Power: The Dwight Stuff?

From schools to crime, mayoral wannabe Dwight Evans has spent more than a decade talking about the issues that matter most to Philly. So why can’t he connect with voters?

WHEN IT COMES TO EXPLAINING WHY HE should be the mayor of Philadelphia, Dwight Evans likes to present the listener with a list. A list is clear. A list is concise. But as Evans learned in February of 1999, an audience may not be ready for The List.

[sidebar]The scene is a mayoral candidates forum in the Grand Ballroom of the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue hotel. The emcee is Zack Stalberg, then editor of the Daily News. Evans and the other candidates line a table to Stalberg’s right.

“Imagine — and that’s such a nice word — imagine you’re at the end of your first term,” Stalberg says. “What was your biggest accomplishment, and how did you pull it off?” He calls on Evans.

“What I’m gonna do is show-and-tell,” Evans says. “David?”

A 30-ish man enters from stage right. He hoists a giant, incomprehensible bar graph above his head.

“Population change of the TOP 50 CITIES,” Evans says. “Philadelphia between 1990 and 1960 has been LOSING more population than any other two cities except St. Louis and Baltimore. And the question is, how do you reverse that trend?”

The audience begins murmuring.

“What I’d like to talk about is eight points, and how to reverse that trend. David, could you just move around so they could see the chart there?” The crowd is chuckling. Didn’t he hear the question?

“The first issue that I think it’s very IMPORTANT to deal with is the aspect of CHANGING THE POLITICAL CULTURE. … ” Dwight Evans, when imparting a list, emphasizes critical words and phrases, though in such a way so as to make it unclear whether he is being emphatic or is in a very foul mood.

“Second, there has to be an improvement of public safety. We have to reduce illegal guns on the street. … ”

Cutlery is now striking plates, a sure sign the audience has been lost, one question into the event.

“Six, we have to DIVERSIFY our economic development strategy. And last but not least” — apparently The List has gone from eight points to seven — “we must have leadership. We must have leadership that can work within. We must have leadership that can work with Harrisburg. … ” He withdraws another visual aid, this one from beside his chair. It’s a copy of a Daily News front page decrying pay-to-play. “This should not be ACCEPTABLE in the City of Philadelphia. We should be outraged at — ”

“Dwight,” Stalberg interjects. He has had enough of The List. Evans stops speaking.

“Ah, Dwight just proved,” Stalberg says, to much tension-releasing laughter, “that he doesn’t really need to answer the question.”

IF YOU’RE WONDERING how I learned about this moment, the answer isn’t that I was there in 1999, or that one of Evans’s enemies slipped me a DVD. I was slipped a DVD — but it was by Evans himself, in January, during an interview at his West Oak Lane office. For Evans, it was evidence that he had offered solutions to the city’s most pressing problems — illegal guns, poorly managed schools and pay-to-play — long before it was fashionable to do so. That he didn’t offer those solutions elegantly is beside the point. 

The whole episode might not even be worth mentioning except that it seems to have repeated itself eight years later. At a recent mayoral forum at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Evans arrives late, as does Chaka Fattah. The other candidates have answered the first question — how would you prioritize the Next Great City coalition’s environmental recommendations? — and now it’s Evans’s turn.

“What I want to first and foremost say,” Evans begins, “is just imagine. Just imagine. Just imagine a city which doesn’t have the level of violence that we have. … ” He describes a Philadelphia with a low crime rate and good schools. An international destination. After nearly two minutes, there’s the ding of an electronic “your-time-is-up” bell.

“What should an education system do?” Evans asks, undeterred. “First and foremost, it should reduce violence.” The bell double-dings. It doesn’t matter. The List is a train pulling out of the station, and no double ding shall slow its mighty rumble.

“The second aspect that it should do is reduce poverty,” Evans says. “The third aspect of an education system … ”

And so on, over the objections of the moderator, the consternation of the audience, and the quiet glee of his rivals.

To people whose knowledge of Evans comes only from television, it may be a surprise that this purveyor of lists has received the endorsement of three of the city’s most important unions. Or that such influential insiders as Bruce Crawley and Carl Singley are behind him. Or that Philadelphia’s Black Clergy have given him a nod. Even more interesting, perhaps, is what political consultant Larry Ceisler and many others — Democrats and Republicans — say about Evans. “If you ask people who deal with state and city policy,” Ceisler says, “most of them would say Dwight Evans would make the best mayor.”

The problem for Evans is that people in the policy business don’t decide elections. Voters do, and in that area, Evans — ahead of the curve on issues or not — has often struggled to make a connection. In the 1999 Democratic mayoral primary, for instance, he finished an anemic fifth in a five-person field, and in this spring’s primary, things look only slightly more promising. In two recent polls, just 10 percent and 12 percent of respondents said they’d vote for Evans. He remains hopeful that the public at large will come to view him the way the policy wonks do, but in this town, history shows that’s a risky gambit.

