D.C. Council member Jack Evans on Saturday became the
second third candidate to officially enter the 2014 mayoral race. Ahead of his formal announcement, Evans (D-Ward 2) sat for an hour-long interview in his Wilson Building office on why he’s running. The following transcript has been edited for length, and some parts have been condensed and reordered for clarity.
Why are you running, and why now?
I’m running for mayor because I bring the knowledge, experience and leadership qualities to be a great mayor of the city. The District of Columbia has gone through enormous positive changes in the last 22 years. And I have been a part of virtually every major and minor decision that has led this city to be where it is today. And I’m looking forward to providing the leadership to this city because the city is in many ways at a crossroads. And I believe that because of the experience, knowledge, leadership skills that I have, that it’s been proven that I can bring the prosperity that the city is experiencing to everyone in the city and really take the city to the next level.
Give me your assessment of how the city is running today. If the mayor runs for reelection, you’re going to have to make the case you’re going to do a better job than he is.
Mayor Gray has been a friend of mine for 25 years. We have worked together in a number of capacities, and now as mayor I’ve had a great working relationship with him, and I intend to continue to do that. I think he’s doing a very good job as mayor. I think he’s addressed a lot of the issues I would be addressing as well. I think in many respects the city’s running very well. Our finances are as strong as they’ve ever been. In public safety, crime is down. We probably have as strong economic development going on in this city as most major cities in this country. Schools, we’re making progress, albeit slower than I wish we were. What I would do as mayor is to build on these successes.
I didn’t hear you make a specific critique of what the mayor is doing. If the mayor stands up and runs again, what do you do? Say, “I guess I’ll wait till next time?”
Well, if the mayor decided to run, we can cross that bridge when it happens. But right now, I don’t know what the mayor’s plans are, so what I am telling you is what I would do as mayor.
You said that you have been part of, in some way, every major and minor decision that’s been made in the city. Which of those decisions are you most proud of? Which shows your leadership, and which shows what you can accomplish and will accomplish as mayor?
It is not possible for me to say what I am most proud of, having been here 22 years.
I could ask which of your children is your favorite.
[Laughs.] I’ll start with the finances. When I started out as chair of the finance and revenue committee, we had a B-minus bond rating. Today we have a triple-A. In economic development, my leadership produced the business improvement district legislation, the tax increment finance legislation, supermarket legislation that led to a proliferation of supermarkets throughout our city. And on the big projects — the convention center, the Verizon Center, the baseball stadium — every one of those large projects was something I took a major leadership role in. They were 7-6 votes on the council. Imagine our city today if they haven’t passed. We would be Detroit, that’s what we would be. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender legislation. Arts funding. Housing. I worked with Adrian Fenty on the Housing Production Trust Fund. That was our legislation. Police department. I chaired the Judiciary Committee, and all of the reforms we made in the ’97, ’98, ’99 time period have led to a department that is once again one of the outstanding departments in the county. Job creation. There is no one who has produced more jobs in this city than I have. Right now, training is taking place for the convention center hotel. When that opens, there will be 6,500 jobs for District residents, and another 100 jobs in management. Transportation. I served as chair of the board of Metro, and, a little known fact, was responsible for the Bike on Rail legislation. Now today, fast forward, there are more bike lanes in my ward than there are in all the other wards combined. Worker’s rights. I have been on the forefront working with organized labor. Finally, regional leadership. I served as chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, and I have established a corridor of relationships throughout this region.
You talked about a lot of different things. But tie it all together — what is your vision of the city five years from now, 10 years from now and so forth? Where does this city need to go?
You have to have the fundamental building blocks in order to continue to make this city work for everyone. You have to have your finances in order. We will continue to balance our budgets, produce savings and increase our bond rating so we can borrow money at low interest rates, to have that fundamental basis that leads to the confidence to have people invest in this city. Those tax revenues can then be used in the areas we’re still struggling with. First and foremost is education, of course. Our human service cluster, where we have 120,000 people in the city who are still struggling to invest in their well-being. Finally, health care. We have United Medical Center, which is something we have to deal with, and how we can continue to provide health care for all of our citizens? What I see down the road are improvements in all of those areas that really help to benefit those in our city who have necessarily benefited from the prosperity we’ve been seeing.
