Say what you want about Chaka Fattah — a Democrat who was convicted of 23 counts of racketeering, money laundering and fraud — but his commitment to the Jews and Israel was never questioned.
As far as Chaka Fattah’s Jewish constituency is concerned following his conviction-related resignation, Dwight Evans — or Republican James Jones, in the unlikely event he pulls off the November upset — will have a tough act to follow.
Say what you want about the 59-year-old Fattah — a Democrat who was convicted of 23 counts of racketeering, money laundering and fraud — but his commitment to the Jews and Israel was never questioned.
“It’s a sad day, because he cares about Israel and about Jewish values,” said Harris Devor, a longtime leader in the Philadelphia Jewish community who often worked in conjunction with the Second District congressman in Washington, D.C.
“Chaka’s always been someone whose legislative focus in Congress has been in trying to try to help represent those who are the most vulnerable, the most economically challenged.
“He cares greatly about sending kids from poor homes to college. If those aren’t Jewish values, then I don’t know what Judaism is about. From that standpoint, we lost a guy who championed many of the things Judaism informs us we should be thinking about, like helping those less fortunate.
“He dedicated his professional career to that, and, from that perspective, the Jewish community can identify with him as a guy who had similar values.”
Devor recalled the time Fattah had left the House of Representatives and was in the parking lot when an emergency vote was called regarding Israel. Despite knowing the measure would pass without his vote, he returned to cast his ballot.
“Not everybody would’ve done that, but he wanted to make sure the world knew where he stood on all this stuff,” Devor said. “On the Israel side of things, he has always been there for our community, and I’ve dealt with him personally on a lot of those issues. He’s been on the right side of every piece of legislation that impacts Israel.”
Should Evans, who defeated Fattah in the April 27 primary with 42 percent of the vote to Fattah’s 34 percent, ultimately take his seat, Jews still figure to have someone on their side.
“I expect him to be a friend of Israel,” said Marcel Groen, who’s in his first year as head of the Pennsylvania Democratic Committee after 21 years running the party in Montgomery County. “He doesn’t have the seniority Chaka had but, from a Jewish perspective, under the circumstances it’s a best-case scenario.”
Devor agreed, while acknowledging whoever fills the seat won’t have the same clout as Fattah, who served on the House Appropriations Committee.
“I’m not concerned about Dwight Evans,” said Devor, who spends his share of time as a lay leader for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). “In terms of his role, my hope would be he’d continue Chaka’s legacy with respect to all those issues. There’s no reason I think he wouldn’t. I’ve heard he’ll be great for us. But there’s no replacing Chaka’s seniority and leadership.”
In the midst of personal turmoil, Fattah maintained his decorum during the campaign. During a period of hard-nosed politics, he was respectful to the end. Consequently, so were the men he ran against.
“He was extremely respectful to the other candidates during the campaign,” said Bruce Gordon, the Lower Merion Township commissioner who came in third behind Evans and Fattah, followed by Dan Muroff. “He listened carefully and was incredibly gracious.
“In return, the other candidates never attacked him on those issues because, in part, the publicity was so widely known.”
Might things have turned out differently had the Fattah matter been settled before the primary?
Gordon doubted it, pointing out that how the district has been drawn up in recent years works against potential Jewish candidates like himself or Muroff.
“It probably would’ve come out the same way,” said Gordon, who received about 13 percent of the vote, while Muroff had 10 percent. “The demographics of the seat are predominately African-American and, to a degree, both sides of the color line felt it was an African-American seat.
“But in terms of Jewish and Israel issues, I don’t think the indictment will have any effect. Virtually all Democrats are steadfastly pro-Israel, and the politics between us are not that different. But I feel horrible for Chaka and his family.”
So does Muroff, who’s known Fattah’s daughter, Frances, for years, as well as some of the members of Fattah’s staff who also were indicted.
“It’s so sad,” said Muroff, the Democratic leader in the Ninth Ward. “I’ve known Bob Brand,” convicted of concealing $600,000 in federal grants through fake contracts, “and Bonnie Bowser,” Fattah’s Philadelphia chief of staff, “for years.
“I feel really bad for them. Because Chaka got indicted, I knew people were looking for change. But they were running two largely established candidates, [Fattah and Evans]. My only breakthrough would’ve been as a Super PAC-funded candidate. But I was not funded, and my name was not familiar.”
Regardless, Fattah is out and presumably Evans will be in, since the Democrats hold about a 7–to-1 majority over Republicans in the Second District, where Jones ran
But that’s not until January 2017 when the new congressman is sworn in.
What happens until then is uncertain.
While the normal scenario when a congressman resigns suddenly or dies would be to have a special election a few months later, that appears unlikely since not only would it be a short-term fix, but an expensive one.
According to Pennsylvania code, Gov. Tom Wolf has 10 days from the time of Fattah’s resignation to decide.
More likely, Wolf will appoint someone on an interim basis, although no one’s quite sure who that will be. Names that have been speculated include former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, Sheriff Jewell Williams and former state Rep. Frank Oliver.
“Chaka made tremendous strides to be involved with the Jewish community and be supportive of Israel,” said Gary Erlbaum, vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and former president of the Jewish Publishing Group. “I hope the person who replaces him will be that committed.”
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