If there were such a thing as a Vice Mayor, Jack Evans would be perfect for it. When it comes to the business of neighborhood politics, the Ward 2 Council member has as much experience as anyone on the city, save former Mayor Marion Barry. His legislative successes over 23 years are not to be scoffed at.
But as he runs in the Democratic primary for the city’s top job this winter, it’s become obvious that Evans’s people skills don’t translate to being a successful Mayoral candidate. Watching Evans on the campaign trail can sometimes feel like he’s out of touch with the very people he hopes to serve. And as a man with two well-paying jobs who can afford to remodel his tony Georgetown rowhouse, he can at times come off as someone who doesn’t know how to deftly straddle multiple worlds.
Last week, a spokesman for Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), a mayoral candidate, said as much. During a campaign event, Evans showed up to the heart of Bowser’s district, decrying the lack of economic progress: “To the people who say Muriel Bowser should be mayor, look around,” he said, standing on Kennedy Street, NW in Petworth. “A once-great neighborhood and dozens of struggling businesses right here are still waiting for revitalization more than six years after Ms. Bowser joined the D.C. Council.”
Bowser’s camp was quick to respond.
“Today’s election year stunt underscores Mr. Evans’s lack of knowledge about neighborhoods outside of Georgetown,” Bowser spokesman Bryan Lozano said, according to The Post’s Mike DeBonis.
But it was Evans’s response to the response that illustrated a candidate who often sounds the wrong notes. Later that day, Evans held a conference call, in which he awkwardly implied that Bowser’s campaign was injecting race in to the discussion, when in fact, it was he who did so. And in doing so, he also exposed his relative level of privilege as compared to most citizens of this city.
“The District of Columbia has come a long way to be a more vibrant, economic, strong and diverse city where all of our citizens and particularly our leaders must see us all as living, working and raising our families in one community. Not as separate people to be isolated with the use of code words that tear us apart from one another,” Evans, apparently reading, said Monday afternoon from his Georgetown home. “Exactly what does Miss Bowser imply by saying I have no knowledge about neighborhoods outside of Georgetown? … What is she implying about me that she’s not saying directly?”
When asked if he meant racial code words, Evans bizarrely replied, “That you’d have to ask Council member Bowser.”
Evans’s stature as more than a council member but less than a mayor can be summed up in his recent polling numbers. A NBC4/WAMU poll found that he’s ahead of D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and restauranteur Andy Shallal, but behind Bowser and Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). For a politician who’s been involved in politics for more than 20 years, it’s like he’s stuck in some kind of political limbo.
Evans chalked up his middle-of-the-pack status to timing. “People in this city are just starting to focus on the election. We’re all relatively speaking bunched up,” he said. “Put yourself in a September mindset. It’s now the middle of August. They actually didn’t focus until Labor Day, which is a week before the election.”
But Evans’s trouble connecting citywide – this is his second run for Mayor- perhaps can be illustrated best in how he tries to talk about the proverbial 800 pound gorilla of DC politics: race. Whether D.C. is ready for a white mayor is a question Evans asked rhetorically in a Paul Schwartzman profile last month: “‘Can a white guy get elected?’” Evans asked. An African American became president,” he said, answering his own question. “Detroit’s mayor is white. ‘All across the country,’ Evans said, ‘people are taking a chance on something that in the past they feared.'”
But it takes more than good timing to deal with D.C.’s thorny racial history, and as a veteran of D.C politics, you’d think Evans might better reflect his knowledge of said past. His clumsy handling of the question illustrates someone who may not be prepared to address the racial and socio-economic dynamics and disparities of this city head on, and probably isn’t ready to lead a city changing so quickly.
This is not to say that there aren’t things about Evans’s platform that, if focused differently, could be useful in a proverbial Vice-Mayor role. There’s no question that he cares deeply about economic development . “My economic plan is to focus on bringing jobs and economic growth to the very parts of our city that have not benefited from the economic gains of the recent years. The areas that need new jobs, new small businesses, new workplaces, new retail and new restaurants,” Evans said at his press conference in Ward 4. As if developing what’s already there is not an option.
Indeed, while his intentions are lofty, what Evans views as paramount, economic development, feels like a code word for replacement. For a guy who has seen so much change to D.C., it’s disappointing that his word choices aren’t more sensitive to the residents that have tried to stick it out in the city, even as rents have risen and demographics have changed.
As a veteran of city politics, Evans is not without his supporters. It isn’t just businesses lining his campaign war chest. Wednesday night at an event at Hill Center on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Steve Baddour called himself a recent convert. “I want an honest government, I just really need to feel that way,” Baddour, 66, a retired schoolteacher whose lived in Ward 6 since 1971 said. “He was a very early supporter of gay and lesbian rights, and that means a lot as a gay man.”
Standing outside of the Gibson Plaza apartments Saturday afternoon, Evans unveiled his plan to create more affordable housing to D.C. neighborhoods. In the shadow of the old O St. Market site, about a dozen supporters joined him.
Before the speech, Evans took a phone call, standing near the bus stop on 7th Street. If you were a random passerby, you might have thought for a second that he was waiting on the 70 line. But we all know that would never happen.
Admittedly, for the next three weeks, it’s a reputation that Evans is going to have to shake. He knows it’s not easy.
“There is a little bit to overcome there, and my opponents will try to paint me as the rich white guy from Georgetown,” Evans said. “I believe that people in the city know who I am, like me, I have a long history here. When the time comes in the three weeks, that’s going to be what prevails. But it’s going to be a lot of uncertainty in the next three weeks. I’m excited.”