Dwight Evans has spent many years in Harrisburg with his hands on the levers that control the flow of state money.
In that time, the state representative and current chair of the House Appropriations Committee has been very good not only to his home city, but his home neighborhood of West Oak Lane. Millions in state dollars have flowed into Evans’ 203d District for business development, job training, education and cultural events.
Now, that generosity to his base may cost Evans his clout.
As Harrisburg Democrats assess the wreckage from the mid-term elections, a group of dissident lawmakers plans to challenge Evans’ position as the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. The caucus elections are today. Lawmakers backing Rep. Joe Markosek, (D., Allegheny) for the spot cite Evan’s funneling of dollars to West Oak Lane as one of the reasons for their disenchantment.
In a statement, Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. defended Evans saying he has been “a powerhouse for Democrats as the Appropriations Democratic leader throughout the last two decades,” and he adds, “This is not a time for change.”
“Rep. Evans has brought aggressive funding for education, transportation, the arts and his legislative flagship of economic development to all of Pennsylvania,” Jones said.
But even if he survives the challenge, Evans will have lost status. The Democrats lost the majority on Nov. 2, so the best Evans can do is to be ranking Democrat on the powerful committee.
Since the caucus will have only 91 members in the new term, it will take 46 dissidents to unseat Evans.
Evans has been the Dems’ top man on the committee for 20 years. He’s confident he still will be come sundown.
“I will be victorious come Tuesday,” Evans told WHYY/Newsworks’ Dave Davies in a recent interview.
Many in Philadelphia fear a victory for Markosek would leave Philadelphians without a strong voice in the state budget, since Republicans now control both houses of the General Assembly and the governor-elect, Tom Corbett, is from Allegheny County.
It’s a far cry from only a few years ago, when Ed Rendell was governor, Evans had power on the Appropriations panel, John Perzel led House Republicans, and Vincent Fumo was a force in the Senate.
“It’s extremely important for Philadelphia” that Evans holds onto the position, Donna Cooper said Friday. Cooper, who resigned last week as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Policy under Rendell, added that while Evans worked for the whole Commonwealth, not just Philadelphia, he doesn’t share the animosity that upstate legislators tend to have toward the city.
In speaking with WHYY/NewsWorks’ Davies, Evans said that in his years in Harrisburg he’s shown an ability to work well with Republican governors such as Dick Thornburgh and Tom Ridge.
“[Evans] is a very effective leader, and the House Dems would be well-served by holding onto him,” Cooper added.
A particularly strong champion for West Oak Lane, Evans has channeled millions of tax dollars to the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp. and the West Oak Lane Jazz Festival.
He also spearheaded the Fresh Food Finance Initiative. Managed by the Food Trust, the Reinvestment Fund and the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, the program, which has now gone national thanks to attention from First Lady Michelle Obama, is designed to bring supermarkets and grocery stores to underserved communities across Pennsylvania.
“Dwight Evans is a strong champion statewide” for healthy food and access to it, Food Trust Deputy Director John Weidman said. Weidman called Evans a visionary for helping rural and urban areas get better access to fresh food.
Despite the national recognition and a loyal constituency in Philadelphia, Evans may still be odd man out in the new political climate.
But Zack Stalberg, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, is optimistic.
“I think he’s got a good chance of surviving,” Stalberg said of Evans. “He’s a savvy politician who knows the ways of Harrisburg.”