Merion West: One-on-One with Rep. Dwight Evans

Originally published in Merion West

“I have no differences when people produce outcomes.”

After previously serving in the Pennsylvania state legislature, Dwight Evans was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 2016. A Democrat, Rep. Evans has been active on issues from criminal justice to education, and he has formed a number of bipartisan coalitions during his time in government to work towards policy goals. He joins Merion West’s editor Erich Prince to discuss his governing philosophy and to chat about issues from charter schools to reducing poverty through economic opportunity. Also, participating in the conversation is author Allen Hornblum, who had worked with then-state representative Evans on various criminal justice initiatives in the 1990’s. This is part one of our conversation.

To get started, Congressman, if you want to say what you were saying about the type of Democrat that you are, “the Democrat that governs”—and what that means in an environment that’s increasingly partisan. What does it mean to be the “Democrat that governs” today?

My name is Dwight Evans, and I represent the third congressional district—in the city of Philadelphia. This is one of eighteen districts in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, coming from the fifth largest state in the nation. And one day there was a constituent asking me the question of what type of Democrat am I, and I said back to the constituent: “I’m the type of Democrat who is of the governing wing,” meaning that I’m very results-oriented. I like to get things done, and I can give you a number of examples of what I mean by that. But let me just talk a little bit about my background.

I was in the state legislature for 36 years, and I was on the Appropriations Committee for 28 of 36 years. And I was the chairman for 20 years. And then in that 36 years, I was in the legislature I worked very clearly with Republicans on getting things done. The best example would be the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which has helped transform this city. Now Philadelphia at one time, back in the colonial times, was the largest city and had a [large] population. But over the years, Philadelphia lost a lot of that population. There was at one point over 2 million plus people; it is now in the ballpark of about 1.5 to 1.6 million people. And as a result of the disappearance of the manufacturing base, it is now a city with 26% poverty. So what I now see my role as is figuring out a way of how do we address the poverty? How do we rebuild, recreate Philadelphia?

For example, Philadelphia had what you call the Budd Company, The Budd Company was started by a gentleman by the name of Edward Budd, who was an apprentice from Germany. Budd Company used to make frames for the automobile industry in Detroit. Today, we have the multinational, international corporation of Comcast. So we went from the Budd Company to Comcast, which shows you a part of transformation. Comcast has 9,000 employees in the city of Philadelphia, and 2,500 of them live in my particular district. So when you think about the different age of the Budd Company making frames for automobiles, and you think about the aspect of the Internet and technology, that’s the tale of two aspects in the growth and development of the city. Where the people are caught in the middle is figuring out how can they take advantage of the opportunity that is there and available to them.

So for someone like myself who’s grown up in this city—and a product of the city, I’ve always tried to figure out solutions and interventions to the problems that we have today. A book that was written by a gentleman by the name of [William Julius Wilson], and he wrote this book called When Work Disappeared. And what he was talking about, The Budd Company is a perfect example; when that worked disappeared, you could see a direct correspondence aspect of the increase of abandonment, homelessness and sort of disheartened aspect about the future for the city of Philadelphia. So for someone like myself who’s in public office, I need to figure out in coalitions, in relationships: How do we have interventions that will address the challenges that we face today?

I think that leads very nicely to another question I wanted to bring up, and the Washington Post had an editorial [recently] saying that “There’s nothing progressive about strangling charter schools” and charter schools have kind of been in the crosshairs a little bit, and some people bemoan that they’ve become a partisan issue. And obviously you’ve done some work with charter schools. I passed the West Oak Lane Charter school on the way here. You were there for the Pennsylvania Charter school bill in June of 1997. I know, as you’ve said that there are, “good charter schools [and] bad charter schools.” How do you see the charter school issue in the context of some of these things you’re describing of finding practical solutions that work for communities?

The first thing is that public education is one of the greatest innovative ideas that a society could have. Because if you’re going to talk about building a democracy for the future, you should have a well-informed citizenship, meaning people should be able to read and write. And then secondly, they should also be able to take advantage of the economic opportunity. When the public school system was created, it was created in a different era, and it was created very similar to what we talk about—sort of like the factory floor. Now, we’re in the 21st century.

