As voters arrived that morning for a mayoral straw poll in Southeast Washington, the candidate made sure that his was the first face they saw at the entrance, his hand outstretched, his pallid white skin unmistakable in a crowd of African Americans.
Jack Evans’s long career as a D.C. Council member rests on a gazillion such maneuvers. He knows, for example, how to inch his way to the center of a crowded grip-and-grin photo. He is expert at rounding up the council majority he needs to turn a proposal into law.
As a mayoral candidate,
Evans (D-Ward 2), whose district includes downtown and Georgetown, likes to anticipate a question he believes voters are too uncomfortable to broach in a city long known for black political dominance: “Can a white guy be elected mayor?” he asks, before delving into a sunny analysis of his own prospects.
Yet, what appears to be the right gambit doesn’t always guarantee success, as Evans learned at that Ward 8 straw poll in January. He had called neighborhood leaders all week, made sure that his supporters were outside with his bright red campaign signs, and commandeered the entrance as a personal reminder that he was on the ballot.
And then he finished sixth.
As mayors have come and gone over the past two decades, as scandals have erupted and faded, as the District’s skyline has been remade and its demographics redefined , Evans has been a constant at the center of roiling change.
The council’s longest-serving member, a serial backslapper and career tactician, Evans, 60, relishes any chance to trumpet Washington’s renaissance, turning into the History channel as he narrates the city’s evolution from “murder capital” to gilded metropolis. “Remember where we were in 1991?” he likes to ask. “We were like Detroit.”
Any Evans rendition of Washington’s turnaround invariably features him as a star. He touts his role spurring projects such as the Nationals ballpark and the convention center. While he’s careful to credit a colleague or two, he often speaks with such fervor that one could be forgiven for thinking it all happened because of him.
“There’s no one running — including the current mayor — who’s done these things,” Evans tells voters.
Yet, for all his years at the center of the city’s political life, Evans has failed to capture the prize he has most coveted, the mayoralty, for which he ran in 1998. As much as anything, his defeat suggested that African American voters were not ready for a white mayor, at least not one who resided in Georgetown, sent his children to private school and looked as if he had stepped out of a J. Crew catalogue.
Now, with blacks having declined to half the city’s population and the leading Democrat weakened by scandal, Evans says he’s well positioned to become the District’s first white mayor, even as polling has shown him with half the support of incumbent Vincent C. Gray (D).
Evans acknowledges that he has yet to find an issue to electrify voters and is basing his campaign on the argument that, aside from Gray, he is the only candidate in the field “who really could be mayor. The other people just don’t have the experience.”
Though he has praised Gray’s management of the city, Evans is betting that a federal investigation into the 2010 campaign will “haunt” the mayor and render him increasingly ineffectual.
“Can a white guy win?” Evans asks a Georgetown audience before answering. “Not any white guy can win. But I can win.”
In the 1980s, after moving to the District, Evans asked the city’s Democratic Party chief how to become involved in local politics. MaryEva Candon, then the party’s leader, said she “roared with laughter because he was so white. Like a Norwegian.” In those days, Washington was 70 percent black and known as “Chocolate City.”
“Good luck,” Candon told him.
Evans had grown up in Nanticoke, Pa., a coal-mining town two hours north of Philadelphia, where his father was a florist and his mother a teacher. He studied business at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, then got a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh and joined the Securities and Exchange Commission.
He entered District politics as a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Dupont Circle and then, in 1991, won the Ward 2 council seat, running as a foe of unfettered development.
Evans knew he had to forge relationships with constituents who regarded him as an outsider, particularly gays and blacks. But he viewed politics as transactional at its core and hoped to win those communities over by responding to their concerns.
“It was sort of like, ‘I know I’m not black, but I think I can still make a difference,’ ” Candon said, recalling Evans’s mind-set. “His being white or not gay was not going to affect his ability to represent them.”
Not everyone was welcoming, including Ibrahim Mumin, a black community leader in Shaw, then part of Evans’s district. Mumin said he was “skeptical of this white guy and whether he could relate to us.”
Mumin’s perception changed after he went to Evans about the drug dealing and gun violence plaguing his neighborhood. Evans summoned police brass to community meetings. But Mumin warned he wouldn’t participate “if all we’re going to do is talk about locking people up.” What about job training? he demanded.
“I agree with you; why don’t you be in charge of that?” Evans replied, and suddenly Mumin found himself the chair of a new committee.
