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Indicted Rep. Chaka Fattah Gets Strong Primary Challenger

The indicted Fattah has drawn a serious challenger for his Philadelphia House seat. (Bill Clark/Roll Call File Photo)

When Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., was indicted in July on 29 corruption charges , strategists in the state questioned  whether any strong candidates would  challenge the 11-term incumbent in a primary his heavily Democratic Philadelphia-based seat.  

They got their answer earlier this week when state Rep. Dwight Evans, a longtime Philadelphia politician with considerable clout among the Pennsylvania Democratic establishment, announced he'll challenge Fattah in a primary in this safe Democratic seat. With Evans' entrance into the contest, Democratic strategists say Fattah's future in Congress looks a little less certain.  

"A lot of insiders were looking at it and thinking, 'Where is the candidate who is from the base of the city that could really be problematic to the base of the congressman?' And this has become a very serious race very quickly," said Michael Bronstein, a Pennsylvania Democratic ad maker, of Evans' entry into the race.  

There are other Democrats in the race, including state Rep. Brian Sims, a white, openly gay legislator. But strategists say Evans — a black lawmaker in this black-majority district — is the most formidable to announce yet.  

Evans has been a known quantity in Philadelphia politics for decades. He's held his Philadelphia-based state House seat since 1981, and has run twice for mayor — though both times was unsuccessful. In fact, Evans and Fattah faced off in a crowded Democratic primary for Philadelphia mayor in 2007: Fattah came in fourth while Evans came in fifth.  

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf touted Evans' endorsement when he was running in a Democratic primary for the seat in 2014, and even put Evans in a television ad — a sign the governor thought Evans' support was important to securing support from Philadelphia's African-American community.  

Evans also came out in support of Philadelphia Mayor-elect Jim Kenney in the Democratic primary earlier this year. Both endorsements could help Evans secure funding and support in a primary — which will almost certainly produce the next member of Congress from this district, which voted for President Barack Obama by an 81-point margin in 2012.  

Still Democratic strategists say it will be a challenge for anyone taking on Fattah — who is well known in the district after 22 years in the House. It's an effort that strategists say will likely require bringing up Fattah's legal struggles, and it's unclear how that would play among the electorate.  

"Congressman Fattah is somewhat of an institution in the 2nd Congressional District," said Mark Nevins, a Pennsylvania Democratic consultant. "People in that district have been voting for him for decades, and it will take a unique effort, even by someone as well known as Rep. Evans, to dislodge him from that seat."  

Fattah brushed off Evans' entrance into the race in an interview with CQ Roll Call on Wednesday.  

"I was on the ballot once with the gentleman you mentioned, in the mayors race in 2007," Fattah said. "He got one vote for every two that I got."  

Fattah insists he has strong support in the city.  

"Most political analysts would feel I'm probably in the drivers seat," Fattah said. "As you might know, I've represented this district for 11 terms, so I have some sense how one might secure a majority of the votes."  

But Fattah's legal troubles seem to have crippled his fundraising. At the end of September, he had a measly $2,600 in cash on hand — a negligible sum, especially in the pricey Philadelphia market.  

And the indictment also brought down a number of people in Fattah's inner circle, meaning he'll need to find new help to grease the wheels of his rusty political machine.  

Fattah acknowledged he will have to focus more on fundraising, but said it didn't concern him.  

"Well look, Jeb Bush has got the most money and he’s doing the worst in the national polls," Fattah told CQ Roll Call when asked about whether his own lackluster fundraising could be a hindrance to his electoral prospects. "But it is true that I need to pick up the pace and work harder, which means I might have to do some double time on that."  

And as for his indictment, which alleges Fattah misused thousands in federal grants, charitable contributions and campaign funds for personal gain, Fattah professed his innocence.  

"I have never ever done anything wrong or broken any law," Fattah said. "And I think that the opportunity that’s in front of us is that I can have the voters in my district stamp my ticket to go serve my 12th term, and we could also have a situation in which we shake these allegations that have been dogging me for so many years."  

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