Jack Evans had been delayed at home with his 3-year-old triplets and was late to the private breakfast meeting on Dec. 7 where D.C. Council members discussed Mayor Anthony A. Williams's proposal to pay for $9.9 million in bonuses for union workers.
When he learned that his colleagues had resigned themselves to the mayor's plan to borrow the money from the city's tobacco settlement fund, Evans said he would "absolutely not" go along with the mayor's emergency request.
The Ward 2 Democrat, chairman of the council's Committee on Finance and Revenue, then delivered a passionate argument about how Williams's plan--which did not specify how the mayor would replace the tobacco money--was hauntingly similar to the financial schemes that nearly bankrupted the District just a few years ago.
Soon, other council members began to voice their own concerns, and it became clear that the mayor's plan was dead. In their public meeting a few hours later, council members denounced Williams's funding plan as irresponsible and told him to come up with another idea. A chastened Williams did so, and a revised formula was endorsed by the council last week.
Score another political point for Evans, who after losing to Williams in last year's Democratic mayoral primary has led a resurgent council determined not to let the new mayor be the only power in D.C. government. Irked by criticism during the 1998 campaign that he and his colleagues sat by passively while the District's debts piled up and its taxpayers moved out, Evans has vowed to be active in the city's nascent comeback--even if it means clashing with the popular mayor.
Evans was the engine last spring behind the council's passage of the largest tax cut in D.C. history.
He prodded his colleagues to push the federal government to vacate the renovated John A. Wilson Building, a mission accomplished just weeks before federal workers were scheduled to begin moving into the District's historic city hall. He also fought the Red Cross--unsuccessfully--over its plans to put up a 10-story building in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Foggy Bottom.
Evans has emerged as a leader on the District's emboldened council.
"I think we as a council are doing the right thing," Evans, a lawyer, said in a recent interview. "We have established ourselves as a co-equal in this government through this last year. People in this city have for years chastised the council for not being vigilant, and now we are. . . . When we see something happening that's not right, we're going to be on it."
Evans's leadership on the tax cut and the bonuses has impressed several of his colleagues.
Council member David Catania (R-At Large), who co-authored and helped negotiate the council's tax-cut plan, said Evans has been "exceptional" as chairman of the finance panel. "I trust and appreciate his advice," Catania said.
In considering Williams's earlier plan to fund the union bonuses, "we were reluctantly willing to go along because, given the time and circumstances, the mayor didn't leave us any option," Catania said. Williams had promised union leaders that the bonuses would be paid last week. "And then Jack came to the meeting [and] crystalized what the issue was and why it was important not to do this."
But Evans is uncomfortable being singled out. He praises council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) for a shared leadership style that allows an ambitious politician like himself to grab the spotlight.
"The group really has enabled the accomplishments to occur, and I mean that," Evans said. "There's a recognition on behalf of all of us that if we're going to be effective, we have to support each other."
It wasn't always so, Evans recalled. He has been on the council since 1991, when he won a special election to replace Wilson (D), who vacated the Ward 2 seat when he became council chairman. Younger members such as Evans and others who came to the council in the early 1990s--they were nicknamed the Young Turks--found themselves constantly fighting, and frequently losing to, the old-line liberal activists who still dominated the government.
Then the District's finances collapsed and its services crumbled. The federal government stepped in and set up the D.C. financial control board, which not only oversaw the fiscal recovery but also had authority to overrule local officials on policy matters.
Williams came on board as the District's independent chief financial officer and in three years was credited with helping the District generate a surplus. During the Democratic mayoral primary, he touted his success and taunted Evans and two other council members in the race for their failures. His primary victory last year spoke volumes about voters' thirst for change--and their lack of respect for the council's work.
After the election, Evans was the first to congratulate Williams and pledge his support; Evans's former campaign manager assumed that role for Williams in the general election.
But throughout the mayor's first year in office, Evans has frequently and effectively challenged Williams on policy matters. The council member said that he has tried to work with Williams and that on a personal level, they get along fine. Just a month ago, Evans and his wife, Noel, had dinner with Williams and his wife, Diane.
It's their political relationship that seems to need work. Evans was furious last spring when Williams, who had never explicitly stated his opposition in numerous private meetings, called the council's tax-cut proposal "grotesque" at a news conference. And Williams did not seek his advice or support, Evans said, during the past few weeks as the administration scrambled to figure out how to pay for the union bonuses.
Williams supporters in Ward 2 haven't helped matters by actively searching for a candidate to challenge Evans in next year's council elections.
The mayor's chief of staff, Abdusalam Omer, has been approached about running but says he isn't interested.
"I have always strived to have a positive relationship with Mayor Williams and continue to do so," Evans said. "What is sometimes disconcerting about dealing with this administration is I've made efforts to reach out, and sometimes the response I get is . . . how do I describe it? It's almost a lack of response."
Williams did not respond to requests for comment for this report.
While Evans can't always get the mayor's attention, he has been able to persuade his colleagues to support his own initiatives.
"I think Jack was a big winner in the mayor's race last year from the standpoint of running an excellent campaign and learning and growing in that," said Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who supported Williams in the primary. "I think he's done some good work."
Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) said Evans's profile has been raised because he is chairman of the finance panel, one of the council's most visible and potentially powerful leadership positions.
She also said Evans's style, "which reflects a certain impatience to get to outcomes," has worked in his favor. "The impatience has the effect of keeping an agenda going."
It also makes some of his colleagues feel bullied. Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) thought Evans's original tax-cut proposal was too large and weighted in favor of wealthy D.C. residents. He also said he would have preferred that the council quietly work out a compromise with Williams on the bonuses, rather than get involved in a verbal brawl.
"He understands the process, and people listen to him. . . . I get along with him," said Mendelson, a first-year council member.
Evans likes politics. The walls of his office are covered with photographs of him with President Clinton, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell, the late council chairman Wilson and former D.C. mayor Marion Barry.
And Evans believes this is a particularly good time for him to be in D.C. politics.
"I am in a senior position and have the ability to effectuate change, and the city is doing well, and so we actually can effectuate change," Evans said. "Four years ago, we couldn't have done a tax cut--we were going bankrupt. But now we have the ability to really structure how this city's going to look in the future. . . . I would like to put my mark on the direction I think this city needs to take."