“My assumptions were always predicated on the belief that the electorate could see through the smog,” says Sam Katz, drawing parallels between his losing 2003 mayoral bid and Evans’s campaign now. “The last 30 days of 2003 didn’t give any plausibility to that assumption. You had people with master’s degrees who thought a conspiracy at the White House is the reason a listening device was planted in the office of the Mayor. So if you’re predicating a campaign on the savvy of the electorate, that’s probably a bad calculation.”

DWIGHT EVANS, WHO’S 52, has been a state representative for 26 years. His district includes the West Oak Lane section of northwest Philadelphia, which is 95 percent African-American and middle-to-lower class. In addition to twice running for mayor, he ran for lieutenant governor, in 1986, and governor, in 1994. In 1999, the first time he ran for mayor, he was not only the youngest of the candidates running, he was the youngest-looking. Eight years later, he’s shaved his head and put on a few pounds, but the extra weight is carried well: He looks more statesmanlike, more credible.

He’s also funny. Yes, you read that right. In fact, his natural persona is so different from what he projects on television or at campaign forums that it’s almost startling. On a Tuesday morning in January, Evans took me on a tour of North Philadelphia, Germantown and West Oak Lane. Most of our time was spent talking policy, but what struck me most was Evans’s demeanor — he was smiling, teasing some of his advisers, laughing and hugging the students at Martin Luther King High School when they ran to meet him.

“You’re cold, right, Murph?” he kept saying to a staff member, with a laugh. It must have been 20 degrees out, and “Murph,” one of the four entourage members trailing us, had on a jacket you wouldn’t want to wear past November. “You can’t stand it, right?”

The lighter, warmer side of Evans is something his colleagues in Harrisburg know well, and it’s helped him become an effective legislator. Dan Surra, a state representative from Clearfield and Elk counties, remembers when Evans came to Surra’s home in Kersey, PA, years ago. “The world Dwight lives and operates in is different from the world I work and operate in,” says Surra. “But Dwight drove from Philadelphia and had a meatloaf dinner at my house. I think he was the first African-American my children had ever seen. Everyone in my family is around five-foot-six, but here comes this tall guy with a big smile. Before the end of the afternoon, they were climbing on him like a tree.”

Evans spent his childhood in North Philadelphia. He was born in 1954 — the day before the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Back then, North Philly was still a decade away from becoming the island of poverty and violence it is now. 

“You see that,” he said as we stood on North 17th Street. He pointed to a handful of refurbished brownstones in an otherwise bleak block. “That’s what the whole neighborhood looked like. There were kids playing, people out washing their stoop. On that corner? That used to be a police station. There were jobs. There was activity. You know, as a kid, growing up here, it was a good environment.”

Evans’s family moved twice when he was in his teens. The moves suggest something about his mother, who was the guardian of Evans and his four siblings after his parents separated. With each move, she was taking the family, as best she could within her means, to black neighborhoods of safety and middle-class stability. When North Philadelphia began falling apart, she took the family to East Tulpehocken Street in Germantown. When that area took a turn for the worse, the family settled in West Oak Lane. The Evanses were a part of the little-known history of intra-migration in Philadelphia — black flight, you might call it — and you can see how the values behind those choices made an impression on Evans. His career has been guided by the idea that government should bring stabilizing institutions — schools, supermarkets, community development organizations — to neighborhoods that without them would begin the descent from North 17th Street circa 1957 to North 17th Street circa 2007.

Evans put this philosophy into action in 1983, not long after being elected to the State Senate, when he helped create the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation (OARC). With the help of state, federal and foundation funding, OARC had its first success in rebuilding the abandoned Ogontz mall. OARC now has an operating budget of $12 million, and one of its latest projects is rehabbing abandoned houses near Martin Luther King High School. OARC manages subsidized housing, fixes up old commercial properties, and has even developed a popular charter school.

But if keeping West Oak Lane flush has kept Evans in office for two and a half decades, it was a fight with Ed Rendell that showed he is a very different kind of Democrat, one who should, in theory, be positioned to win this election.

IN 1996, EVANS and four other Philadelphia state legislators — including three white Republicans from the Northeast — started publicly questioning Mayor Ed Rendell and police commissioner Richard Neal about why Philadelphia wasn’t adopting New York’s pro-active, “broken windows” style of policing. Crime was dropping in New York, while in 1995, Philadelphia had 432 murders. Philly’s state representatives tended not to meddle in the nuts and bolts of the city’s affairs, but Evans felt the lack of progress in reducing crime merited a change in strategy. For the three white Republicans, there wasn’t much to lose, but it’s hard to see what Evans had to gain unless he actually believed in what he was doing.

“I took heat from [NAACP head] Jerry Mondesire, because [Neal was] an African-American police commissioner,” Evans says. “But the department wasn’t working.”

