From Michelle Lancaster. Follow her on Twitter @MichLancaster.
Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) doesn’t live in the Dupont Circle neighborhood anymore; he moved to Georgetown a number of years ago. However, his 20 years on the DC Council representing Ward 2 have made him a well-known fixture in the Dupont-Logan area — and the entire city. First elected in 1992, Evans is running for a sixth four-year term, with a campaign office at 1402 14th Street NW. While he has no challenger in sight, Evans is raising money and says he will go door-to-door as the April 3 primary draws closer. Evans talked to Borderstan about chairing ANC 2B/Dupont, how 17th Street NW has changed, DC taxes and, yes, his Constituent Services Fund.
Borderstan: Most residents of Borderstan are at least familiar with your name if not your service — you’ve represented the area for quite some time. Can you take us back to the beginning? What brought you to DC and how did you get interested in public service?
Evans: After spending the summers of 1975 and 1976 in the District, I moved here permanently in 1978. I had just finished law school and accepted a job at the Securities and Exchange Commission. Thirty-three years later, here I am.
Borderstan: Before you were elected to the Council, you served on Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B/Dupont. What were the toughest issues you tackled at the ANC?
Evans: I chaired the Dupont Circle ANC from 1989-1991. During this time we faced many similar challenges, as well as some that thankfully no longer exist. Back then, the biggest issue was development. There were four large-scale development projects slated for the neighborhood that would have completely changed the character of the area, and we were successful in stopping them all. This process also resulted in the creation of the Dupont Overlay district, which continues to protect the neighborhood today.
We also dealt with the increased issuance of liquor licenses along 17th Street. When I first moved to 17th and P Streets [NW], one-third of the businesses along 17th Street [from P to R Streets NW] were vacant. Over time, restaurants moved in and were welcome. However, at some point, 50% of the approximately 40 storefronts had ABC licenses. To stop this trend, the ANC worked to create what was then the second alcohol moratorium in the city, with Georgetown being the other.
We also faced many challenges that any transitioning neighborhood sees, including crime. To walk from my condo at the Webster House to Logan Circle was especially dangerous at that time, especially once you crossed over 16th Street. A lot has changed since then.
Borderstan: You seem to relish the challenges, or perhaps they find you. In the midst of a difficult fiscal time, you have been tasked with the chairmanship of the committee on finance and revenue. Can you explain to a, hmm, more passive observer of DC politics what the budget problems are, how they came to be and what the Council is doing to address them?
Evans: Overall, the city is in good financial shape — I wouldn’t trade our situation for any other jurisdiction, city or state, in the country. That being said, I do believe that we are on an unsustainable path. For example, over the past three years, the District has spent almost $1 billion in reserves. This is a precarious situation to be in and I will continue to work to ensure our rainy day fund is available for when we truly need it. We also seem to find our city with perpetual spending pressures — otherwise known as ‘budget deficits’ — in certain areas of our government. We need to spend each dollar wisely and maximize our return. Frankly, some of our agencies have been poorly run and are chronic over spenders and under providers.
Many of my colleagues on the Council seem to think the answer to recent revenue shortfalls is new taxes on residents and small businesses. Our rates of commercial property tax, income tax for individuals and businesses and sales tax are already the highest in the region, and in some cases, the nation. Raising taxes might help to close the shortfall now, but it will also put us at a greater competitive disadvantage with Maryland and Virginia in the future.
Finally, we need to set better priorities. Our police force is at its lowest number of sworn officers ever and is about to fall below 3,800, the number Chief Lanier says is necessary to keep our city safe. Libraries and rec centers are closed on weekends — all because the Administration says we don’t have the money. Yet the Mayor and my colleagues just passed the largest budget in the District’s history, which I voted against.
Borderstan: The other big issue for the Council this term is redistricting. You played a role in proposing the revised wards, and received some flack for it. What would you say to critics of the plan? For the rest of DC, can you explain why it was necessary and why no one would likely be happy with any plan that emerged?
Evans: One of the goals of redistricting all along was to keep neighborhoods together, which I think we accomplished by moving the entirety of Shaw into Ward 6 and reuniting all of Penn Quarter in Ward 2. I have said it before and I’ll say it again — redistricting brings out the absolute worst in people. Nobody likes change, especially after 10 years of identifying with a particular neighborhood. That being said, we listened closely to residents, readjusted our original plan and came out with something that works.
