Merion West: One-on-One with Rep. Dwight Evans (Part II)

“I don’t know who you think you’re talking to, because you don’t understand, I’m not your typical Democrat.”

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. This is part two of Rep. Evans’ conversation with Merion West editor Erich Prince. Here, they continue to discuss Rep. Evans’ governing philosophy, as well as his focus on food issues and how he works to bring the media’s attention to policy goals rather than horse race politics.

Rep. Evans: I kept saying, if you wanted to do economic growth, there was a direct connection between dealing with crime. Because you’re not going to get entrepreneurs or customers if people think it’s the Wild West. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist—I mean, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. So I would say the reason we have unequal growth in certain communities is because the element is that the crime is impeding. Now let’s accelerate us to 2019. One of the things I used to say—and I was joking with Allen the other day—I called him the quantum man. So I’m at this debate in ’99, and I’m raising the issue on crime; and I’m talking about gun violence. Well, do you know, in the United States Congress, there’s a law that prevents you from suing the gun manufacturers?

So I get in Congress—the first bill I’m a part of is to repeal that ability. Why? Because I want you to understand this. I would argue the NRA is a trade association and an extension of the gun manufacturers. They, in return, help them. And then they sell guns. They sell guns, right? That’s what they do. The industry—they produce, and they sell guns. The NRA is the trade association which, in return, protects the industry: their behavior, what they do, who they sell guns to. So, at the local level, I was trying to attack this on different fronts—i.e. through Bratton and policing, through public health, and all these things. Not that the police commissioner was a bad guy, but I would argue he came up in the culture that he was in. He was doing what he thought he knew. He was inside the process. Rendell was district attorney, and what did some state rep from Northwest Philadelphia know? It’s ironic, Rendell said at John Timoney’s funeral, that he was responsible for bringing John Timoney in. But if you read—John Timoney—the meeting that I go to Bratton—Bratton knows Timoney.

But at the time, he was criticizing you for doing this.

Oh, criticizing me!

Calling you—getting ad hominem, the whole nine yards.

Rep. Evans: It was everything you could think of. But guess what? You have to have broad shoulders. That’s what I’m saying to you.

Hornblum: What Dwight did is he outflanked him. What he did not mention was that it was a public education campaign.

Rep. Evans: Correct.

Hornblum: When these people came in, they didn’t come in just to have lunch with him. We had town meetings. At churches, at synagogues. And universities. And invited the public. And invited the editorial boards. They learned from these commissioners around the country what progressive policing is like because Philly policing, at that time and for generations, it was a backwater of progressive policing. That’s what Bratton educated us about. When Dwight sat down for an hour and a half up on 7th Avenue in New York with Bratton, and Bratton talked about policing—both of us learned something we did not know. Because we grew up under Rizzo, which was anti-progressive. Philadelphia’s a real parochial town; we resist change, even if it’s going to be good for us. So here is Dwight doing something no other elected official will do—making a pilgrimage up to New York and then learning something and imparting it onto the rest of the body politic. And Rendell is attacking him.

Rep. Evans: But Allen just—this conversation started, if you recall—you raised the issue about the power of ideas. You remember that? You said it seems like it’s waning. I don’t know if those are your words or if they’re others’. What I just said to you is—I would argue that it’s not waning. I would argue under the right set of circumstances, that you can connect with your audience.

On policy?

Yes. On the power of an idea.

Hornblum: Well, that’s what happened at these meetings. The public came out to these meetings and said, “Wow, we know about this.” And in addition to that, there would be a follow-up the next day because the editorial in the newspaper would say: “This guy from the Northwest is saying something!”

Rep. Evans: Correct. So that’s why I said the combination of why media is important because the writers, the op-ed thinkers, the thought leaders, are writing. Because once they see they kicked the tires, they’re writing about “Now there’s been some serious…” Now there’s a lot of work to it. You can’t do that in a campaign.

In thirty seconds, with political strategists—Kim used to always say to me—I’m guilty of; I don’t speak in soundbites. I’ll admit that. I’m not into soundbites. Because it’s far more complicated to respond to it, and it’s a lot of work to coalesce these people, to get them here, and then to get the right audience. Then, at that time, we have writers of the newspaper, that are reporters. We had reporters who understood. Because remember something—we didn’t have Twitter. We didn’t have Facebook.

