FATTAH, Chaka

FATTAH, Chaka
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1956–

Biography

Chaka Fattah, a Philadelphia native, represented a U.S. House district covering large sections of the northern and western parts of the city for 11 terms. Fattah served 12 years in the Pennsylvania state legislature before winning his first House election in 1994. “I hope my accomplishment, my achievement, will be in legislation, not in how high a position I reached,” Fattah once said.1 A committed political activist from an early age, Fattah built a powerful local organization that enabled him to acquire resources for his district. “Even though my family wasn’t involved in politics, I had this political interest in terms of community involvement,” he noted. “My thinking . . . is that you can provide community service in a variety of venues. But as a politician, you could provide community service that no one else really could.”2

Chaka Fattah was born Arthur Davenport, the fourth of six sons, on November 21, 1956, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father, Russell Davenport, was a U.S. Army sergeant, and his mother, Frances Davenport, was an editor at the Philadelphia Tribune, the oldest black newspaper in America, and served as vice president of the Philadelphia Council of Neighborhood organizations. His parents divorced when he was young, and Frances married David Fattah, a local activist. She renamed her son Chaka, after an African Zulu warrior. The social activism of his mother and stepfather shaped Fattah’s political development. “I grew up in a home where being involved in community life was a norm,” he recalled.3

In 1968, the family created the House of Umoja, a shelter that helped homeless youth and young men looking to escape unstable home lives and find secure housing. While sharing his room, clothes, and food with the residents, Fattah recalled discussing every subject under the sun. “These guys were like my older brothers . . . so I thought it was a great thing.” Fattah’s first exposure to local politics occurred when he was 14 years old. As the House of Umoja grew beyond the first floor of the Fattah family home, Chaka, still only a teenager, successfully submitted a proposal to a local bank to purchase several vacant houses on the block. Reliant on community support, Chaka became adept at acquiring resources, building relationships with local leaders, and working with a variety of people in his neighborhood and in the local government. The House of Umoja expanded into more than 25 homes within the next 30 years.4

Fattah’s experience with the House of Umoja gave way to an obsession with community politics and he started volunteering for local campaigns. “I saw these people marching up and down the street saying ‘power to the people’ and putting up posters. . . . I fell into this, giving out leaflets and having fun.” By 1971, Fattah, still not even old enough to get a drivers license, had volunteered to work on a mayoral campaign, participated in voter registration drives, and mediated gang conflict with his parents throughout Philadelphia.5 He also worked briefly in the housing department for the city. With his parents’ permission, Fattah dropped out of Overbrook High School and earned a G.E.D. “I was involved in a lot of things and school didn’t have a lot of rigor. There’s nothing remarkable about it . . . 15 million people have a G.E.D.” He went on to earn an AA from the Community College of Philadelphia in 1976. He attended the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, but did not earn a degree. Fattah graduated with an MA in government administration from the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels School of State and Local Government in 1986.6

A seasoned political activist at the age of 22, Fattah ran for a seat on the Philadelphia city commission in 1979, where he placed fourth in a field of 22 candidates.7 In 1982, he unseated a Democratic incumbent by 58 votes to win a seat in the Pennsylvania state house of representatives. At age 25, he was one of the youngest people ever to serve in the state legislature. In 1988, Fattah won a seat to the Pennsylvania state senate, where he beat a 20-year incumbent in the primary. He chaired the education committee as a freshman and went on to serve in the state senate for six years.8 In 1996, Fattah married Patricia Renfroe, a local attorney. The couple had two children, Frances, and Chaka Jr., but divorced in 1997. In 2001, Fattah married Renee Yvette Chenault, a former lawyer and prominent television reporter in Philadelphia. Fattah became stepfather to Chenault’s daughter Cameron, and they are the parents of another daughter, Chandler.9

