Political Crowdfunding Organization Tests Its Appeal Against Indicted Rep. Chaka Fattah

A new Kickstarter-style website is looking to build support for a challenge to the indicted congressman in a test case for crowdfunding in lower-level campaigns.

Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Chaka Fattah
Earl Gibson III AFP/Getty
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Kimberly Railey
Sept. 14, 2015, 8 p.m.

Des­pite his in­dict­ment in a fed­er­al rack­et­eer­ing case, long­time Demo­crat­ic Rep. Chaka Fat­tah has said he’s stay­ing put in his dis­trict. The ar­chi­tects be­hind a polit­ic­al crowd­fund­ing web­site want to make him fight for it.

The or­gan­iz­a­tion, Crowd­pac, has pitched 19 po­ten­tial chal­lengers for the race, with the aim of stir­ring up polit­ic­al com­pet­i­tion in Fat­tah’s Demo­crat­ic strong­hold of a dis­trict in Phil­adelphia. Crowd­pac al­lows voters and donors to sug­gest can­did­ates for of­fice and pledge funds to them; if the can­did­ates de­cide to launch of­fi­cial cam­paigns, Crowd­pac then routes the money to them.

Giv­en Fat­tah’s leg­al troubles and Phil­adelphia’s strong polit­ic­al struc­ture, the group saw Pennsylvania’s 2nd Dis­trict as a prime mar­ket to test its mod­el and show pro­spect­ive can­did­ates that sup­port ex­ists for them to run. But even against a con­gress­man un­der in­dict­ment, chal­lengers face a dis­tinctly up­hill climb here, rais­ing ques­tions about how ef­fect­ive crowd­fund­ing web­sites can be at push­ing polit­ic­al change—es­pe­cially in lower-level races where at­ten­tion levels, and the fun­drais­ing that comes with it, can be very low.

“They can find who­ever they want, but if it’s not some­body who can raise the money, who has the or­gan­iz­a­tion … [Fat­tah] is go­ing to be hard to beat,” said Terry Madonna, a poll­ster in Pennsylvania. “You’re talk­ing about a guy who’s been elec­ted since 1994 in a dis­trict where he’s helped a lot of people.”

Crowd­pac main­tains that its fo­cus is on at­tract­ing people to the polit­ic­al pro­cess and boost­ing the power of small donors. Liz Jaff, the group’s polit­ic­al dir­ect­or, dis­puted the idea that it would take big money to un­seat a polit­ic­al vet­er­an like Fat­tah.

“The people who are say­ing it’s go­ing to take $3 mil­lion or $5 mil­lion to run for Con­gress are your con­sult­ants and your old-school politicos,” Jaff said. “The most im­port­ant thing right now is it ac­tu­ally doesn’t have to take that. What it takes is get­ting con­stitu­ents reen­gaged.”

In late Ju­ly, the Justice De­part­ment charged Fat­tah with 29 crim­in­al counts in­clud­ing rack­et­eer­ing, bribery, mail fraud, money laun­der­ing, and falsi­fy­ing re­cords, the res­ult of a long-run­ning crim­in­al probe dat­ing back to Fat­tah’s un­suc­cess­ful 2007 run for may­or of Phil­adelphia. His tri­al is sched­uled to be­gin next year, one week after the Pennsylvania primary.

Sev­er­al oth­er al­leged as­so­ci­ates have also been in­dicted, in­clud­ing Fat­tah’s son, who is fa­cing sep­ar­ate fraud charges. Fat­tah has denied any wrong­do­ing and has asked a pair of House com­mit­tees to in­vest­ig­ate pos­sible pro­sec­utori­al mis­con­duct.

So far, Fat­tah has drawn one Demo­crat­ic chal­lenger, Dan Mur­off, a white at­tor­ney and ward lead­er in Phil­adelphia. But Demo­crats say Fat­tah, an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, re­tains strong elect­or­al ad­vant­ages in the ma­jor­ity-minor­ity dis­trict, which is 59 per­cent black. Mur­off said sup­port via Crowd­pac wasn’t the sole factor in­spir­ing his cam­paign, but it served as an en­cour­aging sign ahead of a tough primary against an in­cum­bent.

“The val­id­a­tion cer­tainly gives you more con­fid­ence,” Mur­off said.

Crowdpac's website for Fattah's district. Crowdpac

Yet many of the black Demo­crats who have the same base as Fat­tah—such as state Sen. Vin­cent Hughes, Phil­adelphia City Coun­cil pres­id­ent Dar­rell Clarke, and Phil­adelphia May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter—con­tin­ue to back the con­gress­man. And party lead­ers haven’t called for Fat­tah, a seni­or mem­ber of the Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee, to step down.

“You really need to have a com­pel­ling reas­on to un­seat someone who is in that po­s­i­tion if they’re rep­res­ent­ing your com­munity,” said Hughes, who holds Fat­tah’s old state Sen­ate seat and called Fat­tah a friend.

“Con­gress­man Fat­tah is an ex­tremely ad­ept politi­cian who ex­er­cises a lot of con­trol in­side of his dis­trict and has helped elect a num­ber of people up and down the bal­lot,” said Mi­chael Bron­stein, a Demo­crat­ic polit­ic­al con­sult­ant based in Pennsylvania. “Any­body who really would have some type of base to be able to make a run … is be­hind the con­gress­man.”

One of Crowd­pac’s goals is to boost people in the polit­ic­al pro­cess who oth­er­wise wouldn’t en­vi­sion them­selves as vi­able con­tenders. If po­ten­tial can­did­ates see they have sup­port through pledges, the group’s think­ing goes, they may be more in­clined to chal­lenge Fat­tah.

“This race really presents a per­fect test case to see how suc­cess­ful that will be,” said Adam Bon­in, a law­yer in Phil­adelphia who spe­cial­izes in elec­tion law and cam­paign fin­ance. “There are go­ing to be a num­ber of po­ten­tial can­did­ates who really want to be able to test the wa­ters be­fore jump­ing in against an in­cum­bent, no mat­ter how weakened he may seem.”

Some oth­er po­ten­tial chal­lengers lis­ted by Crowd­pac are state Rep. Bri­an Sims, Dis­trict At­tor­ney Seth Wil­li­ams, and former may­or­al can­did­ate Doug Oliv­er, all Demo­crats.

For its part, Fat­tah’s team shrugged off Crowd­pac’s in­volve­ment in his race, say­ing in a state­ment that “every­one has the right and the op­por­tun­ity to run for whatever of­fice they want to run for.”

“This is go­ing to be a tough fight,” said Dan Fee, a Phil­adelphia-based Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant who donated to Mur­off and whose wife once worked for Fat­tah. “At the end of the day, if the con­gress­man is run­ning, you will not see a lot of people run­ning against him.”

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