sorry, but no. Political corruption isn't a distraction, and it's not just issue but THE issue, not just here in America but all over the world from Iceland to Brazil. Politicians who trade on their cozy ties with wealthy elites are doing no favors for the poor or the middle class, no matter what their policy white papers may say. Instead, those corrupt relationships, fueled by unlimited campaign contributions and unlimited shame by past, future and current politicians looking to make a quick buck, are at the heart of kleptocracy -- elected officials re-writing the tax codes, signing off on bad trade deals or compromising our environment to put more in the pocket of their richest constituents and eventually themselves.
If you think this is about Hillary Clinton...well, sure, she and her husband, the ex-president, are a part of this. I can't tell you how many times during the political cold wars of Twitter and Facebook and on the popular blogs I've watched in recent weeks, agog, as progressives -- some well-known, many on the trenches of partisan politics -- have moved the goalposts on how much we're supposed to care about matters of corruptions or conflicts of interest. The very things that once upon a time might have -- to use a hot-button term -- disqualified a candidate.
The millions of dollars in unlimited donations from millionaires and billionaires to Super PACs that support Hillary Clinton are the only way to elect Hillary so that she can work to ban this kind of donation, I was told. They said that Bill and Hillary Clinton making some $153 million in giving short paid speeches to an array of large corporations with major interests before the U.S. government wasn't a problem because it was legal (ignoring that fact that legal corruption is often the worst corruption -- since tainted politicians are writing those laws). Hey, Reagan did it, I was told by people who weren't old enough to remember that people were appalled when Reagan did it. Specifically, I heard again and again that the $675,000 that Hillary pocketed for three speeches to Goldman Sachs wasn't an issue because her critics couldn't show a direct quid pro quo. Well, for one thing, she's not the president...yet. And I guess this notion that was drilled into me -- that creating such a clear appearance of a conflict of interest is actual corruption -- must have been one of those lies that my teachers told me.
To be sure, it's understandable that people might look the other way when the alternatives are men who would strip millions of their health coverage, drag women back into the 19th Century and start World War III in their free time. But this is what scares me. That the craziness of 2016 will end up enshrining a terrible idea among American liberals: That corruption doesn't matter.
Maybe it's generational. My ideas about politics really crystallized in the early 1970s, when a president, Nixon, who'd done some awful things in the way he conducted a war in Southeast Asia was brought down -- not by those misdeeds but by a systematic investigation of his political corruption by judges, politicians and prosecutors -- from both parties! -- and investigative journalists. I look around today and think that if there'd been a headline in 1973: "Nixon made millions during mid-60s giving corporate speeches," people would have massed on the National Mall with torches and pitchforks. Why does it get a collective shrug when the headline instead says "Clinton"?