Well, that’s a common criticism today; they say journalists don’t read; they just read the tweets.

Yeah, because it’s easier. I joke with—there’s a reporter by the name of John Baer. He writes for the Inquirer and Daily News. He saw me and he says, “I’m not your PR agent.” Am I right? That’s what he was saying. It’s not so much—I don’t think I have to earn it—it’s not so much I think you’re my PR agent, but this is how you communicate it and put this in the contextual aspect when you write about it. I’m trying to say, if we’re trying to move the needle, right, which is the public, we’re trying to get them to understand the big. Look, it’s like the presidential debate. You got 24 people running. And there’s going to be ten people each on the stage. What is it, about an hour, hour and a half? How many minute you think they’re going to get to talk about healthcare… You’re talking about… say you’re talking about breaking up Facebook, or breaking up whatever.

I generally do like to bring up that topic.

But yeah, even if you bring that up, it is not as simple as—

And also, on the debate topic, I mentioned Lincoln Chafee, whom I interview from time to time, and he always talks about—it’s one of his favorite talking points—is probably the problems of just being able to discuss policy in debates, and he says that in presidential debates, there’s not enough focus on foreign policy; there’s a preference for domestic policy, for example, but kind of the bottom line…

You know why that is? Who votes for the politicians?

Well, the American people.

Thank you! And with all due respect, you think they’re talking about Africa or Asia? Look, when I came in, House Resolution 1 was on a tax policy under the Republicans. House Resolution 2 was a farm bill.

That’s something you’ve been very active with. I understand you got back from Latin America?

Right. I was in Argentina, Brazil, and Honduras. Food policy is medicine. Farm policy is food policy. Right? Because food is the one element that transcends liberals, Democrats—even vegans like food, maybe a different kind of food.

You hear that, Congressman, maybe it’s hard to talk about education when some of the kids haven’t had breakfast. And you can talk about math till you’re blue in the face, but people haven’t had breakfast.

But in a political debate—and you got to tell because I know you follow this, and Numa follows this—does anybody talk about food policy?

Hornblum: Only in the context that Trump’s trade embargoes are hurting the farmers in the Midwest from selling their grain and their items. Soybeans.

Rep. Evans: But no one’s articulated a forward-thinking, how food is part of our overall strategy.

Is it because that’s not a politically-sexy issue?

It’s because—this is the way it works. You do polling information. And you kind of see where the public stands. And more than likely they talk about healthcare, which is connected to food; they talk about jobs, which I would argue is connected to food. And they talk about—no, I don’t think they talk too much about infrastructure. Public safety. And then they talk about getting rid of Trump, depending on who you talk to.

Right. So what do you make of critics coming from the more progressive left—I’m thinking about Glen Greenwald, who say maybe there should be more talk about economic issues and some of these social issues that a lot of younger Democratic voters are very interested in—not that they are not important, but maybe we should talk about 26% poverty, and that that’s not getting as much media coverage or attention or discussion as [for example] the bathroom bill in North Carolina is a great example, and progressive Democrats should really think more about getting people healthcare, education, jobs. 

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And I would put, at the basis of all that you just said is food. I would put food at the basis of all that you talked about. I mean there’s a direct aspect of food—you think about it. When we voted, just this last session with Republicans, they talked about taxes, which is money. Number two was food! But you don’t hear anyone elevate, I mean, I’ve been dealing with this for 15 plus years, on the whole food element. When I first got there, a member said to me, “How many farms you got in the district?” I said that’s the wrong question. How many consumers I have in the district.

That’s a good point, because I’ve heard people say that.

Look, I went overseas to Jordan with Care. Care’s like 71 years old. Right? It was about food. Food policy is always interconnected; the whole debate about water is connected to food. All these things are all connected to food.

So is food one of your most fundamental issues?

Yes. Yeah, I do charter schools, criminal justice, but you’ve got to have food in criminal justice. Somebody’s got to feed the military. Food, most people don’t realize, I came up with the initiative [for] addressing food insecurity. Food deserts. And this is what I did.