I view charter schools as a part of research and development, as a way to be more experiment[al] about the 21st century—and how we should approach the constituencies that we’re dealing with today. So when I started the West of Lane Charter School, which is 21 years old, the particular research and development issue is around the question of science and STEM. It goes from kindergarten to eighth grade. It has over a thousand kids, and it is union-driven. So the teachers are union, the membership is 1000 [and] is 21 years old. But the key to it is the flexibility that it has in the marketplace that we operate today, which is extremely essential.

There is no such thing as one college or university in the nation. There’s the Drexel, which is a different type of school, different than Saint Joe College or LaSalle College or University of Penn. They are all very different, so charter schools I don’t necessarily believe should be liberal, conservative, Democrat or Republican. I believe that they should be result-oriented. They should be driven by the element of what works. I always like to tell a story that my mother manipulated her address, and she manipulated the address because two schools that I was going—I went to Roosevelt Junior High School and Wagner, and my mother wanted to get me out of Roosevelt Junior High School and Wagner because there were gangs such as Summersville, Clang and other problems. She wanted to put me in an education environment that would help a great deal in me growing. And the school that she was able to get me to go to is Leeds Junior High School, and there was a ninth grade instructor by the name of Mr. Abrams, who was my Algebra teacher. And I recall very distinctly that I failed Algebra, and that was the first time I went to summer school. But what I realized when I was at Leeds, different than Wagner and different than Roosevelt, is that the teacher at Leeds Mr. Abrams was no nonsense, very high standards, and it was something that I observed in his teaching method different than in Wagner, in different than in Roosevelt. An extremely demanding presence that he had. But it was my mother who made the decision to move me in that environment. It’s not like I said, “That’s where I wanted to go,” but she didn’t have the freedom of choice. She had to manipulate an address in order to give it. Unfortunately, in too many places, that is still against the law. If parents lie, manipulate the addresses to put their kids in the best circumstances.

Your zip code shouldn’t determine where you go. You shouldn’t see any of those things. So I’m the first one to say to you. I’m not saying that I think that all charter schools are the magic solution. I think a lot has to do with caring adults, parents, communities, all of those support systems. But I do not think that charter schools should be demonized in the political battle of who’s more of a progressive, who’s more of a Democrat, who’s more of whatever they are. I’m more interested in the outcome of results, and that charter school is just one example—that [one] is 21 years old, and it may work in one environment and may not work in another environment.

This is the other thing we should understand: the vast majority of decision making is made by local schools, not by the national government. The national government only contributes about seven or eight percent towards education. It is states and cities that drive the distribution aspect of the delivery of education. So it’s not like we have a national education policy in 50 states. It doesn’t work that way. Each state is different. Now if you really want to have this conversation about equity, we could really have the conversation about how schools are funded. Should they be funded on a property school tax base? That should be the debate. Now, I think it should change. I’m not an advocate because property tax bases are different depending on the county and the location.

To what extent do you think that debate is being had—or is it being caught up more in some of this broader ideology about whether charter schools or schools in general are good things, bad things, rather than maybe the nitty gritty of where their money is coming from?

I think that this debate is centered around power and control. And I think the debate is centered around the element of, you know, who’s on top and who’s not on top. I don’t think there’s a real concern. You know, I said to you, we have 26% poverty in the city of Philadelphia. In America, there’s 343 million Americans, and 143 million Americans are in some form of poverty in the entire nation. In the city of Philadelphia there is 26%, so you know there’s an unequalness. There’s those at the top and those at the bottom, and there’s an unfairness. So I don’t blame teachers. These are people trapped in bad systems. These are good people trapped in bad systems.

The whole system design. A teacher and principal do not design the school systems. Those of us in public policy, we design the school system from a delivery standpoint. We design them, and the teachers and the principals work in them. So as I said to you, the charter school movement to me is a great research and development component that should be a part of a strategy as what’s worked. Now, if you really want to know where it came from, Minnesota was the first state that had charter schools. Minnesota. Bill Clinton, last time I checked, he’s a Democrat. He was president, President Obama. They support the charter schools.

That’s what I’m saying: in the minds of a lot of people, they’re expressing concern that this has become kind of a partisan litmus test, rather than looking at the results of what’s best for students.

