Charter school dispute shouldn't obscure Evans' accomplishments

State Rep. Dwight Evans (second from left) in 1999. He encouraged city officials to follow New York City's effective crime-fighting lead.
State Rep. Dwight Evans (second from left) in 1999. He encouraged city officials to follow New York City's effective crime-fighting lead. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / File Photograph)
Posted: October 23, 2011

Allen M. Hornblum

is a narrative historian whose latest book, The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb, is now out in paperback (Yale)

The controversy over whether State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) strong-armed members of the School Reform Commission to favor one educational vendor over another in directing the affairs of Martin Luther King High School may remind some of the old Huey Long line: "The man who pulls the plow gets the plunder in politics." No doubt those with a more forgiving eye toward Evans would counter with the Harry Truman adage: "A leader has to lead, or otherwise he has no business in politics."

I have watched the Evans imbroglio with some interest and would venture a caution about writing off the longtime Northwest Philadelphia representative as a "heavy-handed wheeler dealer" in the autumn of his years. Granted, Evans' star has been on a downward trajectory. His campaigns for higher office have been underwhelming and the recent loss of his Appropriations chairmanship has signaled an embarrassing cold shoulder from his caucus.

For many activists in the city, however, he's still the man. Regardless of whether they are more comfortable in the Union League or the union hall, they see Evans as the go-to guy to take on difficult challenges. He gets things done.

I first met Evans 31 years ago when I was executive director of Americans for Democratic Action. He and a disgruntled legislative colleague, Jim Williams, had a bone to pick with the ADA's legislative reapportionment plan that would give the growing Hispanic community a better shot at winning a legislative seat. Evans and Williams argued that such a plan would harm African Americans. Williams was quite strident and we nearly came to blows. Evans, on the other hand, was cordial, professional, and argued the merits of the case. It would be the first, but not the last, time I'd hear him say, "We can choose to disagree, but let's not be disagreeable." His firm handshake, broad smile, and willingness to research and solve seemingly intractable problems marked him as someone concerned citizens and organizations could turn to for the heavy lifting that changing public policy requires.

Over the years, we worked together on an array of issues stretching from utility reform and juvenile boot camps to electoral campaigns. I was only one of an increasing number of activists who saw Evans as a smart, honest, and dedicated elected official.

Maybe the best example of his resolve in tackling citywide problems was his campaign to reform the Police Department and reclaim neighborhoods from drug dealers and gangland violence.

During the 1990s, something dramatic was happening in New York City. It was thriving. Employment was surging, commercial businesses were flourishing, and the rental and real estate markets were booming. Most important, crime - especially violent crime - was falling through the floorboards. In New York City, once the murder capital of the nation, homicides went from 2,500 annually in the early '90s to fewer than 1,000 by the end of the decade. New York City's astounding success was universally acclaimed and it put Police Commissioner William Bratton on the cover of Time magazine.

As a former member of the Pennsylvania Crime Commission, I could only admire the transformation and wonder why the same was not happening in my hometown. In Philadelphia, crime had flatlined at an appallingly high rate, people were afraid to leave their homes, and the streets were ruled by thugs and drug dealers.

I repeatedly asked Evans to visit New York and see the renaissance for himself, but he turned me down. Finally, I showed him an article in 1997 that mentioned several Republicans traveling to see the economic miracle for themselves, and Evans finally agreed to meet with Bratton.

The meeting lasted less than two hours, but it was clear Evans learned more about contemporary urban policing that morning than he had in his four decades in Philadelphia. On the train ride home, Evans decided to mount a campaign to reform the Police Department and get it to adopt the crime-fighting strategies employed in New York.

He put together a potent political coalition of Democrats and Republicans, hired me to coordinate a series of town meetings, and brought to Philadelphia some of the nation's brightest law enforcement experts to meet with the public and editorial boards. For the first time, residents learned that Philly was known nationally as a backwater of policing and generally unreceptive to the latest developments in contemporary crime-fighting.

Mayor Ed Rendell saw the Evans effort as a threat and called him a "charlatan" and "snake oil salesman," but he showed up with hundreds of others when Evans brought Bratton to town to discuss what Philly needed to do to successfully fight crime. No other politician in the city would have challenged Rendell so publicly. When the mayor saw editorials endorsing the Evans effort and more and more people calling for change, he knew it was time to get on the train before it left the station. Rendell fired his own police commissioner, hired a Bratton disciple as his new chief, and the rest is history. The Police Department and all Philadelphians are much better off for the change, but it never would have happened without Dwight Evans.

Over the years, Evans and I haven't always agreed on things, but he has been a shining example of what a lone lawmaker can accomplish when he has the character and political moxie to take on the powers that be. I don't know what went on at that closed-door meeting between SRC officials and the vendors, nor do I know what the future portends for Evans, but I do know this city would be a lot better off if we had more elected officials like him.


E-mail Allen M. Hornblum at ahornblum@comcast.net.

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