Congressman faces charges, 1st primary challenge in 20 years

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Posted: Apr 22, 2016 10:50 AM
Congressman faces charges, 1st primary challenge in 20 years

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah hasn't had a primary fight for two decades, but he now has three opponents in his heavily Democratic Philadelphia-area district, and one potentially far more dangerous challenge: the federal racketeering and bribery charges hanging over him.

On top of that, Fattah is being badly outspent and racking up debts. He faces trial May 16, three weeks after Tuesday's primary election in Pennsylvania.

But even though the mayor and governor are backing one of his opponents, Fattah still has the support of other key players with the resources to get voters to the polls — including a number of local elected officials, a House colleague who is a major city power broker, black ward leaders and some labor unions. Add in his strong name recognition, and the race is too close for political insiders to call.

"He's being accused, it doesn't mean he's guilty," said Gregory Spearman, a Fattah supporter who leads west Philadelphia's 60th Ward. "How do you show your friend your loyalty? You just abandon him?"

First elected in 1994 at 37, Fattah has been a fixture as Pennsylvania's only black congressman from the state's only African American-majority district. He and his wife, a former TV news anchor, have been one of the city's power couples. He can boast about flying on Air Force One with President Barack Obama and bringing home millions in federal dollars for housing, scholarships, transportation and crime prevention.

He has won re-election 10 times without a primary challenger. He never won the general election with less than 86 percent, even in 2014, when a former senior aide pleaded guilty in a campaign finance scheme involving Fattah's failed 2007 mayoral bid.

Last July, Fattah was charged in an 18-count indictment with using federal grants and charitable donations to repay a wealthy donor's illegal $1 million campaign loan. The allegations have enveloped his family, including his wife, who left her job after being linked in the indictment to an alleged $18,000 sham sale of a Porsche that prosecutors called a bribe. She has not been charged and denies any wrongdoing.

Fattah said he is innocent, and forcefully sought to raise doubts about the government's case and whether it will go to trial, even as he has struggled to pay lawyers.

"I'm proud of my work, I think the people in my district are proud of my work and I think they're going to speak with a fairly loud voice" on Election Day, Fattah told The Associated Press. "There's been no debate about me in this race among the voters."

Challenging Fattah are state Rep. Dwight Evans, a 36-year state lawmaker seen as posing his strongest election test, and two lawyers, Dan Muroff and Brian Gordon.

The race has been relatively gentlemanly. Reporters rather than Fattah's competitors have challenged him on the government's allegations. His opponents have focused on the needs of the district's communities, such as better schools and better strategies for rooting out poverty and youth violence.

"When I got into this, I didn't get in because the congressman was indicted," Muroff said during a debate last week at public radio station WHYY. "I got in because I knew that people were going to be looking for a change, and I want to be that change."

Like Fattah, Evans has strong connections to the political establishment. He is backed by Gov. Tom Wolf, Mayor Jim Kenney, former Gov. Ed Rendell and various labor unions — and the deepest campaign pockets.

Evans may get a vote from 73-year-old Jap Hartsfield, who said he dislikes Fattah's long tenure in office. And while Fattah may still get re-elected, Hartsfield said, the criminal charges "are going to get a lot of people thinking."

Vincent Thompson, a political correspondent for the black radio station WURD-AM, said he believes the race is very tight. Last week, Thompson hosted a three-hour show that focused on the race. Of 50 callers, a handful more supported Fattah over Evans, Thompson said.

"I would not be surprised if Congressman Fattah wins re-election," he said.

Fattah reported just $12,000 in the bank March 31 and more than $40,000 in debts. The charges have chilled his ability to raise money, Fattah said. But he has engaged in a robust campaign of taxpayer-funded constituent outreach that has also allowed him to keep his name before voters in the weeks heading into the election.

Courtnei Barron hasn't paid much attention to the race, and hadn't initially planned to vote. But the 30-year-old Philadelphian said he has heard good things about Fattah, and would be inclined to support him, despite the charges.

"People just like scandal," Barron said. "But he has enough of a following, his name is well-known for the good stuff he's done."

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Levy reported from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.