Chaka Fattah is an African-American Democrat who from 1995-2016 served as a Member of Congress (representing the Second District of Pennsylvania, the state’s only black-majority district), which includes much of downtown Philadelphia as well as Cheltenham Township. (His name, Chaka — a variant of the same first name as African warrior-ruler Shaka Zulu — means “Great King” in Swahili.)
Fattah was born in Philadelphia in November 1956. His mother, the community activist Sister Falaka Fattah, founded the House of Umoja (Swahili for “Unity”) in West Philadelphia, which uses rehabilitation techniques based on the teachings of the Marxist and black nationalist Maulana Karenga to help black teenage males who have suffered abuse or become involved in gang activity.
By age 21, Chaka Fattah was the House of Umoja’s assistant director. Three years later, in 1980, he took a job as special assistant to Philadelphia’s Director of Housing and Community Development. In 1982 he became the youngest person ever elected to the Pennsylvania state legislature, where he would serve for six years. Fattah studied at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in 1984, and in 1986 he earned a master’s degree in government administration at the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1988 Fattah was elected to the Pennsylvania state senate. Three years later, when veteran congressman William Gray (representing Pennsylvania’s Second District) resigned to become president of the United Negro College Fund, Fattah ran unsuccessfully for Gray’s newly vacated House seat as a Consumer Party candidate. He remained in the state senate until 1994, at which time he again ran for the Second District seat and this time — backed by Philadelphia’s African-American clergy and running as a Democrat — garnered 86 percent of the vote. He was subsequently re-elected by huge margins every two years through 2014, generally receiving between 86 and 98 percent of the popular vote.
One of the leading financial backers of Fattah’s political campaigns was the American Association for Justice, formerly known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. Fattah also enjoyed strong support from the members and political action committees of influential labor unions like the American Federation of Teachers, AFSCME, UNITE HERE!, the National Education Association, and the Service Employees International Union.
In 1997 Fattah was one of 33 original co-sponsors of the Job Creation and Infrastructure Restoration Act which was introduced into Congress by California Rep. Matthew Martinez. This emergency federal jobs legislation, supported by the New York State Communist Party, was designed to create jobs at union wages in crisis-ridden cities by putting the unemployed to work on infrastructure projects such as rebuilding schools, housing, hospitals, libraries, public transportation, highways, and parks. Rep. Martinez had already introduced a version of this bill in the previous Congress at the request of the Los Angeles Labor Coalition for Public Works Jobs, whose leaders were known supporters or members of the Communist Party USA.
In 2005 Fattah joined the Out of Iraq Congressional Caucus.
In November 2006, less than a month after being reelected to Congress, Fattah announced that he planned to run for mayor of Philadelphia the following year. He lost that election, however, and remained in the House of Representatives. Fattah’s mayoral campaign was hampered, in part, by public-relations challenges stemming from his persistent calls for convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal to be granted a new trial.
In 2009 Fattah backed President Barack Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package and co-sponsored the Employee Free Choice Act, designed to deprive workers of the right to vote for or against unionization by means of a secret ballot.
On December 22, 2009, Chaka Fattah was one of 33 U.S. Representatives who signed a letter to Hillary Clinton, calling on the Secretary of State her to pressure the Israeli government end its ban on Palestinian student travel from Gaza to the West Bank. “We applaud your efforts to support educational opportunities for Palestinian youth, including your initiative to increase U.S. funding for Palestinian universities and educational programs in Gaza and the West Bank,” added the letter.
Also in 2009, Fattah co-sponsored H.R. 676, which was introduced by Rep. John Conyers and called for the establishment of a single-payer, government-run healthcare system for all Americans. During the early stages of the protracted healthcare debate that began that same year, Fattah vowed to withhold his support for any bill that lacked a public option — i.e., a government-run health insurance plan that would compete alongside private insurers and ultimately drive the latter out of business. In the end, however, Fattah supported the version of healthcare reform that became law in March 2010, even though it contained no provision for a public option.
On January 27, 2010, Fattah was one of 54 Members of Congress who signed a letter calling on President Barack Obama to use diplomatic pressure to end Israel’s blockade of Gaza – a blockade which had been imposed in order to prevent the importation of weaponry from Iran and Syria.
Fattah belonged to both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives. Americans for Democratic Action consistently rated his voting record as 95-100 percent on the left side of legislation.
For an overview of Fattah’s voting record on significant issues during his career as a lawmaker, click here.
In March 2013, the FBI and IRS launched an investigation alleging Fattah’s involvement in a large amount of illegal activity dating back as far as his failed 2007 mayoral campaign. On July 29, 2015, prosecutors in that probe delivered a 29-count indictment charging Fattah with such crimes as racketeering conspiracy, bribery, and wire fraud. They alleged, among other things, that: (a) Fattah and his associates had borrowed $1 million from a wealthy supporter and then disguised the funds as a loan to a consulting company, created sham contracts, and generated false accounting records, tax returns, and campaign finance disclosure statements; (b) Fattah, in the aftermath of his defeat in the 2007 mayoral election, had sought forgiveness of $130,000 in campaign debt that he owed to a political consultant, by agreeing to arrange for the latter to receive $15 million in federal grant funds on behalf of a fictitious nonprofit entity; (c) Fattah had illegally used funds from his mayoral and congressional campaigns to repay some $23,000 of his son’s student loan debt; and (d) Fattah, in exchange for an $18,000 bribe, had tried to use his influence to secure an ambassadorship or a U.S. Trade Commission appointment for lobbyist Herbert Vederman. Upon the issuance of these indictments, Fattah agreed to give up his leadership post on the House Appropriations Committee, where he was the top Democrat overseeing spending in the areas of criminal justice and science.
Four additional individuals were also charged for their alleged involvement in plots to misappropriate hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal, charitable, and campaign funds. Among those four were: (a) Bonnie Bowser, Fattah’s congressional district director; (b) Karen Nicholas, who ran the education nonprofit that Fattah created; and (c) Robert Brand, the husband of a former Fattah staffer.
On June 21, 2016, Fattah was found guilty of all counts against him, including racketeering, fraud, and money laundering. The jury rendered a mixed verdict on his three co-defendants. In light of his convictions, Fattah resigned from Congress on June 23, 2016. In December 2016, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.