Evans Upfront on Race
By Michael Powell
Jack Evans wants to be mayor of Washington so bad it hurts.
He's the lanky guy rocking gently in his seat before debates, sucking air in and blowing it out. He's boned up on taxes, schools, prostitution and heaven knows what else. He's watched tapes of John F. Kennedy's press conferences and studied polling data until his eyes ache.
But, as he sees it, he's got a problem he can't study or work away: He's white.
Blond hair, blue eyes. Pigmentally challenged, as a supporter said.
And he wants to become the first white mayor of the nation's capital, a predominantly black city. Whites have won citywide elections in the past but never to an office so freighted with symbolism as the mayoralty.
Poll numbers compiled by The Washington Post frame his quandary. Fifty-four percent of black respondents think it is "very" or "some what" important to have a black mayor. Even many whites 32 percent hold that view.
So what to do? For starters, Evans has decided to talk a lot about his race. It's an interesting choice. Frank talk about race is not a well-worn page in the playbooks of most politicians.
Evans, who has represented Ward 2 on the D.C. Council for six years, faces three key black rivals in the city's Sept. 15 Democratic primary.
"I'm not blind to what some call the biggest problem of this campaign, and that is the color of my skin," Evans said. "For people to say it's not an issue is so crazy. It always comes up, always. But we won't know how big it is until people walk into the voting booth and decide if they can vote for a white candidate."
But here's the rub: It's hard to talk about race it's the nation's most enduring source of division without appearing painfully self-conscious. And Evans, whose political DNA is encoded with more than a touch of Vice President Gore, is not the loosest candidate in city history.
Evans spoke to about 30 young black business professionals one evening last May. It was a downtown group tailor-made for Evans, people well versed in the intricacies of capital gains and tax loss. He offered a few remarks as they sipped microbrews and Chardonnay. Then he observed, ever so earnestly, that they may have noticed that he was white.
A collective chuckle rippled across the marble office foyer, as the guests confirmed that, yes, yes indeed, they could see as much.
Then there's the tale of the two cards. Last Christmas, Evans mailed out a holiday photo of himself, his blond wife, their three blond, blue-eyed triplets and a golden retriever nestled among them. The political cognoscenti scoffed at Evans's whiter-than-white card.
So when Evans announced his campaign, he sent out a photograph of himself surrounded by black children at a playground he helped rebuild. Patronizing, critics hooted.
Evans often compares his campaign to become mayor of a majority-black city with John F. Kennedy's campaign to become the first Catholic president of a predominantly Protestant nation. In a recent interview, he pulled out a well-thumbed copy of Kennedy's 1960 speech at Notre Dame on Catholicism and invited a reporter to plumb the document for parallels.
But that probably overstates the significance of Evans's quest. He is not tramping across uncharted racial territory.
Blacks in Washington have voted in large numbers for white candidates in the past, notably David A. Clarke, the former D.C. Council chairman. And Evans, who is credited with representing all ends of a racially diverse ward, has enlisted a number of prominent African Americans in his campaign including several ministers and the son and nephew of D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4).
Some of that support is a bit unlikely. Leroy Thorpe, a longtime Shaw activist, was seen last spring denouncing Evans as "a blond, blue-eyed cracker." But now he has endorsed Evans and takes him around the neighborhood.
More broadly, voters in cities with black and Latino majorities including Gary, Ind., New York and Jersey City have elected, and reelected, white men as mayors.
"In many cities now, you have white mayors getting elected with significant black support," said Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist who writes on race and politics. "It is now viewed as legitimate by many blacks and whites to vote across racial lines. Evans does not face an impossible task."
Perhaps for that reason, Evans's insistence on talking about the burden of his whiteness, if only to argue that it shouldn't matter, grates on critics.
"I am really offended by Jack Evans doing that," says Howard Croft, a University of the District of Columbia administrator and a former D.C. Council candidate, who is black. "It's self-serving. . . . He's saying to blacks: If you don't look me over seriously, you are racist."
Evans also faces formidable competition for the hearts and minds of a voting bloc that shares his skin color: white liberals. Anthony A. Williams, an African American and former chief financial officer, has made his greatest inroads among this group. (Williams recently blocked Evans from getting an official endorsement in Wards 1 and 2). Another black rival, D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous, too, can claim some support there.
