But business advocates say the council will lose valuable institutional memory — and an important ally for their community — when Evans steps down next Friday, days before his colleagues were set to formally expel him. His close ties to business helped lead to his downfall; investigations found he used his office to help companies paying him hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees.
Evans joined the council starting in the early 1990s, as the District struggled with out-of-control crime and failing schools, teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and saw residents leave in droves.
He hails from an older generation of D.C. politicos who tended to be warmer to development and tougher on crime, and to have a more transactional approach to politics.
A majority of the remaining 12 council members have taken office in the past five years, at a time of growing prosperity and booming revenue. Some replaced or unseated rising stars who, like Evans, were undone by corruption scandals.
The body has become more aggressively liberal in pursuing policies such as paid family and medical leave, while working to reduce the influence of money in politics by establishing publicly financed elections and banning contributions from city contractors.
Evans acknowledged the changing dynamics in interviews with ethics investigators in the fall.
“The Council I have now wants to raise everything through the roof,” he said, according to interview transcripts. “You know, we’re back to the tax-and-spend days of the ’80s and ’90s that bankrupted the city originally.”
But liberals contend that Evans lost touch with his constituents and failed to take seriously the consequences of the city’s growth: rising displacement of longtime African American residents and growing income inequality.
“Evans’s resignation is a reflection of a huge power shift on the council,” said Makia Green, a Ward 2 resident and organizer with the D.C. Working Families Party. “He was always a surefire vote for special interests and the business community, and we have seen time and time again that prosperity has not translated into support for a fair economy for working-class residents.”
Others, including Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), warn that advocates are demanding an unsustainable level of spending.
“Voters should be concerned that the council is becoming less moderate,” said Mendelson, who counted on Evans to help block tax increases and efforts to lower the voting age, among other issues. “We need to be continuously watchful of our fiscal strength while at the same time using that strength to help with social programs.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) sounded similar alarms this week, decrying “enemies of economic development” on the council, who she declined to name. These council members, she said, have been too quick to oppose or criticize development deals.
The more liberal members of the council say scrutiny of the impact of such deals and whether government subsidies are needed is in the best interest of residents.
“There’s a lot of members who are concerned we are pushing out poor people in this city, and that has to stop,” said D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), whose challenger in the 2018 election was strongly backed by the mayor and business interests. “We have been doing it through public policies and laws that have been passed by our own council, and there’s a growing group of members who say we can’t do this anymore.”
For two decades, Evans chaired the influential Committee on Finance and Revenue. In that role, he was a gatekeeper for tax breaks to lure companies to the District and to finance development deals. He could also block tax increases.
Businesses felt they could count on Evans, who saw them as the foundation for a thriving city. Some corporate and civic leaders say they fear more left-leaning lawmakers view businesses as a piggy bank to pay for liberal priorities.
“Although the economy has done well for so long, it’s somehow easy to forget it could go away,” said Kevin Clinton, chief operating officer of the Federal City Council, a business advocacy group. “The challenge and need for the business community is going to be to work harder to convey the message of the importance of investment and making sure the growth of business and attentiveness to business is part of the cards.”
Ed Lazere, who leads the left-leaning D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute and unsuccessfully ran for council chairman in 2018, said Evans’s experience during the city’s tougher times made him less skeptical about helping business owners and the affluent during the current boom.
“Being stuck in that old mentality of ‘we are so desperate for development we will give anyone a tax break’ is not only insufficient, but a lost opportunity for the kind of development we need,” Lazere said.
Critics of development deals say they want better terms for taxpayers and residents. For example, the city gave a $46 million tax break for the Line hotel in Adams Morgan, but a subsequent review found the project failed to meet local hiring requirements that were part of the agreement.
Lazere said Evans was too quick to hand out tax breaks without demanding accountability.
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who took over most of Evans’s responsibilities as finance chair, is set to inherit the mantle as the council’s most business-minded member. A native Washingtonian, he often casts business issues as a matter of racial justice, stressing the need to empower African American entrepreneurs and create better-paying jobs in poorer, predominantly black neighborhoods.
“It’s important to make sure we have partnerships with businesses, especially small businesses, and making sure they have the tools they need to grow and hire more residents,” McDuffie said in an interview this week.
In recent years, Evans cast a deciding vote to defeat legislation lowering the voting age to 16, approve a controversial no-bid sports gambling contract and use Internet sales tax revenue to lower commercial property taxes instead of funding homeless services.
A special election to fill his seat for the rest of the year is scheduled for June, and six candidates are competing in the Democratic primary to represent Ward 2 for the four-year term that begins in January. All are running to the left of Evans, who has considered mounting a comeback bid, according to people who have spoken to him. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
Council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) also face primary challenges from the left this year. And liberal member David Grosso (I-At Large) is not seeking reelection, leaving a wide-open race to succeed him in November.
Left-leaning activists are hoping to consolidate power.
“Both Jack’s resignation and the upcoming primary elections feel like a pretty significant turning point in D.C. politics,” said Sarah Novick, who leads the political arm of the D.C. branch of Jews United for Justice.
But business advocates say liberal groups should be careful what they wish for.
“You have to have a thriving business community to have a tax base and the money that you need to do all the other things you want to do for the people at large,” said Barbara Lang, a former head of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. “We are in for some challenging times ahead in the city.”