Philadelphia writer at large Sasha Issenberg is keeping tabs on this year’s mayoral race. This month: Are Democrats ready for a black Rizzo?
The other day, Dwight Evans was making his way down 60th Street, not missing an opportunity to hug strangers or joke about getting a "trim" for his bald head. In 1999, Evans ran a mayoral campaign around the need for new gun laws, and found little support in the low-income black neighborhoods of North and West Philadelphia. "Last time he appealed to Rittenhouse, but now he’s got to get the real people on the street," says one operative close to Evans’s camp. Apart from the hugs, the state rep has adopted an unusual method to, as Chuck D put it, "reach the bourgeois and rock the boulevard": He’s running to the right on crime.
Eight years ago, Evans’s gun-control passion made him a liberal crusader and earned him a warm welcome in Center City and the Northwest, but the abstract policy talk did little to rattle front-runner John Street. This time, Evans chose to announce in poor North Central Philadelphia. The slogan Evans unfurled there focuses on violence as it’s lived — "A Safer Philadelphia, Block by Block" — and frames other key issues, like schools and jobs, around security concerns. He promises more cops, the return of ex-commish John Timoney, and a "zero-tolerance policy for disorder." It’s the most muscular anti-crime swagger of any candidate since Frank Rizzo.
In a crowded black field, that stance has made Evans a distinctive voice on the issue most important to voters of both races — a contrast sharpened by front-runner Chaka Fattah’s clumsy quasi-defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal. And recent polling for Controller Alan Butkovitz showed the most support for "stop-and-frisk" policing was in North and West Philadelphia; it was upscale whites in Center City and the Northwest who feared aggressive cops. "Victims of crime aren’t interested in sociological explanations for the root causes of violence," says Evans supporter Carl Singley. "They want somebody to make them safe."
Evans already appears to have united primary factions in the city’s black politics: non-friends of Street (Jerry Mondesire, Marian Tasco), former Street friends (Singley, Bruce Crawley), and current ones (Lana Felton Ghee, union boss Sam Staten). His skepticism about Democratic dogma has made him equally popular across the aisle: Evans is expected to have outgoing Speaker John Perzel on his side and has personally approached key Republicans — including Arlen Specter — about receiving their party’s official support (though how he would do that without becoming a Republican remains a mystery).
Evans is building this tenuous coalition at a rare moment when playing to the boulevard could help win over the bourgeois. For the appeal to work, however, the proudly non-ideological career legislator may have to make some enemies. Much of Evans’s appeal in ’99 came from his willingness to confront teachers unions over reform issues. Flexing some muscle will show zero tolerance for criminals and for orthodoxy — precisely the type of crusade that could win Evans some hugs in Rittenhouse.