Well into the middle months of Mayor Adrian Fenty’s final year of his first term, there is an unsettled, faintly ominous feel to the political and economic atmosphere in the District of Columbia.
While the mayor appears to have made significant progress in many areas, large sections of voters throughout the city seem to be unhappy with Fenty, as well as his chosen Chancellor of Public Schools, Michelle Rhee. Speculations have it that some members of the city council, notably Chairman Vincent Gray, who has been visibly at odds with the mayor over a number of issues, will challenge the mayor’s re-election.
No one is exactly betting against the mayor, who has a fat war chest. But electoral politics are a background noise to the business of the council, which now has to contend with a looming budget deficit of the kind not seen by most of its members.
The man least fazed by turbulent political clouds or impending economic troubles, and who probably knows more about them than anyone on the council, is the council’s finance committee chair, Jack Evans. More telling, Evans is the longest continuously serving councilman, having won a special Ward 2 election in 1991, when he emerged the winner over a large field.
Evans has seen the mayor-council relationship ebb and flow over his nearly 20 years in office. “It’s never been ideal,” he says. “Mayor Kelly and council Chair John Wilson were at odds often. Mayor Williams at first didn’t have much to do with the council but that changed in his second term, where there was a lot more contact and cooperation. Right now, I’d say, we’re having some problems in that arena. It’s no secret that Chairman Gray and the mayor rarely communicate. There are several people on the council who’ve had no words with the mayor for months. Maybe years.”
Evans isn’t one of them. It is generally recognized that Evans, who supported Linda Cropp in the mayoral race, has become Fenty’s most consistent and strongest supporter on the council, as well as supporting the school reform efforts of Rhee. “That’s fair to say,” he says. “I think the mayor is a doer, he believes in action, and when something’s done or settled, he moves on.”
The electoral hubbub doesn’t really concern Evans, although if Chairman Gray should run for mayor, “I can tell you I will run for chairman,” he says. “No question.”
Right now, though, politics are not at the top of his list. The budget is. “We’ve been very lucky in terms of the economy,” he says. “We’ve done extremely well and haven’t felt the main brunt of things. That’s not true anymore. As everybody has noted, we’re facing a shortfall of nearly $500 million. It’s almost a cliché, but this requires some extremely tough, painful decisions. We’re better off than other jurisdictions, but things are not going to get better right away.
“There’s only so many places you can look, so many things you can do. Now we’re going to be perhaps talking about looking at freezes on wages, maybe even pay cuts. We are required to balance the budget.”
Evans is by far the most experienced member of the council when it comes to financial and budget manners, making him ideally positioned to be heard in his role as head of the Committee on Finance and Revenue.
Mayor Fenty is scheduled to bring the Fiscal Year 2011 Budget Request Act of 2010 and the Fiscal Year of 2011 Budget Support Act of 2010 to the Council April 1.
“That’s where it starts,” Evans says. The council will hold a public briefing on the mayor’s budget plan on April 12.