And I think, unfortunately, it shouldn’t be that way. We shouldn’t demonize it to the degree that we try to blame the mechanism and the outcome and not look at it be result-oriented. Look, do we need to change how we fund public education? The answer is, “Yes.” I make that very clear. However, we also should look at the mechanisms of how we deliver education and who it’s delivered to. As I said to you when the public education system was created and that’s what you should look at—the historical aspect of when it was created; it was created in a different era.  And here we are in 2019 in the 21st century. This is a whole different world. Globalization; it is a completely different situation that we are involved in. So that means the mechanism when we compete against India, China, you name it, South America. I mean, the results we have today is more the reason why we have to be a little bit more flexible. I’ll make it very clear; I am not trying to destroy public education. I’m trying to figure out what works. Okay. That is the key element and unfortunately it’s been demonized to such a degree is it becomes a litmus test.

As an elected representative, I’ve always understood that I need to be where the citizens, cause the greatest title we have is not “congressman.” It’s not Senator or not. It is citizen. Citizens hire or fire you. I’m going to be very clear: They can hire you or they can fire you. I’ve always understood that.

I remember that moment in John McCain’s concession speech when he says, the greatest title [he’s] had is citizen of the United States.

Correct. So going back to the beginning when I said to you when, when a person asks what kind of Democrat am I, and I said I’m of the governing wing because I want to be driven on that basis. Maybe education, maybe public safety, economic development. I mean all of those issues have ways. I don’t think that you’re going to solve everything in government. I think that you got to have a robust private sector, a robust a not-for-profit sector. You’ve got to have those sectors, but you’ve got to work together. But mainly, you got to have leadership. You have to have leadership who has the ability to get people to be mission-driven, To focus on the mission and not be feeding to the [least] common denominator. One of my favorite books, I gave it to the governor called You Won—Now What? I gave it just before he ran.

There’s a difference between governing and electability. Governing is addition. Electability is subtraction. One is subtraction; one is addition. In governing, you’re trying to bring people together to get an outcome. In elections, as you see sometimes, people think, “I don’t need this person to vote cause they’re not gonna vote for me. I’m just going to go after who’s going to vote for me.” So people have a way of narrowing down their base to who’s going to vote for them, rather than the power of ideas, the power of bringing together.

Do you think that sometimes exacerbates or contributes to a lot of the tribalism we’re seeing today among, not only elected officials but among voters—people say he voted for this candidate, “I don’t like him anymore” etc. How much of that is a result of certain campaign strategies?

I think part of his campaign strategy, but it’s more than that. I think it has been amplified by the way that our media is divided up. And I’m not media basher because I believe that the media has a very essential role in a democracy. I call the media the “Consumer Report of the Process” because it is the entity that when you go buy a product you go read consumer reports and a consumer report gives you a sense about cars or whatever. Okay? Well same thing in democracy. The media can be used, if it’s used objectively. When you talked about Walter Cronkite when he did what he did. That’s because people trusted him, right? And they trust whatever he had to say. The way it is today is segmented, and certain people watch CNN, MSNBC, Fox, that’s what it is. So the overall mission of moving the initiative gets somewhat distracted by the audience that you sometimes watch.

And we see in Gallup that the media, collectively, is one of the least trusted institutions in the United States.

Which is unfortunate because I think you need the sources of the information. Look, I don’t think people wake up in the morning thinking about what I do in politics.

Right. People have to take their kids to school…

They are surviving. They do not wake up thinking about what I do in Washington DC. If anything, their thinking is, “Don’t get in my way and don’t harm my situation.” But I think, going back to your point when you said—I think that strategists have learned how to use their particular position in certain ways to drive certain outcomes and certain behavior. And I think that is shown. To have the President of the United States attack a Speaker of the House when they should be celebrating D-Day’s 75-year anniversary for the lives that were given. The 2,000 African-Americans, who a lot of people don’t talk about, who were part of D-Day, who were there. They were fighting for liberty and justice. But to have a sitting president talk about the speaker of the house offshore. All the rules have been broken. I mean all of the traditional rules yet. I’m glad that the Speaker of the House, and I know that sounds partisan because she’s a Democrat and I’m a Democrat, but she says, “I don’t talk about that.”

That’s right. I think she said, I don’t talk about the president when I’m outside the country.

Exactly, and that was a basic principle. That was a basic principle that we had. It’s those principles that we seem to have lost as kind of the rules of contact. It’s like a referee brings the two fighters to the middle of the ring and says you don’t hit below the belt. You stop when I say you stop. That’s what you do. It seems all rules are out. So what happens because of Twitter and Facebook; those things are amplified, and we are all trying to figure out how to deal with Facebook and Internet.