On the council, Evans’s colleagues learned he was a man of singular idiosyncrasies, never wavering from an ensemble of blue suit, white shirt and striped tie so he wouldn’t have to decide what to wear each morning.
During council meetings, Evans was often restless and frequently could be found balancing his checkbook. “He would write down every single bill, every single dollar he spent,” said Kevin Chavous, the former council member who sat next to Evans.
At one meeting in the late 1990s, Chavous recalled, Evans seemed especially antsy, explaining that he had been up for hours the night before, searching for a missing letter to his daughter’s alphabet blocks. “He couldn’t understand how that one letter — the letter D — could be missing,” Chavous said.
“Actually, it was the letter W, ” Evans said when asked about the moment. He makes no apologies. “I’m organized,” he said.
Evans impressed his colleagues with his detailed grasp of the city’s finances, then teetering on the edge of collapse. In 1998, Evans ran to succeed then-Mayor Marion Barry, even as friends warned that voters wouldn’t embrace a white candidate.
Anthony A. Williams won the Democratic primary easily, and Evans, who got 10 percent of the vote, returned to the council. His resilience was tested again in 2003 when his wife, Noel, died of cancer. At 50, Evans was a widower with 6-year-old triplets. But he never gave up his political ambition. Two years after his wife’s death, Evans was talking again about running for mayor.
The waiting room walls outside Evans’s city hall office are a montage of modern Washington life, covered with photos of political stars (Bill Clinton and Marion Barry), entertainers (Mick Jagger), athletes (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and a blur of developers, agency heads and activists.
The ubiquitous co-star in each photo is Jack Evans’s toothy visage.
His staff’s duties include rearranging the pictures to feature whoever may be meeting with Evans on any given day. Sometimes, Evans himself moves the photos around before his guest arrives.
“Then Jack will say, ‘Have you seen your picture on the wall? Here it is,’ ” said Andrew Huff, his former spokesman.
A poster of Evans’s political hero, Robert Kennedy, hangs near a photo of John Wilson, who committed suicide in 1993 and whose Ward 2 council seat Evans inherited. “I miss John Wilson,” reads the label at the photograph’s base, one that Evans affixed “so that people know who he was.”
From Wilson, Evans learned political pragmatism; that seven of 13 council votes are necessary to enact law. “With Jack, it’s all about how’re we going to get it done,” Huff said. “At the end of the day, can you count to seven?”
After 22 years on the council, Evans is known as an ally of business and an advocate for real estate projects, sometimes incurring criticism for appearing too eager to grant developers tax breaks. Ed Lazere, a member of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, described Evans as a “thoughtful” legislator, even as he questioned “whether the city financial support on some projects was needed.”
Advocates for the poor have criticized Evans for celebrating development that they say is making the city unaffordable for low-income residents. “He’s very invested with rich corporate people and rich residents,” said Martin Moulton, an activist in Shaw. “There’s no trickle-down to people who aren’t well off.”
Evans also has been chided for opposing campaign finance reform and for devoting over the course of a decade more than $100,000 of his constituent service fund — often used to help needy residents with rent or burial costs — to buying tickets to sporting events.
Evans generally resists the alarm bells his colleagues have sounded about corruption, particularly since three former council members have pleaded guilty to felonies in recent years. “A crisis is when the mayor is caught on videotape smoking crack,” he said, referring to Barry’s 1990 arrest. “This is not a crisis.”
For all the criticism Evans has absorbed, his record defies easy labels. Even his detractors praise him for protecting funding for subsidized housing. And he has delved into social issues, emerging early in his tenure as a vociferous advocate for gay rights.
Evans recaps much of his record on the campaign trail, as he did one night to voters in an affluent Ward 4 living room, delivering a homespun history of Washington since he joined the council in 1991.
“Back then,” he recalled, “14th Street was known for drugs and . . . ”
“Prostitution!” they answered.
Chuckles all around.
Today, he said, more than 70 restaurants have opened on that corridor, a turnaround he promised to export to less-affluent neighborhoods. “That’s the kind of progress I can bring to this whole city,” he said. “I’ve already done it.”
Eventually, Evans volunteered his own question: “Can a white guy get elected?”
An African American became president, he said. Detroit’s mayor is white. “All across the country,” Evans said, “people are taking a chance on something that in the past they feared.”
His analysis may be spot on, as it often is. Yet for all his ambition and tactical savvy, Evans also is a pragmatist: He knows he may not be the one to benefit from all that change.