Fattah made his first bid for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1991, when Congressman William H. Gray III retired from a seat that covered large areas of Center City Philadelphia, West Philadelphia, Chestnut Hill, and the University of Pennsylvania. Known as the “historically African American Second District,” Fattah described it as an “urban, economically and ethnically diverse” area that had a mixture of the richest and poorest sections of the city. In the special election to succeed Gray, City Councilman Lucien Blackwell received the Democratic nomination, and Fattah ran under the Consumer Party banner. Blackwell won with 39 percent of the vote to Fattah’s 28 percent. Fattah recalled, “It was a twenty-eight-day campaign and the organization was able to slot their candidate before I got started. Since I had said I was going to run, I felt I had to.”10

After losing, Fattah prepared himself for a rematch against Blackwell in 1994. Much of the congressional district overlapped with Fattah’s state senate district, which gave Fattah a useful advantage. “My advantage . . . over Blackwell was that I knew every inch of the Second Congressional District—because as a state senator, I drew the lines.”11 As a result, Fattah ensured that a greater number of his supporters would be part of the congressional district. Fattah had also built a multi-ethnic coalition of supporters that was independent of the local Democratic Party organization. This enabled him to turn out voters and strengthen his influence in Philadelphia. Fattah used this network to challenge Blackwell’s mostly working-class African-American support base. “We ran a textbook campaign,” Fattah said. His campaign ignored television ads, and instead “relied on radio . . . we did direct mail. We walked door-to-door . . . and we had phone banks.” With this support base and a newly configured district, Fattah won the Democratic primary with 58 percent of the vote. In the heavily Democratic and majority-black district, he won the general election with 86 percent of the vote. With his win, Fattah became the fourth African American from Pennsylvania to be elected to Congress. In his subsequent 10 re-election campaigns, Fattah won easily—most recently with 88 percent of the vote in the 2014 election.12

When Fattah entered the House in 1995, he was assigned to the Small Business Committee and to the Government Reform and Oversight Committee. Later in his freshman year, he joined the Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities and its successor committee, Education and the Workforce. Fattah left Small Business and joined the Committee on the Standards of Official Conduct for the 105th and 106th Congresses (1997–2001) and the Committee on House Administration in the 106th Congress (1999–2001). In 2001, Fattah resigned from these committees when he joined the Appropriations Committee, where he served for the remainder of his House career. He was also a member of the Joint Committee on Printing for two terms (106th and 107th Congresses [1999–2003]).13

Fattah’s primary legislative interest as a state legislator had been to open access to quality educational opportunities for minority students, and he continued that effort in the House. His biggest legislative success came in the 105th Congress (1997–1999) when he submitted H.R. 777, the 21st Century Scholars Act, which directed federal funds to prepare low-income students to enter college through a competitive grant program that provided six to seven years of financial support. Although the bill did not survive on its own, Fattah found bipartisan support in the House and Senate and inserted the bill into an omnibus educational package. Throughout the process, Fattah coordinated support between his House colleagues, the White House, and the Senate to usher the legislation through to final passage. The final version, GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), was signed by President William J. (Bill) Clinton as part of the Higher Education Amendments of 1998.14 Fattah submitted other education bills throughout his congressional career such as the Student Bill of Rights Act (H.R. 5346), which required each state to certify with the U.S. Secretary of Education that its public school system provided students with equal access to resources and qualified teachers.15

Fattah’s experience serving in the minority as a state senator served him well in the 104th Congress (1995–1997), when Republicans took control of the House for the first time in decades. Fattah used his skill mobilizing colleagues to draw attention to important issues and employed parliamentary tactics to influence the House’s legislative. House Democrats recognized these assets and, even though Fattah was a freshman, tapped him to serve on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, a body that selected Democratic Members for committee assignments and coordinated the party’s overall strategy. Fattah also served as whip for the Congressional Black Caucus.16

Fattah also took an interest in reducing personal and municipal debts. In the 108th Congress (2003–2005), Fattah submitted the Transform America Transaction Fee proposal (H.R. 3759), which sought to replace all federal taxes on individuals and businesses with a revenue system based on transaction fees.17 In the 111th Congress, Fattah submitted the Debt Free America Act (H.R. 4646), which outlined a plan to eliminate the national debt in seven years and eliminate individual income taxes by allowing cities and towns to levy a 1 percent transaction fee. Although neither bill made it out of committee, Fattah submitted similar versions of these bills in subsequent Congresses.