As I said, NPR I think did a segment in Philadelphia about food deserts.

Exactly. And I came up with this initiative. This is what I did. I was chairman of the appropriations committee [in the State House], and I made a deal. I said look—addressing food is—there’s this guy, who’s no longer alive, named Jeremy Nowak. He was at the Reinvestment Fund. And I called him up and I said, “If I can get $30 million for the next three years, can you match it?” He said “I’ll figure it out.” I’ve got a whole stack of books that are written about what I did on food. That was generally four or five books. And it talked about the aspect of the food and how to fix it. I’m telling you, if you watch people’s reaction when you talk about food and what food means, you just don’t hear. Now let’s connect that to politics overall. As a party, we are struggling to figure out what’s a coherent message. I mean I think the Republican’s message: low on taxes, low on regulations, and we [Democrats] are monolithic. Democrats have a big tent. This country is really for an election at a crossroad. In terms of what’s going to happen next year. Because Trump could get reelected. Just like he got elected, he can get reelected.

Are there any candidates on the Democratic side you’re particularly excited about?

I’m for Joe Biden. Very pragmatic, for where he stands.

From Pennsylvania.

Right. And Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are very key. And I believe—look, you run a fifty governor race. You don’t run a national race. National race: Hillary Clinton would be president; she’s not president, so it’s a fifty governor races. So from this perspective, in my view, and Numa and Allen might have their views, I’m very pragmatic; it fits with that governing model. I mean he was vice president to Barack Obama, 29 years in the United States Senate, all of those things, right? You asked the question about excitement; that’s somebody else wants to be into that. For the constituents, I want—they want me—when I walk along these streets, may it be education, may it be jobs, they need me to be result-oriented.

What are you hearing about—we’re been talking about criminal justice, you said fast forward to 2019, what are you hearing about the current DA, Larry Krasner, he’s been a little controversial I know, Michael Nutter broke silence and was critical of how he’d handled the murder of the police officer Robert Wilson.


Yes, I think it was in the past year or so. 

I don’t know—let me say something. It’s a feeling I process, whenever there’s somebody new that’s not your typical person, he’s provocative in the issues he raises, but he’s not political at all. Matter of fact, I was with him on 41st and Lancaster, and he’s walking down the street, so that’s not his normal style. I mean, he’s learning to do it. But the questions that he raised are [the] right questions to be raised. The issue is the part about: is he handling the right communications? That’s the fundamental question. It’s his communication style.

So you’re generally on board with a lot of his policies?

I’m on board that we need to shake the system up. That the system should not be used as a social welfare system. Let’s separate it. You’ve got the DA and the police and those of us who are legislators. We need to do a better job as legislators. Housing, education, infrastructure. Because if you affect the environment, you affect the behavior. That’s my theory. Change the environment; change the behavior.

This may be the logic behind the broken windows theory?

Absolutely. If you affect the environment, you affect the behavior.

I think there are certain fines if you don’t cut your grass.

Fines, behavior. You’re trying to affect people [that] this is not acceptable behavior. This is not stuff that you should do. Because you’re never going to police your way out of this, you’re never going to prison your way out of it, you’re never going to have enough “manpower.” So that gets back to the basis of this conversation. The civility that you talked about. Now we can agree or disagree, but should we be violent towards each other, should we be destructive towards each other. So when you ask the basics, civility, food, civility, food, behavior. All of those elements. Now let’s be honest. We’ve had biases towards black people, black women, LGBTQ, right? All of those things we’re slowly breaking down. Because when the Constitution was written, none of that was there. In a democracy, you want to make sure that people have their rights. So you don’t want to be discriminatory towards people; that’s just counterproductive. It’s just counterproductive to do that from a societal standpoint. “I don’t like you because you have what color of hair, brown, black…?”

Something like that.

Something like that. But guess what? I need not to make a judgement on that basis. I need to make a judgement on your content, on your performance. So from a societal standpoint, those are the things that impede us from moving the needle.

So last question I’m going to ask you. You’ve sought a number of offices, whether it’s mayor, governor, so you’ve had your shares of ups and downs, and I’ve spoken with a number of politicians who have lost elections. They talk about how hard it is to lose an election, especially as an incumbent. What are some lessons from running for some of those offices?