Do you have any thoughts? I know of Chris Hughes, one of the co-founders of Facebook came out and said it’s time to break up Facebook. I know Elizabeth Warren has expressed concerns about these big tech companies. Is that something you’ve been looking at?

Well, I haven’t personally been looking at it, but I remember having a training session for my people when we were first talking about the use of the Internet and mail, and it used to be this thing called AOL. But we used to talk about it in terms of using your discretion. It becomes such a preoccupation. These are instruments. That’s what we should understand. They can be used in good ways. They can be used in bad ways. So the question is, is the question of breaking them up? Will that solve it? I’m not so sure if that will solve it. I’m not sure. I’ll look at it, but I’m not so sure. I think we as citizens have to do a more guarded way. I think the shooting was in New Zealand when it was a murder; I think they had it on Facebook. I think it—I can’t recall if it was the shooting there. It was something. I understand the debate about too big to fail. You could do, you can do, but I’m not sure.

I think it was one comedian who said: Anyone who thinks that God is dead in America, just look at all the people religiously tied to their phones.

That’s true. I think we have gotten to a point where there doesn’t seem to be rules anymore. Those are all instruments. They’re all tools. I do think people have gotten obsessed. I was having that discussion with the young man early about him as he has food shipped to his house. I still go stand in line. They, they laugh at that. I still do that. That’s me. That’s my own personal habit. And maybe somebody says, “Well you do it ‘cause you don’t know how to use…” No, what I’m saying is I think we have lost that. And the response you said to me was “convenience.” That’s what he said to me. I understand it. Don’t get me wrong. But we have given up something else. We have given up something. We don’t talk. We don’t communicate. I still like standing in line because I get to talk to the voters, I get to talk to people, I get to have contact. I have face contact with people. That is still very important to me.

I remember David Halberstam’s book War In A Time of Peace that—speaking of lines, I remember Dick Cheney decided that he didn’t like Stormin’ Norman because he used his rank to cut the line in the airport bathroom, and he [Cheney] thought  could tell a lot about somebody based on whether they waited in line or no.

Hornblum: Are you saying that Kim and Numa have Republican sensibilities?

Rep. Evans: I’m not going to make a judgement about what they have. They got to live whatever they have. At the end of the day, you know, I have these debates with them, but you know, who knows if they had…

Hornblum: He ain’t going to be working in GOP in a couple of years?

Rep. Evans: I don’t know. He may be, he may, he may see that— that’s the way…

But on the subject of the GOP, I wanted to ask you about another point of some bipartisan agreement. I read your officer’s statement on the FIRST Step Act. And this was something that Congressman Hice from the Freedom Caucus also spoke favorably of.

This is what Allen and I really grew together tremendously. I’ll give you a little statistics. When I was elected in the state legislature, there were 5,000 people in prison in Pennsylvania. 5,000 people. It now may be between 40 and 55. So in the years I was there, “How did that escalate so much?” Criminal justice was used as a social welfare tool—and not to really deal with the problems we had, but it became a way of warehousing. And I think Allen will talk a little bit about when—when he was on the prison board and Dave Owens was onto the prison thing. Dave Owens would always say, “You’re never going to move yourself out of this problem through prisons. You never going to lock your way out of this problem.”

Now here we have come full circle. So what is the difference as you defined the conservatives and progressives together? We went from 5,000 to 45,000 people, Pennsylvania prison system. I think it’s in the ballpark of $2 billion now. So when I started, it was nowhere near that. The escalating costs. The national budget of America. The Soviet Union at the time, when it existed, and South Africa had more people in prison than America. America now has more people in prison. So the FIRST step is just what it said. It was led by a congressman out of New York, Hakeem Jeffries. And what’s important to understand was it’s just that. It’s a first step. And the other thing is how about taking away discretion from judges with mandatory sentencing, mandatory minimum.

I know that this was one of the first points that, for example, Van Jones said that he appreciated something the President had done. I know that you had your differences with the President, but were you excited that he showed some sympathy for this criminal justice?

I have no differences when people produce outcomes. I’ve got a point here. I voted for the bill. There were some people who said, “Well, we can get more.” Well, it’s just what it is. It’s the first step. You’ve seen him on TV, Congressman Jerry Nadler in this district, right? Way before people talking about all the conversation with [impeachment], and I had a forum on criminal justice reform, right? I had a forum, criminal justice forum way before you see all the conversations now because I was using my influence on the basis of having a larger discussion because I knew as I showed you that chart; that’s an impediment. Criminal justice policies add to the numbers. Now you see, I talk about loss of earning power, which we talked about that as one of the first issues. Then we talked about education, job discrimination, and housings. All those things contribute as element because it’s always important to understand that for you, how did we get to where we are?