During his service, one widely read political almanac said Fattah possessed one of the “most liberal voting records in the House.” But Fattah showed an independent streak when he voted against President Clinton’s 1996 welfare overhaul bill. He also worked with Republicans to promote President Barack Obama’s tax cut extension deal in 2010. As chairman of the Urban Caucus, Fattah brought together House Members who represented the nation’s largest metropolitan areas to formulate ideas on how to face challenges in America’s urban communities. Fattah submitted bills such as the Homeowners’ Emergency Mortgage Assistance Act (H.R. 3587) and the Urban Jobs Act (H.R. 1340) in an attempt to address these problems.18

About a decade into his House tenure Fattah began considering a run for mayor of Philadelphia. As a five-term incumbent in a safe seat and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Fattah had a unique set of advantages over his local opponents. Pennsylvania law would not force Fattah to give up his House seat to run in a local race, which reduced the risk of jeopardizing his political career.19 And Fattah had a strong local network of support from his years of involvement with the Philadelphia community, as well as the ability to raise large sums of money from outside the city. Fattah had hoped that his ability to raise large sums of money from outside of Philadelphia would put him over the top, but a city ordinance prohibited candidates from taking sums above $2,500 from individuals or $10,000 from political committees.20

Fattah declared his candidacy for mayor in November 2006, and entered a crowded field. His platform focused on expanding economic opportunities for Philadelphians, such as using new technology to make the city safer, and promoted after-school activities for teenagers. He also promised a “new era of openness” by cleaning up ethics in city hall while promoting small businesses. Critics, however, charged that Fattah’s plans were too vague and too costly.21 As for the campaign contribution limits, Fattah successfully sued to have the restrictions overturned in December 2006, but a commonwealth court restored the limits in April 2007, just six weeks before the primary election. As a result, Fattah had to return the contributions and expand his fundraising within a limited frame of time. In the May 2007 primary, Fattah placed fourth, losing to Michael Nutter, a city council member who would go on to win the general election.22

After losing the mayoral race, Fattah served in the House for four more terms. During that time, he directed money and resources to his district while continuing his work to improve America’s educational system and to overhaul how the U.S. Treasury collected revenue. In July 2015, Fattah was charged in a racketeering conspiracy for using campaign funds and federal grant money to finance his 2007 mayoral run, repaying illegal campaign loans, and rewarding members of his local political network. As a result of the controversy surrounding the indictment, Fattah drew three challengers in the 2016 Democratic primary. In April that year he lost to state senator Dwight Evans. And in June 2016, Fattah was found guilty of all charges. Soon after his conviction, Fattah resigned from the House on June 22, 2016.23

On December 12, 2016, Fattah was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He reported to the Federal Correctional Institution-McKean in Lewis Run, Pennsylvania, on January 25, 2017. On August 9, 2018, a federal appeals court overturned some of Fattah’s convictions based on a ruling from the United States Supreme Court, but allowed the other convictions to stand.24

Footnotes

1Richard Fenno, Going Home: Black Representatives and Their Constituents (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002): 120.

2Kia Gregory, “Man on the Run,” 28 February 2007, Philadelphia Weekly: n.p.

3Fenno, Going Home: 117, 119.

4Karen E. Quinones-Miller, “Marking 30 years of Umoja,” 30 November 1998, Philadelphia Inquirer: B01; Gregory, “Man on the Run.” For a detailed description of the House of Umoja’s activities, see David Fattah, “The House of Umoja as a Case Study for Social Change,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 494, no. 1 (Nov., 1987): 37–41.

5Vanessa Williams, “Ambition, Persistence Paid Off for Fattah,” 12 May 1994, Philadelphia Inquirer: B01; Gregory, “Man on the Run.”

