Now, with the District in the throes of a new crisis, pandemic-isolated voters must decide whether to forgive Evans’s ethics transgressions and return the once longest-serving legislator to office or end the political career of one of the capital’s most influential and colorful figures.
Evans, who resigned from the council in January, is competing with seven candidates for the Democratic nomination in the June 2 primary for his old Ward 2 seat. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, winning the primary is tantamount to winning the general election, though Evans may draw an independent challenger if he is the winner.
The 66-year-old politician faces his toughest competition from candidates half his age.
Patrick Kennedy, a 28-year-old Foggy Bottom neighborhood commissioner, has assembled a formidable coalition of community leaders, urbanist and LGBTQ activists and business leaders who once backed Evans.
Left-wing D.C. groups have coalesced behind Jordan Grossman, a 34-year-old former federal and local government staffer.
Brooke Pinto, 27, is a late-entry wild card in the race, buoyed by the endorsements of her former boss, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D), and The Washington Post’s editorial board (which operates independently from the news division). She is the only candidate not participating in the public campaign financing program.
Kishan Putta, a 46-year-old Burleith neighborhood commissioner, and John Fanning, a 57-year-old Logan Circle neighborhood commissioner who served as a Ward 2 liaison under multiple mayors, also are running well-financed races with local support. Daniel Hernandez and Yilin Zhang are the political newcomers in the race.
All of the candidates except Evans and Hernandez are also running in the June 16 special election for the remainder of Evans’s term. Republican Katherine Venice is on that special ballot as well.
Evans’s comeback bid, like so much in Washington, has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic. That may be to his benefit.
Social distancing regulations mean his opponents cannot chip away at 30 years of name recognition with canvassing or in-person campaigning in one of the wealthiest parts of the District, stretching through downtown, Foggy Bottom, Georgetown, and Logan and Dupont circles. The news cycle is consumed with the pandemic, so once-weekly headlines about scandals surrounding Evans have faded. The detractors who booed him at his first in-person candidate forum before the pandemic are now muzzled on virtual debates — and even some of his rivals have toned down their attacks.
But the magnitude of the Evans scandal cannot easily be erased, especially in a city where voters are quick to turn against tainted politicians.
Evans himself is circumspect about his chances in a race where even the savviest political operatives cannot predict what turnout will be or who will cast ballots by mail, as they are encouraged to do, or show up at one of two polling places in the ward on Election Day.
“Two weeks from now, I’ll find out,” Evans said in a recent Zoom interview from his Georgetown home office. “If not, it’ll be a new chapter in my life, and I have no idea what that will be.”
'There was no waiting'
Evans, a lawyer by trade who was first elected in 1991, came to the council at a time when it was common for local legislators to hold outside jobs. It became his undoing.
The lawmaker came under scrutiny in 2018 for his dealings with a digital sign company that wanted his help and offered him stock, payments to a consulting firm he formed in 2016, and a summer internship for his son. Evans said he rebuffed all of those offers, but a wave of probes and news reports uncovered a pattern of Evans mixing public service with private business.
Investigations commissioned by the Metro board, where Evans served as chair, and the council found he abused his offices to help clients who paid him $400,000 in consulting fees. Federal prosecutors issued subpoenas to the city government for documents about Evans, and investigators later searched his Georgetown home, but Evans has not been charged with a crime.
Evans’s political career entered free fall last summer as he left the Metro board under pressure, angered allies for falsely claiming the Metro investigation cleared him, and lost his plum council post chairing the Committee on Finance and Revenue. His January resignation from the council came as his colleagues prepared to expel him for ethics violations.
Just 10 days after stepping down, he filed paperwork to run both in the special election triggered by his vacancy and for a full four-year term — angering his council colleagues, who unanimously denounced his attempt to reclaim his seat. Former constituents also found the quick turnaround galling, and even some of his allies encouraged him to move on.
In an interview, Evans acknowledged the timing was bad. He said he would have preferred to take the path of former mayors Marion Barry and Vincent C. Gray, who launched their comebacks years after losing office amid scandal.
“There was no waiting two years because the election is now and the next election is four years from now, which is an eternity in politics,” said Evans, adding that he dropped out of the special election in part to offer voters a year out of office as a self-styled punishment.
On Friday, the same day early voting in the primary started, the city ethics board fined Evans $35,000 for violating the council code of conduct repeatedly while consulting for businesses. Evans claimed vindication in the board’s finding that he had a “mistaken understanding” of ethics rules — even as critics retorted that it’s no comfort for a veteran politician to assert a misunderstanding of ethics.
Even as he offers contrition for the distraction of the ethics investigations, Evans has minimized their findings. He has not apologized for taking money from companies and people with business before the council.
“There was nobody who made money off a decision I made. I didn’t take government money,” Evans said.