Every budget season you point out how much money the city is spending on the human service cluster and education, with the implication being that too much is spent on those things. Would you as mayor cut spending on human services? Would you hold the education budget down?
No, I wouldn’t cut spending in those areas. I would make sure that the money we’re spending is spent in a fashion that produces the results we’re looking for. If you’re going to spend upwards of $2 billion on your education system and have one of the worst education systems in America, you’re clearly doing something wrong. What can we do to better spend those dollars and get a better result?
On education, you said we need to be moving faster. What are your specific critiques of what’s happening right now? What are you hearing from your constituents?
One of the biggest issues is the role of the charter schools and the traditional DCPS schools. I believe a mayor is going to have to bring together the different players in those two systems and come to some agreement on how we proceed. The biggest issues right now with charters is they can locate wherever they want, and they don’t have to admit neighborhood children, so they can self-select. If you’re going to have only charter schools in certain neighborhoods, how is that going to work, and can we come to some agreement that charter schools will indeed admit neighborhood kids as well as going through their lottery systems? In DCPS, it’s the same type of issue. We have a lot of brand new schools, a lot of schools all over the place, but why are the students not going to those schools, and how can we change that? And then there’s the whole feeder program. What I’m hearing in my ward and all across the city is, if I’m going to send my children to this school, where are they going to middle school? Where are they going to high school? What guarantees do I have?
Do you believe there should be some regime of neighborhood preference for charter schools?
Yeah I do. I think that somehow we have to work it out that neighborhood children can get into charter schools.
As you mentioned, DCPS is now looking at boundaries and feeder patterns. Who should have to make that decision? If you were mayor, would you get personally involved in that and start drawing lines yourself? Or would you say, this is the chancellor’s job, and I’m leaving my hands off it?
What I would do is let the chancellor take the first shot at it, and then you’re going to have a lot of input from the residents, the council and the mayor as well. But someone has to do something to have something to react against.
I’ll run through a couple of slams on Jack Evans. He’s Mr. Downtown, he’s about downtown business. He doesn’t know what’s challenging outlying neighborhoods, outside the central city area.
I think one has to remember that when I came on the council in 1991, our downtown was largely abandoned. We were losing residents at a thousand a month, and we’re gaining a thousand a month now. One of the things we had to do was really rebuild the infrastructure of our business community to produce tax revenues to really refinance the rest of the city. When you look at our downtown today, you can see the results of my actions that have led to producing the revenues. But keep in mind that much of my approach, too, has been to help small businesses in cutting back a lot of the regulations. In the tax area, the mayor and I worked together when he was chairman to reduce property taxes on the first $3 million of assessments of buildings, where most small businesses are located. We have really worked hard in that area as well.
You’re launching your campaign Saturday at 15th and Q streets. Explain the reasons for that.
What was 14th Street like 21 years ago? It was the center of prostitution and drug dealing in the city. Over the years, I have been working closely with the community and business to change that. I had to change the law to get the Whole Foods to open up there. At that time in the city, you could only have a liquor license in one store of chain. They already had one at the Tenley Whole Foods or the Fresh Fields up in Tenleytown. So we had to change the law. It was the catalyst that led to the CVS, the hardware store, Caribou Coffee, and in the last three or four years, the proliferation now of restaurants. The Washington Business Journal identified what was once one of the worst areas of our city as the “pulse of the city,” just last week.
How much credit do you really get to take for that?
It’s not only getting Whole Foods in there. It’s making it safe. It’s the whole concept of how do you make a neighborhood more business friendly. You clean it up. As you know, I was very strong with the anti-prostitution laws, trying to clean up that quarter. Second, you make it clean. Made sure the city got in there and made sure the city cleaned up the street, put in new lighting, new sidewalks. This is the same concept we need to promote on Martin Luther King, on Malcolm X, on Benning Road. There’s a lot of buying power in these neighborhoods but they’re now going across the boundary line into Prince George’s County. That could stay in the District.