6Gregory, “Man on the Run;” Jonathan Tamari, “Over Career, Fattah Has Defied Odds and Opened Doors,” 30 July 2015, Philadelphia Inquirer: A07; Thomas Fitzgerald, “Fattah: A Policy Wonk with Savvy,” 16 July 2006, Philadelphia Inquirer: B01.

7Politics in America, 2002 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2001): 855–856; Fenno, Going Home: 118.

8“Chaka Fattah,” Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 11 (Detroit, MI: Gale Publishing Inc., 1996). Fattah describes his strategy for winning the state senate race in Fenno, Going Home: 118–119.

9“Chaka Fattah,” Contemporary Black Biography; “Chaka Fattah,” Candidate Biographies, 1996, Associated Press; Dianna Marder, “Party Politics: Fattah, Chenault Exchange Vows,” 8 April 2001, Philadelphia Inquirer: B01.

10“Fattah Announces Candidacy for 2nd Congressional Seat,” 24 September 1991, Business Wire, n.p.; Fenno, Going Home: 121, 128.

11Fenno, Going Home: 128.

12Fenno, Going Home: 129–130, 144–150; Vernon Loeb, “Fattah Drops Petition Challenge,” 23 March 1994, Philadelphia Inquirer: B01; Vanessa Williams, “Fattah is Giving Blackwell A Battle,” 24 April 1994, Philadelphia Inquirer: B01; Michael Blood, “State Senator Wins Upset Victory Over Incumbent Congressman,” 11 May 1994, Associated Press; Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/Election-Statistics/.

13Garrison Nelson and Charles Stewart, III, Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1993–2010 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2011): 699–700; Congressional Directory, 111th–114th Congresses (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2011–2015). Fattah describes his campaign to join the House Appropriations Committee in Fenno, Going Home, 165–170.

14Higher Education Amendments of 1998, Public Law 105-244, 112 Stat. 1581 (1998); “About Congressman Chaka Fattah,” official website of Representative Chaka Fattah, accessed 28 November 2007, http://www.house.gov/fattah/about/about.htm (site discontinued); 21st Century Scholars Act of 1997, H.R. 777,  105th Cong. (1997); “About GEAR UP,” National Council for Community and Education Partnerships,  accessed 11 May 2017, http://www.edpartnerships.org/gear-up; Fenno, Going Home, 154–160.

15Politics in America, 2006 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2005): 872–873; “About Congressman Chaka Fattah”; Student Bill of Rights, H.R. 5346, 107th Cong. (2002).

16Politics in America, 1998 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1997): 1222–1223; Brett Lieberman, “Rep.-Elect Fattah Tapped For Key Leadership Posts,” 19 December 1994, States News Service.

17Politics in America, 2006: 872; “About Congressman Chaka Fattah”; Transform America Transaction Fee of 2004, H.R. 3759, 108th Cong. (2004); Debt Free America Act, H.R. 4646, 111th Cong. (2010).

18Politics in America, 1998: 1223; Almanac of American Politics, 2012 (Washington, DC: National Journal, 2011): 1375; Homeowners’ Emergency Mortgage Assistance Act, H.R. 3587, 110th Cong. (2007); Urban Jobs Act of 2013, H.R. 1340, 113th Cong. (2013).

19Marcia Gelbart, “Fattah Hints at Mayoral Aspirations,” 5 December 2004, Philadelphia Inquirer: B03.

20Thomas Fitzgerald, “For Fattah, Signs That He Wants to be Mayor,” 8 December 2005, Philadelphia Inquirer: B01; Marcia Gelbart, “Fattah Skirts City’s Contribution Law,” 16 December 2005, Philadelphia Inquirer: B03; Catherine Lucey, “Chaka’s Front-Runner Status Has Its Ups and Downs,” 22 March 2006, Philadelphia Daily News: 5.