But he also concedes that he needs to do more to regain the trust of voters.
Evans promised he won’t hold outside employment if elected, noting his financial situation is better with his 23-year-old triplets now out of college. He promised to stop using his constituent service fund for seasonal sports tickets. And he says he would turn down the special council plates that allowed him to park wherever he wanted — a minor perk that drew him widespread criticism for years.
But some of Evans’s former constituents loathe him so much that he now uses a ladder to hang campaign posters high enough so passersby can’t tear them down. He focuses on calling friends and backers for their support instead of cold-calling voters.
Grossman, the favorite of left-leaning groups, has been the most critical of Evans in the race, starting nearly every candidate forum with a broadside against the former lawmaker and sending anti-Evans mailers to voters.
“We need someone new who is not going to do the same old political machine approach of favoring friends and clients and special interests,” said Grossman, who has raised the most money in the race. “It’s even more unacceptable when you are talking about rebuilding from covid, because those folks who paid Jack are the same folks saying, ‘Hey, give us more tax breaks.’ ”
Most candidates have toned down their criticism of Evans, saying voters already have made up their minds about whether they still like him.
“I have not yet spoken to a voter on the phone who told me they are supporting Jack Evans or said something positive,” said Putta, the Burleith commissioner who has emphasized his public health background and the endorsement of a former surgeon general under former president Barack Obama. “The vast majority said negative things about Jack Evans, and I don’t even have to bring it up.”
'Shackled' to history
Like cities and states across the country, the District has seen its economy decimated by the novel coronavirus, forcing policymakers to make tough choices while crafting budgets.
Evans says his experience on budgets during times of feast and famine is a prime reason to return him to office. The city’s financial turbulence in the 1990s was often on Evans’s mind in recent years as he opposed growing liberal pressure to increase taxes and tap reserves for social service spending.
That fiscal restraint paid off during the pandemic, Evans said, by allowing the mayor to plug budget holes with untouched surpluses, avoiding widespread layoffs or elimination of programs.
“I took a lot of hits, a lot of criticism by a lot of people over the years for being too conservative on the money,” Evans said. “We need that voice. It’s not here.”
But his critics say Evans’s argument overstates his role in the budget process and presumes influence over a council that no longer wants him and that ousted him from overseeing finance and revenue issues.
“If Jack were to get reelected, he would not be granted that committee again, and he doesn’t have the respect of his colleagues,” said Pinto, who touts her two years working on legislation and budget issues in the attorney general’s office. “The idea he could be effective in getting anything done is undermined by his actions and the reality.”
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who has endorsed Kennedy in the race, said officials don’t need Evans to craft responsible budgets.
“Ethics and the integrity of the institution are more important,” Mendelson said. “The council was at a low point last year because of this scandal. Government cannot function well when the public distrust is pervasive.”
Kennedy, the Foggy Bottom commissioner, says the former lawmaker is in some ways “shackled” to history.
“Jack’s ideology is very much rooted in economic development and incentivizing things at all costs based on the idea if we don’t do these things, no one wants to be here and no one wants to locate here,” said Kennedy, who co-chaired Evans’s 2016 reelection campaign. “That’s no longer where we are as a city.”
Kennedy has gone after Evans’s base of support by welcoming the backing of business lobbyists and others — to the chagrin of liberal activists — while offering a friendlier reception to advocates for dense and transit-oriented development.
The council has undergone significant shifts over the past decade. Flush revenue allowed the city to pass a liberal wish list that includes sweeping paid family and medical leave benefits and affordable housing investments.
Generational divides persist through city politics, with some urging fiscal restraint and a focus on neighborhood matters and others pushing the District to join the vanguard of urbanist and liberal movements.
Fanning, the Logan Circle commissioner who also challenged Evans in 2000, said some of the younger candidates are out of touch with moderate and older voters in the District.
“It’s the least progressive ward in the city,” said Fanning, who has focused his campaign on constituent service issues. “Folks are going to look at who is going to look after keeping my taxes low, who is going to make sure my trees are taken care of, who is going to make sure my trash is collected.”
Evans also says he has the best knowledge of his ward over three decades in office and will prevail over younger, fresh challengers. While he awaits the judgment of voters, he carries on as if he weren’t driven out of office.
He watches council hearings on the public access channel and tunes into the mayor’s daily virus briefings. He calls into a listen-only line when the mayor’s office periodically briefs the council on the coronavirus response.
“It hasn’t been that different,” Evans said. “The difference will be, is if I were to lose the election and everyone goes back to work . . . then it will probably hit me that, ‘Hmm. I’ll really be out of this now.’ But I don’t feel out of it right now.”
Correction: This report has been updated to correct the field of candidates running in the June 16 special election. Daniel Hernandez is not a candidate in that race.