When former WCAU-TV co-anchor Renee Chenault wedded former Congressman Chaka Fattah in 2001, the Daily News proclaimed theirs the marriage of a century.
And for a while, it looked as if it was just that.
But their real-life fairy tale turned into a nightmare in 2015 after the feds indicted and later convicted Chaka Fattah of racketeering, bribery, money laundering, and fraud. He’s currently serving a 10-year prison sentence.
Chenault-Fattah, who used to anchor her station’s 4 and 6 p.m. newscasts, went on a six-month leave that eventually became permanent. Suddenly, the popular broadcaster was a stay-at-home mom with a whole lot of time on her hands and a non-compete clause that sidelined her for a least a year.
After 30 years of working first as a Wall Street lawyer and later a TV broadcaster, she had to figure out what her third act would be. Wisely, Chenault-Fattah, now 60, decided to stick to what she’s known for, which is telling stories.
But this time around, she intends to be an advocate for causes about which she’s passionate. Chenault-Fattah is focusing her attention on Alzheimer’s disease and the disproportionate way it affects people of color. When I reached out to her on Tuesday, she was about to take part in a round-table discussion organized by Us Against Alzheimer’s.
“If you’re black or Hispanic, you’re twice as likely to be impacted by this disease,” Chenault-Fattah told me. “And that’s something that a large segment of the population is not aware of.”
She added, “This is a disease that has no effective treatment and no cure.”
We, journalists, typically know a little bit about a lot of subjects. So it was interesting to hear Chenault-Fattah spout facts and figures about Alzheimer’s, which impacts about 5.7 million Americans.
“Almost every chronic illness hits us harder,” she said, referring to African Americans. “Whether it’s diabetes, whether it’s heart disease, strokes — across the board.”
Chenault-Fattah is raising money on the Indiegogo crowd-funding website for a new documentary called In Search of Lost Time: Alzheimer’s and Dementia’s Impact on People of Color, that she’s producing along with veteran filmmaker Bob Lott of Teamwork Productions. At press time, she’d raised about $10,000 of the $40,000 she needs.
“After this, I would like to do something around cancer in our community,” she said. “My dad died from pancreatic cancer. He had eight siblings and seven of them died from different forms of cancer…”
This was her first interview since her husband’s conviction, so I asked her about that – not that I could get her to say much about Chaka, his legal case or the infamous 1989 Porsche that prosecutors alleged was a cover for a bribe from a lobbyist.
Chenault-Fattah did let me know, though, that her marriage remains intact.
“I love my husband. I don’t want to say anything about the case because it’s being appealed. And I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that,” she told me. “Our family misses and loves him.”
When I asked how he’s faring in federal prison, she said, “Chaka’s doing great. If you know Chaka, he is the eternal optimist. He’s doing well. I kind of want to leave it there.”
Chenault-Fattah has sold the 2.6-acre estate in East Falls that had been their marital home and downsized into something smaller near Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, where their daughter, Chandler, is an eighth grader. Their older daughter, Cameron, is a freshman at Johns Hopkins University.
Even though she’s been off the air for almost three years, people still recognize Chenault-Fattah when she’s out and about and question her about when she’ll be back on air. She’s done with that.
“People will say, ‘We miss seeing you on TV and it’s such a shame what happened to your husband and your family,” Chenault-Fattah said. “And when it’s all said and done, I would like for the story to be, ‘We miss you on TV. We’re sorry what happened to your family, but isn’t it great that you went on to use your voice to do something which makes an impact around this issue of Alzheimer’s.’ “