Borderstan: The Council’s term has been overshadowed by ethics inquiries. You’ve gone so far as to openly criticize some of your fellow council members’ behavior. Now, the Post is reporting that you allegedly used a substantial sum — more than $100,000 — from your constituent fund to pay for professional sporting tickets. That fund has been loosely regulated but is supposed to go towards activities that benefit constituents. How did this meet that test? (Editor’s note: Borderstan received two tickets for a Nationals pre-season fan fest event in March. The tickets were given to Borderstan for our assistance with a community forum for At-Large Council candidates in March. The tickets were not used.)
Evans: It should first be pointed out that council members’ Constituent Service Funds are not taxpayer dollars, as many believe. These are privately raised funds used for a wide variety of purposes. The tickets purchased with my fund have sent hundreds of people to DC sporting events — school kids, seniors and others that otherwise wouldn’t have such an opportunity. These tickets are also donated to charitable groups like DC Vote and Ross Elementary for auctions and fundraisers. There has been no violation of any District law or regulation, as confirmed by the Office of Campaign Finance in the Washington Post article.
The Post reported that 30% of the Constituent Services Fund since 2002 went towards purchasing tickets for constituents. This means the balance went to residents in need of rental, utility and burial assistance, as well as other constituent related matters. The Constituent Service Fund spending was a good balance.
Borderstan: Let’s talk about the upcoming election. Reports are that you are amassing a war chest, yet have no challenger as of yet. Do you expect a fight this time?
Evans: I always look forward to the give-and-take of political campaigns and the 2012 election is no exception. The Evans 2012 team is out in full force. We have a great headquarters on 14th Street in the heart of the Ward, have started our fundraising efforts and are spreading the word about our work across Ward 2. Twenty years on the Council have taught me to never take anything for granted, so we will continue to campaign aggressively whether we have an opponent or not.
Borderstan: Every time we talk to someone running for office, we ask for your abbreviated message to voters. If you were knocking on my door in Dupont, what would you say to convince me to vote for you? Side note — do you still knock on doors?
Evans: Before I told you anything, I would ask you about the issues of greatest concern to you. I would ask about your experience in the neighborhood and what has been working and what hasn’t.
From there, I would tell you about the great strides that have been made across the Ward during my tenure on the Council, from the passage of gay marriage, to a host of major infrastructure improvements, to a city that works today in a way that it did not twenty years ago. We still face significant challenges in the District. This is what gets me up every morning and keeps me engaged and interested in the job. I went through several pairs of shoes during the 2008 campaign and expect the same this year, although I’ll likely be replacing them with winter boots now that the major campaign season will be in the late fall and winter.
Borderstan: As a resident and parent of school-aged kids in DC, how do you, as a parent, feel about the state of city schools? Do you send your kids there? What else needs to be done to improve them?
Evans: Overall, I feel more positive about the state of our schools. We have made great strides in education during the past several years, and education reform has been at the forefront of our public school system. I am also encouraged by the charter school movement and the new community college at the University of the District of Columbia. We have seen test scores rise, another positive reflection of the direction we are taking.
I was the architect of the funding for the School Modernization Act, which enabled the District to rebuild and renovate dozens of our schools and thus provided our children with a safe and hospitable environment in which to learn.
With that being said, education is a very personal decision and one made by the whole family. My children do not attend DC Public Schools.
Borderstan: What is your vision for the neighborhood, and for the city for the next decade? What can the city do to keep a young, upwardly mobile population in the city with high rent and a relative dearth of new small businesses? Simply stated, do you have a plan for incorporating the creative class that drives Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy nuts?
Evans: Our city needs to continue to assist in the development of all of our neighborhoods. In Ward 2, I have worked tirelessly for over 20 years to make sure each neighborhood is safe and benefits from an efficient and effective delivery of services to residents. I envision our entire city having the types of neighborhoods we have in Ward 2.
We must do all we can to encourage and support small businesses in the District. They are the backbone of our economy and many of our neighborhoods. Without them, we lose a big part of what makes our neighborhoods and city unique. I believe that an infrastructure that is conducive to multiple transportation options is vital for all residents, not just the “young and upwardly mobile.”
Borderstan: I know you work hard, but you know they say all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. So tell us, what do you do for ‘play?’ For example, we’re curious about your favorite restaurants, bookstores, coffee shop…
Evans: I spend a lot of my time outside of the Council with my family — I am recently re-married and now have six kids and a dog, which keeps me very busy. I spend a lot of time with my family doing what families in DC do — visiting parks, museums and memorials. I’m also an active runner and get in five miles every day. In terms of favorite restaurants, that’s a tough one, as Ward 2 is home to about 70% of the restaurants in the city. I’d have to go with Clyde’s, J. Paul’s, Café Milano and Ben’s Chili Bowl.