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A growing sense of mission at home

A man of grand vision, he intends to attack poverty with education.

An unconventional childhood and an unconventional education were formative experiences that led Fattah to put a premium on education and opportunity.
An unconventional childhood and an unconventional education were formative experiences that led Fattah to put a premium on education and opportunity.Read more

It is a Thursday afternoon between votes at the U.S. Capitol, and in a small side lobby off the House floor Philadelphia Rep. Chaka Fattah waits restlessly.

The longtime congressman and mayoral hopeful marshals his patience to deal with the wait-and-vote, vote-and-wait minutiae of lawmaking. He'd been describing what he considers his mission: to end poverty in Philadelphia. "Education is the best way out," he is saying.

But he must bolt into the chamber for another small-bore resolution, which more closely resembles plumbing-repair projects than the big-picture social rebuilding he prefers.

He dispenses with the vote and returns to the lobby, eager to pick up his tale. It's his vision, his panacea for society's ills, and it captivates his imagination. "You can say it's arrogance. You can say it's cockiness," he says. "But it's really my sense of what's possible."

Now 50, Fattah has spent exactly half his life in elected office, in Harrisburg and Washington. Grinning - he's always grinning - he says, "I'm not interested in becoming mayor because I'm bored with my work."

As if on cue, an elevator door opens and spits out a Republican colleague from New Jersey - Rep. Chris Smith. Smith approaches Fattah, Philadelphia's powerful Democratic Appropriations Committee member, with a question about a cause vital to both of them: aid to clean Africa's blood supply. It could affect 25 million people, Fattah says.

A few minutes later the elevator yields Indiana Rep. Mark Souder, even more conservative than Smith. Yet again, a diehard Republican and the Philadelphia Democrat find accord. Souder helped pass what Fattah considers to be his own biggest achievement: the education program GEAR UP. They strategize briefly about how to get more money this year for the program. "I have had an impact, literally, on the lives of millions of people through my work," Fattah later says.

Ring! The bell calls. Another vote.

Then it's back to the lobby, to wait again. Fattah is joined by Vic Fazio, a former House colleague. "Mr. Mayor," Fazio says cheerily as the two bang fists. "How's the campaign going?"

"I'm doing great," the congressman answers.

Sure, up until recently he pictured himself staying in Congress "for the duration of my public service career." But it has been no secret for a while that he has his eye on City Hall.

After 13 years in Congress, it's easy to see why Fattah believes - and wants others to believe - that his time can be better spent.

Chaka Fattah is six feet tall. His curly hair is grayer, and his glasses smaller, than when he entered Congress in 1994. His double-breasted jackets now cover a growing gut.

Those who know him remark on his easy manner, even temperament and patience. Says Sandra Dungee Glenn, a former Fattah aide who now sits on the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, "The congressman's approach, I guess, is this: Never let them see you sweat."

A self-proclaimed student of politics and a news junkie, he has his laptop bookmarked to a range of international newspapers. He is prone to quoting Malcolm X and Robert Frost; on his car's satellite radio is the PGA Tour Network or CNN.

In one breath Fattah talks about the problems of Africa and in the next he touts how he agitated to raze Philadelphia's crime-ridden high-rises.

On public policy, he's in the game.

Yet ask him about his five brothers - he's the fourth of six - and he offers little. Try drawing him out about the time when, as a 19-year-old doing antigang advocacy work, he was arrested and charged with simple assault and auto theft - nothing was ever proven - and he'll relay facts without emotion.

"He's good with your personal stuff, but he doesn't divulge a lot," says Gloria Guard, president of the nonprofit People's Emergency Center, who has known him for 20 years.

Dungee Glenn, who managed Fattah's 1988 state senate campaign, says, "In some ways, he reminded me of my father, who is a very reserved man. . . . I used to tell my mother, 'I don't think my father likes me!' "

Fattah can be defensive about his self-described "unconventional" education. He dropped out of Overbrook High School, but got a GED. He took undergraduate classes at Philadelphia Community College, but never graduated. But as a state lawmaker, he obtained a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

Those who know Fattah attribute his guardedness to his unusual upbringing.

His mother is Frances Ellen Davenport, a journalist for 20 years who became steeped in the black power movement of the late 1960s and early '70s. When his father, an Army sergeant named Russell Davenport, died and his mother remarried, the family took African names.

Frances became Falaka. And young Arthur Davenport became Chaka Fattah. (Chaka is the name of a Zulu chieftain, and Fattah means revealer.)

It was while trying to stop feuding gangs that his parents made a discovery. One of their sons, 16-year-old Robin, had joined the Clymer Street Gang.

At Falaka Fattah's prodding, the family invited the Clymer members to live in its two-story rowhouse in West Philadelphia.