So how do you respond to certain members of the more progressive left, certain black figures, like Jamelle Bouie writing in The New York Times who was critical of, for example, some Democratic policies in the 90’s like Joe Biden and the Thurmond-Biden Crime Bill and certain policies by some Democrats that he thinks may have contributed to this? And he’s encouraged some of his readers to remember that in primary season.

We are in the 21st century. 2019; that was yesterday. I think it has been a learning growth for a lot of people. Okay? And I think that if you recall during that time there was a frustration. I could talk about Philadelphia’s murder rate and problems that we knew something had to be done. Allen and I traveled to the City of New York.

He’s told me about your meetings with [Bill] Bratton.

Bratton. Yeah. And that’s where I met Timoney. And what I was most impressed, if you recall what I said, Bratton did not seem like a typical police chief. He seemed innovative in his approach. There’s a whole list because Kim was there with me…I brought all of those people here. Why? To have a larger discussion about how we were approaching crime?

I think Allen said that Bryant Park—they’d done a great job cleaning it up in New York.

Hornblum: And I’ve lectured on this in classes in different arenas, but it’s remarkable that you can have a city that was once considered, “the Athens of America” and a very sophisticated town with all sorts of universities and professors, supposedly thinkers. Not a goddamn person knew how to deal with crime. It was absolutely stunning because I sat in some other city council sessions where Rich Neal, the city’s Rich Neal, his commissioner and his deputy, he was a student of mine at Temple, had no idea why the council president, Deputy Street, and Blackwell, and why all these other people were asking, “I’ve got constituents who are afraid to come out on the streets at night. It’s owned by the drug dealers, criminals.” Yet I was spending time in New York. It’s not 90 miles away; it was like Vladivostok and Paris. They were so far apart. Nobody knew how to deal with it.

It was incredible how you can have a sophisticated city supposedly, and everybody throw off their hands, have no idea what to do. Well, I can understand having no idea, but at least pay attention to what somebody else’s is doing. And that’s why I leaned on Dwight and I said, “You gotta come up to Manhattan, to New York, because they are going through a revolution of progress and sustainability expansion.” And everybody in [Philadelphia] is hunkered down in their basement afraid to get shot.

Rep. Evans: Allen was right. I went in with Kim, and we did a combination of things. First thing is you have to deal with a learning curve. At that time, Rendell was the most popular elected official. So was it not easy to try to attack a former prosecutor or what was his trick?

Just to clarify for everyone, you and the [Gang of Five] had some differences of opinions with Rendell?

Look, I would never question that he [Rendell] wanted to do something about it. But this is my speculation; I think that he felt sort of trapped in the environment. He was a DA. I was not a DA, and I’ve never been a police officer. I think he was different than I, and I said, Allen knows, there was a very methodical process we had to go through. That’s what it means by making public policy, why I love it. And I mean, we did all summer.

And you’ve been known for public policy. I read a story in Philadelphia magazine and you with your flow charts. And I think Rendell later would say you’re the most qualified candidate running for mayor.

It’s a very difficult challenge to move the needle. And a lot of times, people do not have the patience. We went through a whole summer, three months. Allen was involved. This is why I tell you the press is important. The Philadelphia Weekly, right? Allen was talking to them, and they came up [with] what you call the “Gang of Five.” Obviously symbolized something happened in China.

Hornblum: But you are jumping over something that you need to illuminate. The fact that he [Rep. Evans] was smart enough to know he can’t do it by himself. He needed Republicans on board. So out of the five, three of them were Republicans!

Rep. Evans: It was John Perzel, John Taylor, George Kenney, and Anthony Williams. So you had to coalesce the five. But I’m gonna say this to you: see, events drive outcomes. I believe that events drove the environment. That statistics of crime, information drove because who was I, just a state rep, that could take this on.

But you recognized that you needed to get some Republicans on board?

Well, it’s something that Dwight Eisenhower said, when he said, “Never trust the [military]- industrial complex.” I want you to think about the crime-industrial complex. Prisons, you think about all this stuff that you are up against. So here I am, I had to think through how we gotta find ways. Then the mayor came out and called this “snake oil”