He was absent from the candidate forum and has not announced whether he will seek another term.
The field lining up against him features three neighborhood commissioners, a former Obama administration staffer who also worked on Capitol Hill, and two political newcomers.
“There’s an appetite for change and an appetite for a council member with the integrity to represent the interests of all of the ward’s residents,” said Patrick Kennedy, a 28-year-old Foggy Bottom neighborhood commissioner who went from co-chairing Evans’s 2016 reelection campaign to gunning for his job.
Jordan Grossman, a 33-year-old former federal worker, repeatedly blasted Evans as “corrupt” and said he would mark a “clean break” from the incumbent’s political network.
Kishan Putta, a 45-year-old Burleith neighborhood commissioner, focused his criticism of Evans on the city’s controversial decision to allow a private school to gain special access to a public recreation field. Asked to name something Evans did right in 28 years in office, Putta responded after a long pause, “He did very well for himself.”
John Fanning, a 56-year-old Logan Circle-area neighborhood commissioner, rarely mentioned Evans and focused on parochial ward issues such as business retention and various community projects that he played a role in.
“I know how to navigate the government, and I know how to get things done,” said Fanning, who would be the council’s only openly gay member.
Political newcomers Daniel Hernandez, a former Marine who now works for Microsoft, and Yilin Zhang, a daughter of Chinese immigrants who works in health care, also appeared at Thursday’s forum, at the Woman’s National Democratic Club in Dupont Circle. The event was moderated by Delvone Michael, a strategist with the Working Families Party.
All of Evans’s challengers are using the District’s new public financing program, which provides matching funds to candidates who raise money from small donors chipping in less than $50. Grossman has led in early fundraising.
Ward 2 is one of the wealthiest parts of the District, stretching from western neighborhoods including Georgetown and Foggy Bottom through Dupont Circle and the downtown core.
Evans has long been one of the most business-friendly members of the council, overseeing tax abatement legislation and opposing higher taxes and regulations. He is also known for advocating for LGBTQ rights long before that was a mainstream Democratic issue.
Throughout his career, Evans has faced scrutiny for his close ties to executives and others seeking to do business with the city.
But the stakes have escalated over the past two years. A federal grand jury issued subpoenas to the city government for documents about Evans and his private consulting and legal clients, and federal agents searched the lawmaker’s Georgetown home over the summer.
After The Washington Post published emails in which Evans touted his influence and connections as an elected official while soliciting jobs from law firms, the District’s ethics board fined Evans $20,000 and he resigned as board chairman of the Metro public transit agency. The D.C. Council hired a law firm to investigate Evans — a probe that is underway — and ousted him as chair of the influential Finance and Revenue Committee. There is also an effort to force an election to recall Evans before his term expires.
These recent events provided fodder for Evans’s political opponents Thursday.
“We’ve had to compete for the time and attention of the council member with the paying clients who can afford his price,” said Grossman, the former federal worker, who also worked for a D.C. health-care agency. “We need a council member that is focused on us, not his personal finance interest.”
Putta sounded similar alarms in his closing statement.
Evans “has turned his back on his constituents, and that is the worst thing he has done,” said Putta, who also ran for an at-large council seat in 2014.
Evans did not return a request for comment Friday. He has asked his council colleagues to withhold judgment until the conclusion of the investigations, which he said would show “my actions — while not becoming — are far from that which has been reported or suggested.”
The D.C. Council has been drifting leftward in recent years, and the changing politics were on display at the candidate forum.
All candidates said they wanted to restrict campaign contributions from city contractors, decried racial disparities in policing and pushed for more dedicated bike and bus lanes.
One of the few issues where candidates were split involved a pending bill to decriminalize sex work. Fanning, who has criticized prostitution in Logan Circle, said he had not made up his mind. Kennedy drew hisses when he said he opposes the bill as written. The others were supportive.
Some critics of Evans have worried that a crowded primary field will splinter votes and hand Evans a victory, prompting conversations about whether the challengers should unite around the strongest contender.
Asked whether they would drop out and endorse a rival if Evans ran again, every candidate except for Putta said they would consider it or wouldn’t rule it out.
“The number-one priority needs to be getting him out of office, so yes, I would consider it if it came down to it,” Kennedy said.
An earlier version of this story said that Evans was forced to resign as Metro board chair after the transit agency conducted an ethics investigation into his actions. Evans agreed not to seek re-election as board chairman as a sanction for an ethics violation. He subsequently resigned from the board altogether. This story has been updated.