You notice Kim comes in on that one. I probably learned far more by not getting there than I did—though I was never successful. I think I learned a lot. I wrote a book. Took me a year and a half to write this book called Making Ideas Matter. So it allowed me a lot of reflection time. And sometimes I think I got caught up into the process of trying to get there more than what it is that I really believe in. And I’m not saying I made up things, because that never was me, but I just never figured out a way of how to connect. And I think now from where I sit, I’ve become more realistic about the challenges that we face today. And it’s not easy. It’s not as simple as 30-second soundbites. I always knew it’s not easy.

Because you came in with a lot of legislative experience. You weren’t somebody who was in office for the first time.

I used to say to people, when I got to Washington, I may be new to this, but I’m not new to life. See that’s the difference. I really understand. And it’s tough to build a team of people together. There’s a guy who’s working for Bernie Sanders named David Sirota. You can google him; he did some crazy thing back in ’99. This was before social media was around. He manipulated a website. I was at this location, this office, we used to have a table there.

Allen was saying that this has been your physical location for a while.

My entire career. I’m not going anywhere.

Staying close to home.

That’s right. So I remember he did this incident. Kim came and told me, and I jumped up and down on top of the table and said, “I’m finished.” Because I had worked so hard, not to have some inflicted moods, and I remember an editorial person wrote this scathing piece about me and says, “If he can’t run a campaign, how can he govern?”

This might have been the piece I was referring to here. Chris Brennan and David Gambacorta?

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No, they wrote the piece where they say I was dead.

Yes, “The Rise and Fall of Dwight Evans.”

“Rise and Fall of Dwight Evans”! Yeah, that’s what he said.

But you’re back.

What’s my man LL Cool J said, “Don’t call it a comeback.” That’s what LL Cool J said, “don’t call it a comeback.” They called it a comeback; Allen called it a comeback.

You were always here.

I was always here. I never went anywhere, right? You gotta play that rap song, it’s the truth. Don’t call it a comeback, because I didn’t go anywhere.

Hornblum: He just told us he was in Russia, and Kiev, he was in Brazil and Argentina—he don’t go anywhere.

But there’s this moment—you’re kind of frustrated; you’ve put it all out there.

Well, I put it all out there, and yes I was frustrated that I was not connecting. And I didn’t blame that on people, I blamed that on me.

That’s what you were saying about Eisenhower, when he said, “the failure is mine”; it’s not the men’s.

Exactly, that’s exactly it. But what happens is that time of 2010. I would argue I’m back stronger than ever before. Because I have a clearer vision about what’s necessary. I have a real clear sense. And so when I say things, I don’t say them lightly. Being in Congress is more than a notion. One of the things I’d like to show you is what we call the three legged stool. First thing that I focus on is constituent services. Secondly, I use a tool called mapping and third is public policy. And that’s the way I’ve organized my office. I’ve organized my office on the basis that it leads with constituent services, part of public policy is the outcome which I get from people. The ideas that I get from people. And that’s what we have done. We have focused to be disciplined towards a mission and outcome.

I just formed an alliance with a Congressman out of Flint, Michigan by the name of Dan Kildee. And you know the history of Flint, Michigan. I went to Flint, Michigan. I went to go visit it. We just introduced a bill on the EITC which bill has also been introduced in the United States Senate by Senator Brown from Ohio. So we got it from both ends. Brown in Ohio and us in the House of Representatives. It’s a mega-piece in a larger discussion. I sit on the Ways and Means Committee—he and I do. So we get up together, we introduce this. So take my word—that’s going to be in the national debate. At the presidential debate. Now that we have introduced this, it’s a part of it.

So you did some leg work for this?

Oh I did an awful lot of leg work. The leg work I did. I used to be with the Senate for Budget and Priorities, I’ve been for two years, trying to figure out in a macro way, how to move the needle for poverty. Matter of fact, our next meeting is with a state senator who’s been on the tour in poverty. I’ve been trying to figure out [how] to enter this as a part of the national debate. So you know about Sherrod Brown, obviously, and what he’s doing, and obviously Kildee and I are doing the House version. Both of them are the same versions.