Rendell initially had the upper hand on the group, known as the Gang of Five — he claimed crime went down 17 percent between the first half of 1996 and the first half of 1997 — but that changed when a Daily News investigation showed that Neal’s police department had been drastically underreporting crime to the FBI. By this time, Evans and the Gang were holding town meetings with people like New York’s legendary former police commissioner William Bratton as featured speakers.

Rendell eventually hired Bratton as a consultant, and Neal resigned. Former Bratton deputy John Timoney was named the new commissioner. (In this campaign, Evans says he’ll rehire Timoney. Timoney has said he’s happy where he is, as Miami’s police chief.)

The narrative — Evans moves to the political center, joins a bipartisan alliance, and angers major players in the Democratic Party — repeated itself in the Great School Crisis of 1998, when superintendent David Hornbeck announced that without an additional $85 million in state aid, he would shut down the entire Philadelphia school system. The plan put forward by Republican Governor Tom Ridge — which was designed by Evans — was to authorize a state takeover if Hornbeck made good on his promise. For this, Evans drew the wrath of the teachers union, the AFL-CIO, and his then-nemesis, Jerry Mondesire. Mondesire, on the front page of the newspaper he publishes, the Sun, compared Evans to Clarence Thomas. The AFL-CIO spearheaded negative radio ads targeting Evans during his 1998 re-election campaign.

But alliances are rarely permanent in politics. Today, the city clamors for a mayor with law-and-order credentials; charter schools are, by and large, supported; and even Jerry Mondesire is now backing Evans.

“Dwight has pulled off a miracle in West Oak Lane,” Mondesire says. “No other elected official has produced such a dramatic turn in so impoverished a neighborhood. … This city could use 10 Dwight Evanses.” (This may be true, but it is also the case that for Mondesire, the city could use zero Chaka Fattahs. Mondesire has a long-standing feud with Fattah, and he may see Evans as the candidate most able to defeat him.)

Crime, schools, the economy: these have been Evans’s issues for at least a decade. The irony is that those same issues are now lifting other candidates in the polls. On an emotional level, is it frustrating to see other candidates take the lead on public safety? Evans draws a deep breath and leans forward.

“When you ask the question How do I feel?,” he says, “I guess I would say I’m finally glad they have arrived to what I had known a long time ago.”

campaign, Evans is a step ahead of other candidates on another issue. In February he held a press conference endorsing Dan Anders, an openly gay candidate for Common Pleas judge, and became the first mayoral candidate to pledge support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community. He says that as mayor he would encourage and support openly gay candidates to run for city office and judicial positions, ensure that his cabinet and senior staff “reflect the city’s diversity,” and establish an LGBT liaison and advisory board.

Evans is extremely protective of his personal life. He has never married, and when a reporter once asked if he had a significant other, he quipped, “My work.” In a 1998 profile in this magazine, he said a query into speculation about his private life was not a “fair question.”

“It’s hard to know Dwight,” says Sam Katz. “I’ve known him for 20 years, and I don’t really know him. And I don’t know people who say they do know him. He has some close political friends, and close personal friends, but I don’t know who they are. That’s not a criticism, that’s just how it is.”

Evans says he spends his evenings watching ESPN or movies. “Let me tell you, I like to do what every other normal person does … go to movies, have a little, small group of friends. But I think I do what normal people like to do. … I like to go out and see a group play — Frankie Beverly and the Whispers. Go to the Robin Hood Dell when I get the chance.”

At press time, Evans said his campaign had somewhere around $2 million — not enough to launch the kind of media blitz he might need in a field of heavyweights. Evans’s hope is that over time, through his appearances, editorials, word of mouth and endorsements, thinking voters will see what he’s accomplished and decide he’s the best man for the job.

“I ran for governor and came in second,” Evans says when asked about his inability to translate his one-on-one rapport with people to a larger stage. “Look how many races I’ve run. I’ve won more races than I’ve lost, right?

“Look at Ed Rendell,” Evans continues. “He lost bad to Bob Casey and to Wilson Goode, right? And in ’91, when he won, most people didn’t think he had a shot. He won that mayor’s race and went on to run for governor. So, I mean, people say that. There’s not much I can say about that.”

Evans is right about Rendell, but it seems an odd analogy. Rendell’s political gift is his ability to connect with audiences — to win them over with his charm and candor and undeniable comfort in his own skin, even when they might not agree with him on the issues. Evans is different: just as solid on substance, but to many people in this city, a mystery.

In late January, I went to one of Evans’s press conferences, and before the event, I had a conversation with the building’s front-desk officer, an African-American man around 50 years old. He had opinions on every issue I brought up, but when I asked what he thought of Dwight Evans, he was stumped.

“I just, ah — I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, he’s … ” He looked at me and shook his head. “I just don’t know, man.”