21Gelbart, “It’s Official: Fattah Is In the Mayor’s Race,” 18 November 2006, Philadelphia Inquirer, n.p.; Josh Kurtz, “Brady, Fattah Gird for Battle of Broad Street,” 7 December 2006, Roll Call: n.p.; Michael Currie Schaeffer, “Fattah Would Make Phila. ‘A City of Opportunity,’ ” 9 January 2007, Philadelphia Inquirer: B01; Michael Currie Schaeffer, “Fattah Promises Unprecedented ‘Era of Openness,’ ” 17 January 2007, Philadelphia Inquirer: B02; Michael Currie Schaeffer, “Fattah’s Plan For Small Business,” 6 February 2007, Philadelphia Inquirer: B03; Michael Currie Schaeffer, “Fattah’s Plan: Lease Airport,” 19 February 2007, Philadelphia Inquirer: B03.

22For an analysis of Fattah’s mayoral campaign, see Dave Davies, “What Sank Fattah’s Ship?,” 16 May 2007, Philadelphia Daily News: 4; Chris Brennan, “City’s Campaign Contribution Limits at Heart of Fattah Case,” 31 July 2015, Philadelphia Inquirer: A01.

23Jeremy Roebuck, Mark Fazlollah, and Chris Brennan, “U.S. Rep. Fattah Indicted, Allegedly Took Illegal $1 Million Loan,” 30 July 2015, Philadelphia Inquirer: A01; Chris Brennan, “City’s Campaign Contribution Limits at Heart of Fattah Case,” 31 July 2015, Philadelphia Inquirer: A01; Jeremy Roebuck, “Fattah’s Trial Has Been Set,” 22 August 2015, Philadelphia Inquirer: B01; Chris Brennan, “Embattled Fattah Faces 3 Primary Challengers,” 22 April 2016, Philadelphia Inquirer: B01; Chris Brennan, Jeremy Roebuck, and Claudia Vargas, “Fattah Concedes, Evans Will Be Democratic Nominee In The 2nd,” 27 April 2016, Philadelphia Inquirer, n.p.; Jeremy Roebuck, “Fattah Convicted of Federal Corruption Charges,” 22 June 2016, Philadelphia Inquirer: A01.

24Ayana Jones, “Fattah Sentencing On Hold,” 4 October 2016, Philadelphia Tribune, http://www.phillytrib.com/news/fattah-sentencing-on-hold/article_199b65e8-ab8c-57e9-837a-b34ee4735799.html; John Bresnahan, “Fattah Sentenced to 10 Years in Prison, 12 December 2016, Politico, https://www.politico.com/story/2016/12/chaka-fattah-sentencing-10-years-232507; “Chaka Fattah Reports to Federal Prison to Begin 10-Year Sentence,” 25 January 2017, The Morning Call (Bethlehem, Pa.), https://www.mcall.com/news/nationworld/pennsylvania/mc-pa-convicted-congressman-fattah-20170125-story.html; Jeremy Roebuck, “Appeals Court Overturns U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah’s Bribery Convictions, Upholds Guilty Verdict On Other Counts,” 9 August 2018, Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.philly.com/philly/news/pennsylvania/philadelphia/federal-appeals-court-philadelphia-overturns-u-s-rep-chaka-fattah-bribery-convictions-upholds-others-20180809.html.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

Temple University Libraries
Special Collections Research Center

Philadelphia, PA
Papers: 1986-1995, 17 linear feet. The papers of Chaka Fattah contain correspondence; financial records; subject files on activities, organizations, and political subjects; election and legislative materials; brochures, newsletters, and pamphlets; audiovisual materials; and memorabilia. A finding aid is available in the repository and online.

The HistoryMakers

Chicago, IL
Oral History: 2005, amount unknown. An oral history interview of Chaka Fattah conducted on May 5, 2005.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Chaka Fattah" in Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2008.

Fenno, Richard F. Going Home: Black Representatives and Their Constituents. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Appropriations
  • House Committee - Economic and Educational Opportunities
  • House Committee - Education and the Workforce
  • House Committee - Government Reform
  • House Committee - Government Reform and Oversight
  • House Committee - House Administration
  • House Committee - Small Business
  • House Committee - Standards of Official Conduct
  • Joint Committee - Joint Committee on Printing
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