What came to be known as the House of Umoja (Swahili for unity), a haven for troubled boys, was born, and for the next several years, Chaka Fattah shared his room, his food and his family with up to two dozen juvenile offenders.

"Living with people very different than you in a combative environment, you adopt a certain guardedness," says friend and campaign strategist Tom Lindenfeld. Fattah's mother "instilled that the things you do are more important than who you are, so you say little for fear of being egotistical."

The House of Umoja was actually Chaka Fattah's second childhood home.

"I grew up on this block right here," says Fattah, driving past a neat three-story rowhouse on the 1700 block of Addison Street. Sitting between Pine and Lombard Streets, the house is now part of the Graduate Hospital neighborhood.

Fattah lived there until age 13, along with his five brothers - all born between 1950 and 1961 - and his mother and grandmother, both widows.

The narrow, tree-lined block was part of a working- to middle-class black neighborhood. To the left lived one of the state's first African American lawmakers, Rep. Lewis M. Mintess. And to the right was E. Washington Rhodes, an early publisher of the city's dominant African American newspaper, the Philadelphia Tribune.

As young children, the Fattah boys played basketball and chess - and every one took education seriously.

"Chaka did not have time to sit around because he had three older brothers to compete with," says Kenneth Davenport, an older brother who today provides night security at the House of Umoja.

He recalls that their grandmother, who studied teaching and graduated from Saint Paul's College in Virginia, "had a sense of humor, but was very strict." If one of the boys wanted a bike, he had to earn half the money before the family would chip in with the rest. In school, "If you got A's or B's, you got money," Davenport says. "But if you got C's, you got nothing because we were taught that's the value system in the world: Knowledge is money."

Chaka Fattah sits in his black GMC Envoy, reviewing a fact sheet and wiping away the crumbs from a glazed doughnut - his third. He is parked along Roosevelt Boulevard, ready to talk to some Haitian ministers.

"This," he says, showing a reporter the sheet of paper, "is to remind me of what I have done, just so I don't overstate or understate the facts."

Inside the Haitian church, in a worn building with green walls, City Council candidate Sharif Street is finishing up addressing the 20 ministers. Asked about corruption in City Hall, the son of the mayor replies that lots of people have political motives, and that neither he nor his father has been accused of wrongdoing.

Soon it's Fattah's turn. Where another candidate - Michael Nutter, say - might seize this moment to talk about reform, Fattah misses the opening.

Instead, he reviews his 25-year history as a lawmaker: "If we only get through one thing at the end of the day, we should give everyone an opportunity to live up to their God-given potential. Inherent in that is the provision of educational opportunity and of vocational opportunity. That's why you hear my campaign say 'Fattah for Mayor: Real Opportunity for all Philadelphians.' That's the deal I'm offering."

He continues, repeating what he told a men's ministry at Sharon Baptist Church a week earlier and a group of professionals near Rittenhouse Square. He doesn't tailor his message for his audience.

"What I'm saying is, 25 percent of the people in our city are below the poverty line, 105,000 children, and tonight there will be thousands of homeless children in Philadelphia.

"Now there's only one candidate out there saying he'll do anything about this, and that's me."

The ministers ask questions, including: What will you do as mayor to better plow the streets when it snows?

Fattah, still in the spell of his grand vision, stands, mouth wide open, almost in disbelief at what a small concern that is.

Stumbling, he says: "When I get to be mayor, the city is going to do its part. . . . We're going to have to suffer through it together. . . . If I do miracles, it'll have to do with children."

Whether it's snow-free streets or balancing the city budget, the nuts and bolts are not what inspire Fattah. And if he is to be believed, it's tackling the seemingly impossible that does.

Fattah entered Congress riding a tsunami that put Washington firmly into GOP hands.

No matter. Fattah made alliances with the opposing party. He prayed with Republican colleagues, many of them evangelical Christians. He listened with his freshman classmates to Rush Limbaugh - he was the only Democrat to do so. And he played golf with the powerful, a lot of golf.

Along the way, he pitched them a bill to increase the number of low-income, college-bound students by using federal funds to pay for tutoring, college visits, even the cost of taking the SATs.

GOP Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana signed on. "I was one of those Republicans who was looking for alternative ways and creative ways of how you address poverty," Souder recalls. Together, they pushed through GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs).

Of Fattah, Souder said: "He wasn't going to whine about what happened in the past, about blame-game things. It was, 'How do I get people jobs in my district? A very pragmatic cut.' "

Signed into law in 1998, GEAR UP has served more than 6.2 million students nationwide - about 85 percent of its first participants are college graduates. Although the Philadelphia program failed to win funding this year, Fattah considers it his biggest success to date.

And he uses it as motivation to do what others say is undoable - such as his recent proposal to, in essence, end poverty.

