By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010; B05
D.C. Council members Jack Evans and Kwame Brown confirmed Wednesday that they will be entering the race for council chairman, setting up a costly campaign that could hinge on Evans' ability to attract votes from African Americans.
One day after incumbent Chairman Vincent C. Gray entered the race for the Democratic nomination for mayor, Evans (D-Ward 2) and Brown (D-At Large) both ended days of speculation about their plans.
Although other candidates could still enter the race, an Evans-Brown matchup could serve as a test of how politics in the District has changed as the city becomes increasingly gentrified.
Evans, whose District stretches from Georgetown to downtown, is expected to have a base of support in parts of Northwest Washington. Brown, who lives on the east side, will probably run strongest in majority-black communities, but he has also spent the past six years building a citywide political operation.
The chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, Evans is the longest-serving council member, having been first elected to the council in 1991. During his career, Evans has played key roles in the city's economic revival through a flurry of development projects, including the construction of Nationals Park. He has also been a key supporter of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's school reform efforts, including the appointment of Michelle Rhee as chancellor.
"The council needs a leader who has the ability to run the council and has a grasp on the financial situation, " said Evans, referring to an estimated $555 million budget shortfall. "I think what voters are looking for is an experienced council member who knows the city."
But Evans has never been elected citywide. In 1998, he ran for mayor but finished third in the Democratic primary, behind former mayor Anthony Williams and Kevin P. Chavous, who at the time was Ward 7 council member. Evans drew 10 percent of the vote.
"That was a long time ago," Evans said Wednesday. "I wouldn't run if I didn't think I could win."
Evans, who represents downtown businesses and some of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods, is expected to be an effective fundraiser. Still, many political observers question whether he can prevail in a race against Brown, who chairs the Committee on Economic Development.
In 2004, Brown pulled off a major upset when he unseated former council member Harold Brazil.
On the council, Brown has tried to adopt a populist tone, often trying to position himself as the representative for "the people." But he sometimes struggles to formulate in-depth policy solutions.
Brown, who announced his candidacy via Twitter, did not return calls seeking comment.
His base of support citywide, especially within the black community, makes him a formidable candidate in a city where African Americans make up 54 percent of the population, his colleagues and political observers say.
Although many council members privately question Brown's leadership skills, he has so far picked up more endorsements than Evans.
Council member Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5), who represents politically influential Northeast, said he is supporting Brown. "Kwame spends a great deal of time in wards and spends a great deal on the issues in Ward 5," Thomas said.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) has also lined up behind Brown, mostly because she said she thought that Evans was not going to enter the race. "Kwame has been talking to me all along," said Cheh, who represents Upper Northwest. "I think Jack is a fine person, but I am pledged to Kwame."
Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who is so far neutral, said he thinks the chairman's race could hinge on whether Gray or Fenty (D) has the momentum in the mayor's race during the late summer.
While Evans has been a Fenty ally, Brown has frequently sparred with the mayor. Graham said voters may be looking for balance, and he thinks they will select a chairman who is not aligned with the expected victor in the mayor's race.