Let’s get back to the knocks on Jack. One of the big ones is, Jack Evans is more interested in megaprojects. What really gets him up in the morning, what gets him excited is building a Redskins stadium, not figuring how to get a dry cleaners to move in down the street or how to stop the muggings around the corner.
The megaprojects are pretty much done. For every convention center, there’s 20 restaurants on 14th Street, all of which I have had a hand in making happen.
But you have spent a lot of time and you’ve put a lot of energy into the Redskins, which a lot of people consider folly or worse. Is that something you would make a priority as mayor?
Certainly getting the Redskins back to Washington would be something that is a priority, sure. It’s on my radar screen. Now, putting a lot of time into it, there’s not a whole lot of time you can put into it until the management of the Redskins makes a decision to come to the city. If the opportunity comes before 2026 to do it, we’ll certainly seize the moment.
What is your sense right now of where that point is?
The city’s not willing to invest in the stadium. So if there was a new Redskins stadium being built in the city, the team would have to pay for the whole stadium, and they are perfectly willing to do that. The city’s responsibility in a project like that would be just like it was with the Verizon Center: to clear the site and make it ready. Abe Pollin paid for the Verizon Center, but the city cleared that site and made it ready to be built.
One thing you have not mentioned so far that both of your declared opponents have not only mentioned, but mentioned early and made a cornerstone of their message is ethics. Is there a reason why you didn’t mention that?
Well, you didn’t ask me about it. So let’s talk about it. In an Evans administration, we would have no tolerance for any of this foolishness. Anyone who behaves in any shape or form in an unethical manner would be dismissed and gone.
I think it’s fair to say you have not been among the most aggressive on the council in terms of raising this issue. In fact, I think in some cases you have been dismissive, that some of this stuff is just posturing, is not really addressing anything. What is your attitude toward these things?
I believe we have a lot of strong ethics laws already in place and a lot of strong laws in the campaign finance area. The fundamental bedrock of campaign finance reform in my view is disclosure. So to pass laws to try and say people need to be honest, in my view, sometimes I find foolhardy because people need to be honest if they’re going to be in these jobs in the first place.
So you don’t agree with Tommy Wells, who says there is a “crisis of ethics” in the city.
There’s not a crisis of ethics. We’ve had some real major problems because of two council members having to resign and some of the other allegations concerning council members and other government officials. But I wouldn’t put it in the crisis area. I would say that the laws in place and the actions of the government toward those individuals show the system actually worked.
WAMU-FM just did a weeklong series looking at campaign donations and things the council has passed. Basically the finding of the investigation wasn’t particularly surprising, which is that people who give campaign donations get the incentives, get the attention of the legislature. Do you see something wrong here?
I don’t see the connection, though.
You can certainly say they established a correlation.
People do contribute, and in many instances, the larger checks come from the business community because they can afford to do it. The fact that a number of the projects were done by people contributing, I think you will find that anywhere — that business contributes more than individual residents. As I challenged the reporter, Patrick Madden, show me one that was a bad investment by the city. Any TIF project we’ve done, any project with an incentive that we should not have done. No one could come back to me with an answer to that. They would have been done whether or not anyone got contributions or not. It really does come down to that.
One of your opponents is swearing off corporate contributions, saying he’s only taking checks with names of people on them, not corporations. Is that something you would entertain?
No, whatever the laws are for taking contributions, that’s how I’m operating.
That’s been your answer when a lot of these things have come up: “I operate within the letter of the law, and if you don’t like it change the law.” But you’ve never suggested changing the law.
Because I don’t think the laws should be changed. I’m fine with the laws the way they are. The press is kind of funny on that. They say, well, we should limit campaign contributions, but then assign front-runner status to the person who raised the most money. [Laughs.] No, I think the law we’re operating under for the reasons I told you are fine, and those are the laws I intend to follow.
Are you concerned that your opponents are going to attack you for certain things in your past. In particular, I’m thinking of Jack PAC, I’m thinking of spending money on baseball tickets from your constituent service fund. Does that open you up to charges that Jack Evans is business as usual on ethics in the District?
I intend to focus my campaign on what I talked about. Our school system, education, affordable housing, public safety for our neighborhoods, job creation. If my opponents want to talk about baseball tickets and Jack PAC from 10 years ago, go for it. But my focus is going to be on how I can be a great mayor for this city.
