U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah has "won more than 30 elections," he noted Tuesday, counting every primary and general - many of which were uncontested and most of which might as well have been. Two years ago, even though a longtime aide had pleaded guilty to corruption charges and implicated the congressman, Fattah won his 11th congressional term with 88 percent of the vote.
But the Fattah era effectively ended in ignominy this week when, facing three challengers in the Democratic primary - three more than he had faced since 1994 - the congressman mustered only 35 percent of the vote and lost the nomination to veteran State Rep. Dwight Evans.
What changed? Evans, who claimed that the federal investigation had nothing to do with his run and avoided the issue throughout the campaign, would apparently like us to believe that superior statesmanship carried the day. Unfortunately, Philadelphia is one of those rare places where it is necessary to point out that the watershed event was Fattah's indictment last year on racketeering charges. The congressman had won reelection under gathering clouds for years. But even devout skeptics of government authority understand that 29-count federal grand jury indictments aren't generally fabricated from thin air.
Over his two decades of service, Fattah was an accomplished advocate of science and education, attaining an influential position on the House Appropriations Committee. He now stands charged, among other transgressions, with misusing his power to pay off an illegal campaign loan with federal and nonprofit funds. The accusations suggest a sad betrayal of a once-promising political career, with repercussions that go much further. Fattah's son, Chaka "Chip" Fattah Jr., was convicted in a separate federal case in November; his wife, Renee Chenault-Fattah, left her position as an NBC10 news anchor in February. If the charges against the congressman are proven, the greatest affront, as his defeat Tuesday indicated, is to the faith of his constituents.
Fattah's likely successor, once among Harrisburg's most powerful Democrats and a capable advocate for schools and neighborhoods, is a similarly formidable legislator. But his determination to ignore the charges that all but won him the heavily Democratic district's congressional seat are of a piece with the mentality that led U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, along with the city Democratic organization he leads, to endorse Fattah despite his indictment. Evans' stance is even more disturbing in light of evidence that nonprofits associated with and empowered by him also squandered public money. He has been as loath to address that as he was to mention the charges against Fattah.