Jack Evans is the longest-serving member of the DC City Council. Since 1991 he has represented Ward 2, which spans a hefty chunk of Northwest, especially the largely leafy, liberal, wealthy, and white neighborhoods where every Democratic candidate who’s ever run for mayor—or President of the United States, for that matter—comes to look for fat campaign contributions. No Ward 2 council member has ever been elected mayor in DC. No white candidate has ever been elected mayor. Evans wants to change that. There’s no question that he’s running. The unknown is whether it will be in the special election that would occur if scandal-plagued incumbent Vincent Gray resigns, or in the next scheduled election, which is in 2014.
“I’m running for mayor the next time there’s an opportunity to run for mayor,” he told The Washingtonian.
Evans wants to make clear he isn’t dancing at the edge of Mayor Gray’s demise. He says he likes Gray and has worked well with him for years. Nonetheless, the US Attorney’s office, which is investigating allegations of illegal practices in Gray’s 2010 campaign, could hand down an indictment at any time. Evans feels it is responsible to be prepared. If Gray is indicted, he could resign immediately, though he has said that’s not his intention. Three members of the city council, Muriel Bowser, Mary Cheh, and David Catania, have called for his resignation—now, not later. Evans considers that premature. “I believe the process should play out,” he said, an opinion shared by acting council chairman Phil Mendelson.
Evans, chairman of the powerful Finance and Revenue Committee, has tried to run for mayor before. He was an official candidate in 1998, and got 10 percent of the vote compared with winner Anthony Williams’s 50 percent. He considered a candidacy in 2005, but that went nowhere after accusations that his political action committee, Jack PAC, had paid the expenses of a woman friend who joined him on a city-sponsored trip to China. At the time he was a widower. The DC Office of Campaign Finance did not find any illegalities; Evans repaid several thousand dollars to the PAC and then shut it down. There have been no similar issues since, and his citywide favorability rating is the highest among other council members who might run for Gray’s seat.
The City Council is in recess right now, which makes for a quiet District Building if not a quiet city, as residents face an uncertainty familiar to anyone who has lived here long enough. Scandal, chaos, and limbo are not unknown in Washington, where Gray is the seventh mayor since home rule began in 1975. While Evans concedes the city is in deep political turmoil, he believes the running of the city is going well and that the agency heads are among the best ever. “If I became mayor tomorrow, there’s not one I’d replace,” he says.
Here’s more of our conversation about the city, the political crisis, and his plans.
How would you describe the state of the city right now?
The city’s actually been doing better than ever. Our finances remain the strongest of any city in America. Our reserves are up above a billion dollars. We just passed the largest budget in the history of the city. Revenues continue to grow. Development is the envy of every city in the country. There’s wide-scale construction throughout the city. Our population continues to grow. We have the best city agency heads that we’ve had in the 21 years I’ve been here.
Who gets credit for these gains?
No individual gets credit. It’s the actions a lot of us took over the years, going back to 1999 and the Williams administration. That’s when we began putting the city back together after [Mayor Marion] Barry and the [Federal] Control Board era. The largest amount of development began to happen, and confidence returned. Also the Williams administration, the Fenty administration, and Gray all put in place various agency heads, many of whom are still with us today.
Is all that success unaffected by the scandals going on among some elected officials?
Well, the flipside is the political leadership is in deep trouble. [Council member] Harry Thomas resigned, the chairman [Kwame Brown] resigned, and the mayor is under enormous fire.
Would you agree there is a perception that the city is in chaos, on the ropes?
Yes, it might be there. But I try to dispel it. I’ll tell you when the city was in chaos: when Marion Barry got arrested at the Vista Hotel, when John Wilson committed suicide, when Dave Clarke died after a long illness, when the Control Board came in. That was chaos. Not today.
Often, when a political leadership is in crisis, the progress of an administration stalls because of uncertainty. Is that happening?
What you lose is that the mayor is unable to create a vision for the city. In that way it slows down progress.
When the dust settles on this crisis, however it settles, what will be the essential steps for recovery?
It depends on how it all goes down. If the mayor is exonerated, he will continue to the end of his term. If he’s forced to resign, there will be a special election. To assure everyone, there are methods in place to deal with whatever situations arise. When we had a city in freefall and a leadership that was problematic, we survived.
How are the council members getting along, given the fluid circumstances. Is there tension with the uncertainty?
Not at all. We get along same as always. People have different agendas. For the most part, we work together. Phil’s the acting chair. People generally like him. I’ve known him for years. But we’re on recess. We’re not meeting as a body until September; then we’ll see.
What makes you ready for another run at mayor?
The times have changed, and we need good, experienced leadership. I’ve remarried, and all of that is very good and supportive at home.
Your first wife, Noel, died from cancer in 2003. How did that change your life?
My birthday is on Halloween, and I found myself single, 50, and with three 6-year-olds. I had to raise three children at the same time as work on the city council and practice law at Patton Boggs. It was an enormous challenge. But I can identify with a large number of people in the city who find themselves in a similar situation. We have a lot of single parents, and unless you’ve been there you don’t understand. Also, I have resources. There are enormous challenges facing the people who don’t have those same resources.
Is DC ready for a white mayor?
It’s hard to get into the racial talk. Yes, I think the city is ready for a very competent mayor, and that would be me, who just happens to be white. My length of service would dispel any concerns.
How do you win the black vote?
Through what I’ve done over the course of my involvement in public life, because of those accomplishments, I would be able to garner votes across the city. I’m known throughout the city.
Do you have support from other council members?
I have not reached out to anyone on the council for support. I want to make that point: I am a longtime friend of Vince Gray. I don’t want it to be construed that I’m trying to push him out of office.
Will you try to target voters who are not Democrats?
It depends on what kind of election we have. If it’s a special election, everyone can vote, including Republicans, Democrats, and independents. We have disparate groups throughout the city. You’d have to spend a lot of time with every group, but I would work to get all those groups.
There have been polls, including one of ours, that showed sentiment toward Adrian Fenty to be mayor again.
My understanding is he has no interest in running.
While you say the agencies are running well, there are still accusations that the DC government is dysfunctional overall. Is it?
Overall, no. There are aspects of it that need improvement. The school system. That is one area that stands out as needing enormous improvement. We’ve come a ways, but we have a long way to go. Another area where there’s a lot of dysfunction is the business area. A lot of horror stories of people trying to apply for licenses.
Was Michelle Rhee a big loss as schools chancellor?
She was a controversial figure. A lot of people thought she did a great job. Others couldn’t wait to get rid of her. Kaya Henderson is doing a great job.
Do you think the taxi system should be brought into the Department of Transportation?
No, but the course we’re on for fixing the taxi system is the right course.
Medical marijuana is about to launch here, presumably in the next month. Is this a good thing?
I support the dispensaries. I don’t know where it stands in the process of implementation. I support the concept, especially in the medical area.