On the campaign trail, he talks about planting 100,000 new trees, and boosting funding for the arts. In Chinatown, he even promised to open a Chinese library.

But at the core of Fattah's mayoral campaign is this: a plan to lease the city-owned airport to a private operator, generating $2 billion to fund anti-poverty programs. He believes the city's fortunes are tied to its poverty rate, the remedy for which is improving literacy levels, expanding after-school programs, and providing more job training - initiatives he would fund.

But considering the complexities of the airport deal, and the fact that it hinges on federal legislation, Fattah's detractors scoff.

Fattah's response: "The skeptics - they'll be invited to the signing ceremony."

Inside the City Hall office of Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown hangs a poster-size photograph of her and 25 young African American men and women in 1988, the Fattah Organization.

For the previous two years, the group met every Saturday to talk about what was happening in the city and plot strategy. They discussed how to get Vincent Hughes elected to the Pennsylvania House (that happened in 1987), and how to send Fattah to the state Senate (that happened in 1988).

Early in his career, Fattah learned, "Candidates do not win elections. Organizations win elections." Growing up, he had watched his stepfather, David Fattah, who lacked a street organization, wage unsuccessful bids for both the state House and City Council.

In 1979, he and childhood friend Curtis Jones, both high school students active in registering blacks to vote, made failed bids to be City Commissioner, which would have meant overseeing Philadelphia's election process.

After this loss the Fattah Organization was born.

"All of the sudden when you would see him, he would be with others and they would be wearing pinstriped suits, projecting the image they were polished young men," recalls West Philadelphia Councilwoman Carol Ann Campbell.

Something apparently clicked.

In 1982, Fattah challenged state Rep. Nicholas Pucciarelli, a Democratic machine veteran, and won by 58 votes. He was 25.

In 1988, he moved onto the state Senate, claiming a seat held by a 20-year incumbent, Freeman Hankins.

And though in 1991 he lost his first try at defeating U.S. Rep. Lucien E. Blackwell, he succeeded three years later, and has kept his congressional seat ever since. Along the way, he cemented his longtime reputation as a rebel challenging the establishment, the stalwarts running the city's Democratic Party.

He even took on Campbell's father, Edgar C. Campbell Sr., considered the dean of the city's African American pols.

For a long time, that angered Carol Campbell, the party secretary and a supporter of Bob Brady for mayor. Still, she calls Fattah "a charmer," and says he has matured. What she didn't mention was that in 1998 Fattah proposed a bill to name a post office after her father. Today, at 658 N. 63d St., stands the Edgar C. Campbell Station.

It's a rare day when Fattah doesn't speak to his mother. And it's not unusual, says Fran, his 31-year-old daughter, for Fattah to call twice a day. He also keeps in close touch with his son, Chaka Jr., 24, a Drexel University student.

But his family interests have grown considerably more central since his 2001 marriage - his third - to TV anchorwoman Renee Chenault.

Friends describe the couple as very much in love.

"He was a very serious person growing up," Falaka Fattah says. "The fact he lived with people with so much crisis and drama in their lives - he took on their burden, like a workaholic."

Enter Renee Chenault. "She got him to smell the roses. Want to play golf? Sure, she says, play golf. . . . Before, he was driven. Now, he is happy. I mean, the man is happy."

Phoning his wife one night before a last campaign stop, Fattah says, "Hello, darling. I have one more talk to give. I should see our children before they go to sleep. All right. Love you."

When Fattah announced his entry into the mayor's race in November, he said he was "coming home" to help eradicate poverty in Philadelphia and better educate its people.

But friends and colleagues suspect that his wife and young children - Chandler is 3, Cameron 8 - were as big a factor as anything else.

Until two years ago, Fattah had pictured himself as a national figure.

But he has changed his tune: "I'm intrigued by the possibility of what I can do for Philadelphia," he says, "if given the opportunity."

Age: 50

Residence: East Falls

Political Party: Democrat

Education: Attended Overbrook High School. Attended Community College of Philadelphia, 1974-75. Certificate program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, 1984. Master of government administration, Fels Institute of Government, University of Pennsylvania, 1986.

Political and Government Experience:

U.S. House of Representatives, 1995-present; Pennsylvania Senate, 1988-94; Pennsylvania House, 1982-88; special assistant to Philadelphia managing director, 1981; special assistant to Philadelphia director of Housing and Community Development, 1980.

Income: Fattah's congressional salary is $165,200. He declined to release his federal income tax returns, citing his wife's desire to keep her salary private.

Family: Married to Renee Chenault-Fattah, NBC10 anchor; two daughters, Cameron, 8, and Chandler, 3; two children from previous marriage, daughter Frances, 31, a lawyer; and son Chaka Jr., 24, student at Drexel University.