I wanted Chaka Fattah to be found not guilty, but I doubted that he would be. The evidence as outlined in news articles appeared to be overwhelming, while the congressman's defense against federal corruption charges seemed mostly an appeal to the jury to trust someone accused of being untrustworthy.
Still, I hoped Fattah would be found not guilty. Like many African Americans of my generation, I take it personally when a black person is accused of a crime, any crime. We cringe at news reports that identify criminal suspects by race; fearing they bolster stereotypes, though we denounce illegal conduct.
It's particularly dismaying when black politicians are accused of crimes. Growing up in Alabama, I saw how hard it was for black people to get to vote. People need to understand that although the defeated Southern states in 1870 elected the first black members to be seated in Congress, none were elected from the South between 1901 and 1973. The Ku Klux Klan had something to do with that.
That history has made me sensitive to the selective prosecution allegations of some black politicians accused of crimes who claim to be victims of racism. Subsequent convictions often eviscerate such arguments. In fact, I know of only one case where prosecutors admitted they overreached in targeting a black politician, but their zeal couldn't be clearly tied to racism.
In 1991, the first black mayor of Birmingham, Ala., Richard Arrington Jr., was identified as an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal corruption case involving a contractor who said he had bribed Arrington to get city business. Arrington was never charged, never called to testify, and in 1992 the Justice Department agreed to remove Arrington's name from the court document that had accused him.
That happy ending for Arrington was much different from the fates of a number of other black politicians I have known or met who were convicted of crimes, including former Jefferson County, Ala., Commissioner Chris McNair (the father of one of the four little girls killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing), former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon.
Of course, I have also known white politicians who were convicted of crimes, and I'm disappointed in them too. But it's not the same. I don't have the same emotional attachment that I feel for Fattah. Their convictions didn't have the impact that Fattah's is going to have on a community that for years has proudly told children to use him as a role model.
Fattah's story was inspirational. He was one of six sons of Sister Falaka Fattah, who in 1968 founded the House of Umoja, a sort of Boys Town for urban youth in Philadelphia. Fattah became interested in politics as a high school student, when he would attend seminars sponsored by the nonpartisan Black Political Forum, founded by John White Sr. and Hardy Williams.
Fattah won a Pennsylvania House seat in 1982; a state Senate seat in 1988; and a seat in Congress in 1994, when he upset Bill Gray's successor, Lucien Blackwell, who had been endorsed by Mayor Ed Rendell, City Council President John Street, and State Rep. Dwight Evans. Fattah was re-elected 10 times to represent the Second Congressional District, working his way up the ladder to a plum assignment on the appropriations committee.
I first met Fattah in 2000, when I was introduced to him by Inquirer columnist Acel Moore, who died earlier this year. Acel thought Fattah had the most effective field operation of any politician in the city, which is why I was surprised to see the congressman struggle and eventually lose the 2007 Democratic primary for mayor, finishing a distant fourth behind Michael Nutter, Tom Knox, and Bob Brady.
Of course, we now know that failed campaign was also the source of the criminal indictment against Fattah. Among other charges, he was accused of accepting an illegal $1 million loan to pay campaign expenses and repaying the debt by stealing funds from an education nonprofit he had founded. Fattah's son, Chaka "Chip" Fattah Jr., was convicted in an unrelated fraud case in February. Meanwhile Fattah's wife, Renee Chenault-Fattah, lost her job as a news anchor at NBC10.
I feel sorry for the Fattah family. I feel sorry for Philadelphia, which once again must watch a Democratic elected official prepare to be carted off to prison. But I feel most sorry for the city's children, black and white, who by now must think the words integrity and politics are antonyms.