Let’s switch to the politics here. Tell me a little bit about your preparations and your process getting to this point. It’s been no secret you’ve been looking for a chance to run citywide, whether chairman or mayor. How did you make the final decision?
I think it is well known I always wanted to be mayor. Chairman, I don’t know so much about. I looked at that a couple of times and kind of walked away from that idea. But, mayor, I have been interested in since back in 1998 when I ran. I believe that right now I’m 59, my children are older, and the city is doing well, and really I can bring I believe that leadership and the skills necessary to really continue the progress our city is making. This seemed like a good time for me. There’s an election coming up, so that’s why I made a decision to run. A lot of people are very supportive. There’s not a day goes by that someone doesn’t stop me and say I ought to run for mayor.
Who is the inner circle? I ask because Mayor Fenty kept his own counsel, as you know, and people said he lost touch. I know you were a supporter of his, and I imagine you would try to avoid going down that same road.
It’s hard for me to identify who is the inner circle, because there are so many people I talk to. Certainly Schanette Grant, my chief of staff, who’s been with me for 19 years. Certainly Bill Jarvis, who was a law partner of mine many years ago. Linda Greenan, who was my first chief of staff in 1991. Linda Grigsby, who was with me back in the Ward 2 Democrats days. People like that I talk to all the time. People outside, across the city, as I mentioned. People like Cora Barry, who I talk to all the time. We traveled together when we went to Africa. And then former colleagues, whether John Ray or H.R. Crawford, Jim Nathanson, people I served on the council with. Linda Cropp, who was one of the best chairs ever in the history of the city or anywhere in the country. Charlene Drew Jarvis is another one I served on the council with.
Pardon me for pointing this out, but are any of those people under 50 years old?
No, probably not. [Laughs.]. Schanette is. But we do have a lot of young people. Josh, who is sitting right here.
Tell me about your team.
My campaign manager Josh Brown here. We are putting together a team as we speak — a finance director, a communications director. And my pollster is Diane Feldman, who is a longtime pollster in this city going back to the very beginning of home rule. We don’t have a chair at the moment. We’re filing that on Friday. [Paperwork filed Friday named attorney Don Dinan as Evans's chairman.] We’re looking to open an office up at 14th and Florida Avenue.
Have you looked at polling numbers?
Oh, I look at numbers all the time. The numbers add up that Jack Evans can get elected the next mayor of the District of Columbia. There are a lot of reasons I didn’t run in the past, but today, I think things have lined up in a situation where I can really get elected.
You’re the second white male to enter this race. Now we have two strong white candidates for the first time, perhaps ever. What’s your sense of what that means?
I think it means we’re going to have a great race here. We’re going to have a lot of different viewpoints being represented, and I think it really gives the voters a choice in this election.
We’re going to have this race conversation, though. I don’t think it’s one that you’ve ever been real comfortable having. What are your thoughts on what this means in a changing city where this is a topic of everyday discussion? When you started on the council, the city was 65, 70 percent black, and now it’s 49, 50 percent black.
I think I need votes everywhere, and I think I can get votes everywhere. In the abstract, you know, people can be concerned about who’s going to get elected. What I bring to the table is people know who I am. I’ve been here for a long time; I’ve paid my dues, so voting for Jack Evans, it’s not just voting for anybody. It’s voting for somebody we know, some who knows us, who supports us. I’ll make sure everyone in this city has a voice, is heard and is represented well in my administration.
But how do you get across to someone in Ward 7 or Ward 8 that Jack Evans — someone who has lived in Georgetown for 20 years, drives his car back and forth to the Wilson Building every day — how can he relate to what is going on in my community?
Again, people will know I have been all over this city for many many years in many different capacities. When I started out I was on the D.C. Democratic State Committee. When I was in Ward 7 the other day, James Speight was there, who was chairman of the Historic Preservation Review Board when I was an ANC commissioner. Gladys Mack, who was on the Metro board with me. I think it transcends this concern of, who is this guy? They already know who I am, what I can do and what I will do as mayor.