Do you expect some Republican support in the Senate?

I can’t answer that. But we’re going to keep trying. The first thing is to introduce the concept and the idea. That’s the first step.

But you think this will start to seep into the presidential debates?

The answer’s yes. The EITC. Look, Ronald Reagan even said that’s the best poverty buster. He said that’s the best poverty buster. It’s not a new concept. It’s making ideas matter. So here, low man on the food chain, Kildee, he and I are both on the Ways and Means committee. And we both do this. So I want to get that across because remember what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to address where we are. And each one of them. Criminal justice, Jerry Nadler, the FIRST Step. EITC. I’m trying to address. So if we get this in the debate, in Congress, the presidential election, believe me, one way or another—we’re going to drive this into the larger discussion.

And your commitment is still policy—get in the details?

Kim will tell you that there’s nothing else. She does operating and that stuff. This is how I spend my time. I spend 99% of my time trying to think through how to make an idea matter. That’s all that I think about, every single day. I wake up, trying to figure out how to get the outcome.

Does the media give enough attention to the idea drivers?

Well, it’s funny that you say that. When The New York Times came here last week; you read the story. The deal I had with the reporter, I said, “Look, you have to come to our press conference on health disparities.” And she came. Because you want to talk to me about impeachment. I want to talk about health disparities. That’s what we did.

That seems like a reasonable deal.

That’s what we did. But it showed up in pictures. It didn’t show up in verbiage. So it showed up in pictures.

But I guess that’s a very practical sort of, tit for tat.

Exactly! I said look—you want this story, which I voted in May of 2017 for impeachment, and she wanted somebody to be able to talk. And I introduced her to my constituents. And my constituents said to her, “You haven’t gotten rid of him yet? That’s why we sent you there.” That was at Chestnut Hill Grill last week; I went up there for breakfast. Lady turned to me and said, “Dwight, when you getting rid of him?” So, I’m saying to you, is this is a very methodical process that you’ve got to stick with. No more different than what we did , Allen, with Ed Rendell. That took, what, six months?

Honrblum: It was a campaign.

Rep. Evans: Yeah, and how long would you say that took?

Hornblum: I can’t put it in a numerical framework, but it was an excellent campaign in a town that’s resistant to change and had no idea how to deal with a retractable problem. And it really should be taught in schools, because it started from zero and ended up making very significant changes.

Rep. Evans: Correct. And I would say to you, the same thing with this. With the aspect of poverty. Let’s be honest – you don’t hear about poverty, you don’t hear about that discussion.

This is kind of what I was talking about; there’s so much discussion about the protests at Yale about these Halloween costumes. A lot of people are saying, okay, but for people who are really supposedly concerned about these progressive causes, why aren’t you talking about poverty, food deserts?

Well, I’m talking about it.

Right. But is the media giving you enough focus to talk about it?

Kim always says to me—we [were] invited on CNN. And anytime we talk to our communications person, we said, “Okay.” Guess what? There’s an initiative I introduced to do something about physical buildings. Donald Trump took a whole post office and converted it into a hotel. He used the tax structure. He used the 1986 tax reform of Reagan and Tip O’Neill. So I [said], if you can use it for that, our buildings are 75 years. I introduced that bill. So I’m not saying to you they don’t have granddaughters, but every time we go in there we say, we’ve got to get five seconds in on this. Every time I go, when I get an opportunity, I’m always trying to figure out ways. I have an agenda too. So I gotta fight, every single time. And you asked the right question, when you said, “Do they give…” The answer is: no they don’t. But that doesn’t stop. She’ll tell you—every time we do some kind of thing, we always are trying to find ways to bring it back.

I saw you went on Tucker Carlson.

Tucker Carlson! You remember—you shake your head on that one, didn’t you? You remember what Tucker Carlson said to me? Do you know what he said?

He said, “Have you read the President’s plan?” I said, “No, have you?” He says, “Well you know, just got to look calm.” So then he brings up charters, because he loves that, he wanted to bring charters and try to—I says, “I don’t know who you think you’re talking to, because you don’t understand, I’m not your typical Democrat.” That’s what I said to him.