Dwight or wrong: The rise and fall (?) of Dwight Evans

Posted: October 07, 2011

STATE REP. DWIGHT Evans offers no apologies. Not for any of it.

Not for his 30-year effort to revitalize Ogontz Avenue in West Oak Lane. Not for the last decade trying to make Stenton Avenue a corridor of top-notch education choices, with Martin Luther King High School the centerpiece.

Not for the "bulldog-on-a-bone" way he lobbied for an educational nonprofit, Foundations Inc., to take control of that school, including backroom pressure that has now cast him as a big-time bully.

He does offer explanations.

He says that state House colleagues from the city helped topple him in December from his powerful post as Democratic Appropriations Committee chairman over "petty politics" and not an oversize appetite for the spoils of power.

Evans, 57, says that he had a better plan for the school but that the fact that it is going nowhere now is proof that he didn't wield unreasonable power in the issue.

If he had, Evans reasons, the school would be his now.

Evans comes across as a heavy-handed wheeler-dealer in a report about the high-school issue released two weeks ago by Mayor Nutter's chief integrity officer.

That portrayal, of a guy who berated people and made veiled threats when he didn't get his way, reads like an aberration to people who have followed his career.

Evans was for a long time the pragmatic dealmaker, the closer who figured out what people needed and found a way to get it for them, in exchange for support.

He didn't employ the better-known, and sometimes notorious, city political tactics, such as former state Sen. Vince Fumo's dramatic tantrums or ex- state House Speaker John Perzel's calculating fury.

Was the toll - the loss of power in Harrisburg, the defeat of his education plans, all on top of his 2007 loss in the race for mayor - to blame for the way Evans charged headlong through the last couple of months?

"I know everybody wants to do some sort of psychoanalysis on me, but I think I'm fine," Evans said, sitting in a restaurant in the heart of his political power base, the Ogontz Plaza. "You do the best you can in anything you can. Look, I'm a risk-taker. I don't apologize for taking risks."

Carl Singley, a lawyer active in politics and a longtime friend, said that the report shows behavior "out of character" for Evans.

But then it also would have been out of character to give up when the School Reform Commission rejected his plans.

"This has been his life's work," Singley said. "It wasn't politics."

Evans now will try to pull off a difficult trick: He wants to put all this behind him, while writing a book about it. The book, which will focus on his community-building, could be an opening gambit in a plan to commoditize his experience and offer it to other areas in need of such help.

Evans shrugs off talk that he won't agree to being a backbencher, out of power in the state House, or that he is looking for a federal job or some other opportunity. He vows to run for re-election next year.

How will that go? Consider: Evans, greeted warmly by residents as he roams his legislative district, probably could win re-election with ease. But people who have always seen him as a formidable force are now talking about the end of his career. Still, they are doing so from the shelter of anonymity.

"He stayed around too long. It's time for him to leave," said a political consultant who is a longtime observer of the local landscape. "It's sad, really."

"He's at the end of his career," said a Philly Republican leader. "He might stay in the House, but he'll never be anybody again."

The ghostwriters of Evans' political obituary point to a string of political defeats and embarrassments that once seemed unimaginable.

The timeline for his fall from grace goes something like this:

* Evans finished fifth with a measly 7 percent of the vote in the 2007 Democratic primary election for mayor.

The resounding defeat came despite a quasi-endorsement from then-Gov. Rendell - he described Evans as the "best-qualified" for the job - and despite a record of accomplishment on issues that mattered to voters: crime, education, rebuilding neighborhoods.

It was his second failed mayoral candidacy. But many who saw Evans finish last in the Democratic primary in 1999 assumed that he had a better shot in 2007.

"He should have emerged as a serious candidate," said the political consultant, a former Evans supporter. But Evans couldn't connect with voters, couldn't get people to look at him as anything other than a policy wonk.

Driving around West Oak Lane, Evans talks about the time he ran for governor, the time he ran for lieutenant governor, but doesn't bring up the 2007 race.

"That was really tough for him," said another longtime supporter of Evans. "He put himself out there personally, and people rejected him. It's hard to recover from that."

* Last summer, Evans took heat after the Inquirer raised questions over the state-funded West Oak Lane Jazz Festival, the organizers of which claimed in requests for state grants that the event attracts 500,000 people.

The Inquirer said that the event, run by Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp., which Evans created in 1983, did not attract anywhere near that many people. According to state records, the festival received $4.5 million in funding during the last 10 years.

* The fuss over the festival paled compared with the devastating blow Evans suffered in November, when he was ousted as chairman of the influential Appropriations Committee. He had held the post for 20 years.

The stunning loss revealed that Evans - who had long enjoyed a reputation for being a consensus builder - was deeply resented by some of his peers.

"If he'd treated all the members of the caucus equally instead of only taking care of his lapdogs, he'd still be the Democratic appropriations chairman," state Rep. Angel Cruz wrote in a letter to the Daily News.

"Dwight wanted to be like Fumo," said the political consultant. "He wanted to have that kind of power. The thing is, people don't like to be bullied."

* Shock turned to embarrassment in March when Evans was caught lying to the Daily News about his involvement with the school district's decision to award a contract to operate Martin Luther King High School to Foundations Inc., a New Jersey-based nonprofit.

The contract initially had been awarded to Mosaica, a Georgia-based for-profit company chosen by parents and the School Reform Commission over Foundations, which had run MLK for almost a decade with only poor academic results to show.

Evans' denial that he had something to do with the about-face unraveled when an audio recording of an interview he gave to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook was posted on the Notebook's website.

"I was like a bulldog on a bone," Evans said of his efforts to convince the SRC to change its mind. "You saw it in my eyes and my face."

* The story about the Martin Luther King High debacle grew worse last month, when the city's chief integrity officer, Joan Markman, released a report that detailed bullying tactics employed by Evans and SRC Chairman Robert Archie to ensure that Foundations got the contract.

The report claimed that Evans had made it clear that he wouldn't work with Mosaica, and also put pressure on then-Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to back Foundations.

Although Markman interviewed more than 30 people, Evans declined, instead issuing a statement criticizing how the SRC had made its decision.

In the wake of the report, Evans released a statement that he was "stunned" that he had been characterized "as a puppet master who has the ability to pull strings and make people dance."

He now denies berating Ackerman, as she told Markman, and said that he told John Porter, a Mosaica executive, in a private meeting just after the SRC vote, that he wanted to move on rather than work together at the high school. Evans said he did not threaten to withhold support to make Mosaica fail and could not say why Porter felt that way.

"He never expressed that to me," Evans said.

If Evans thinks that he has done nothing wrong, he's not alone.

City Council members, including Marian Tasco and Jim Kenney, spoke out in his defense.

Mayor Nutter, in an interview with WHYY this week, stopped short of criticizing Evans.

"The end result is the end result - I think it was a passionate advocacy," Nutter said, when asked if Evans had gone too far. "I wish my friend had stayed within the lines. But his passion is duly noted and he cares about kids."

The question now: Where does Evans go from here?

"It would be bad for the city of Philadelphia if Dwight Evans were to leave elected office," said state Sen. Vincent Hughes. "He remains someone who is very much focused on public policy. He remains well-respected in a number of circles, especially in the business community."

Hughes said that some people enjoy kicking Evans when he is down, but others still value his input, even if they don't speak up in the midst of controversy.

Evans says that he hopes within a month to enlist the help of a writer to work on his book and help pitch it to publishers.

"Let's see if there's any value to what I have done," he said.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|