Matthew Watson, a former D.C. auditor and a sachem in Washington's white liberal community, said some white Ward 3 voters give added weight to a black candidate, assuming all else is equal.
"Many whites in this city believe in racial diversity and affirmative action and aren't averse to considering that as a factor," Watson said.
Such talk frustrates Evans, who sometimes regards the city's white liberal community with a sense of anthropological detachment. "Fifteen percent of whites say they won't vote for a white guy," he told a black audience with a what're-you-going-to-do shrug. "You have to remember we are in the District of Columbia."
In an ironic echo of a saying favored by blacks of a certain age, Evans said it was not enough for him to be the equal of his rivals.
"I have to be twice as good as the black candidate," Evans said. "How frustrating is that? We've always had to be much better. . . . I could sit here and cry about it, but what's the use?"
But Watson advised Evans not to assume that his skin color alone was disqualifying.
"Even if you want to talk about a meritocracy, it's not clear that Jack is the best candidate," he said. "A lot of people can look at Tony Williams's background and accomplishments and say, 'I come out this way regardless of color.'"
Evans worked Eighth Street NW in Ward 4, a leafy block of brick homes and neat gardens, with a dogged intensity a few weeks ago. His vote-for-me patter was a shade too fast. And when he leaned over stiffly to hug one older African American voter, he resembled a weightlifter readying a squat thrust.
But there was no mistaking his desire to connect, to be of service. He listened intently, hands on hips, as graying African American residents talked of drug dealers, clogged storm drains and the poor state of local stores. He grew up in coal country in Pennsylvania, a white working-class region that, in its list of aches, was an echo of this voter-rich ward.
He promised to talk to the police and get those drains cleaned. And always there was his coda: "We need your vote, this is a tough race, please remember me."
Evans trolled this politically sophisticated ward in the company of Shirley Richardson, an Eighth Street homeowner of 35 years. A savvy African American woman who voted for Barry in 1994, she supports Evans and doesn't hesitate to say why.
"He's white. That's why I'm voting for the man," she said, as she watched her candidate knock on doors. "You look at Congress, they're all Caucasians and they need someone of their own color to sit down with and make a deal to get us back home rule."
She noticed a look of surprise on a neighbor's face.
"These are just the facts," she said. "A lot of people agree with me."
It's unclear how many other black voters share Richardson's view although a reporter found two more black homeowners in a two-block stretch who expressed similar opinions. Her comments, however, underlined how difficult it is to predict racial voting patterns in the District.
"I find a lot of black voters like when I bring up the question of race," Evans said. "A lot of them tell me I shouldn't read too much into how people voted in the past."
Barry set the gold standard in this regard. In Barry's first mayoral election in 1978, he took predominantly white Ward 3 and lost badly in Ward 8, the city's poorest and blackest precinct. In 1994, Barry reversed that equation: He was wiped out in Ward 3 and dominated Ward 8.
In the intervening years, Clarke, the white D.C. Council chairman who died of cancer, garnered majorities in the black community. And council member Carol Schwartz, a white Republican who is running for mayor this year, drew a respectable number of black votes against Barry in 1994.
But that fails to consider the totemic power of the mayoralty. In the view of some political observers, the mayor's office holds a greater significance for black voters than do other elected offices. Clarke lost badly in his one mayoral run in 1990.
And the broader political context has worried some black Washingtonians. In the past year, two white women, Camille C. Barnett and Alice M. Rivlin, have taken over two of the city's most powerful posts, respectively, chief management officer and financial control board chairman.
"I'd like to think otherwise, but I hear the sentiment out there from some black voters that 'they' [whites] are going to take over the city," said Dwight S. Cropp, a professor at George Washington University and a former top D.C. official.
That said, Cropp believes that substantial numbers of black middle-class votes remain up for grabs. Whoever taps their frustration, whichever candidate convinces them that the city's discontent will pass, could find that skin color counts for little, he said.
It's a point that Evans repeats over and over again, to reporters and to himself.
"It boils down to the question of trust, do people believe I can turn around this city?" Evans said. "The mentality of the city has changed. Eight years ago, I don't think it was possible for a white to get elected in Washington."
He hesitated a moment.
"Maybe a lot of people will walk into the booth and say: I can't vote for the white guy. But I think that's changed."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company