Book Review: “Making Ideas Matter” by Dwight Evans
Dwight Evans is a rarity in politics, a legislator who is interested in legislating and makes no apologies about the methods that make such work possible.
Rep. Evans (D-Philadelphia) is a long-standing fixture both in Harrisburg, where he has served since 1981, and in Philadelphia where his district is located. As a result, he has accumulated a lifetime’s worth of experience in legislating and the lessons he has drawn from that trove of memories makes up the core of his book “Making Ideas Matter: My Life as a Policy Entrepreneur.”
Evans shares authorial credit with William Ecenbarger, a veteran reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 as part of that paper’s coverage of the Three Mile Island incident. Judging from the tone of the book, and what Evans writes in the acknowledgments, it appears Ecenbarger interviewed Evans on multiple occasions and shaped his stories into a book. This is the most common method that public officials use when writing works like this and some credit should be given to Evans for giving adequate credit to his collaborator (not every public official does).
The volume begins with a prologue written by David Thornburgh, Executive Director of the Fels Institute of Government and son of the former PA Governor. Thornburgh praises Evans’ work as an all too rare process story rather than a simple biography of Evans or a juicy tell-all. Unfortunately, Thornburgh’s description couldn’t be less apt. Therein lies the central problem with the book. Despite the insights one may gather, this is still Evans’ story and while it may illuminate some details about state government, this is much more of an autobiography than an instruction manual on legislative politics.
This is not to say, though, that “Making Ideas Matter” is not informative. For instance, Evans gives us a great look at the two parallel lives a state representative must lead in the capital and in their district. After winning office at the young age of twenty-six, the legislator realized that a freshman member of the minority party had little power and decided to sent his sights on gaining a seat on the all-important Appropriations Committee. Meanwhile, back in Philly he sought to transform the run-down Ogontz Plaza through a community development corporation.
“Government is a service-oriented entity,” Evans writes at one point and he became convinced that to provide those services he needed access to the money, and to get access to the money he needed to get on the Appropriations Committee.
“I never wanted to be speaker,” he asserts. “Instead, I wanted to be the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.”
In 1982 he joined the committee and eventually in 1991 he became chairman. The heart of the book details Evans’ work as chairman and the wheeling and dealing necessary in such a position. For instance, when recounting the passage of his first state budget he noted that he included a $500,000 appropriation to build a statue of George Marshall in Uniontown in order to secure the vote of Rep. Fred Taylor. Evans stated clearly that he doesn’t feel these deals are unjust or corrupt but just the way things get done.
“By giving Fred something he wanted, I was able to get something I wanted,” he concluded.
Through the rest of the book, Evans goes on to describe and defend his most influential and controversial accomplishments. These included building a new convention center in Philadelphia, passing the 1997 charter school bill and creating the Fresh Food Financing Initiative. Most prominently, he detailed his advocation of Bill Bratton and his “Broken Windows Philosophy;” a decision that alienated his fellow African American constituents and eventually lead to the replacement of Richard Neal as police commissioner. He even went so far as to state that only a black legislator could take up this issue and that it was his own personal “Nixon to China” moment.
Evans’ myriad of electoral failures; his losing mayoral bids in 1999 and 2007, his unsuccessful 1986 run for Lieutenant Governor and unfruitful 1994 gubernatorial campaign, are not mentioned much in the volume. He does describe, however, how he lost the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee by not supporting Bill DeWeese during the Bonusgate scandal. Throughout the book it’s plain to see he dearly misses the gavel.
While “Making Ideas Matter” is certainly autobiographical, ultimately it is a defense of the kind of politics people have come to despise. Much maligned objects of scorn like earmarks, “walking around money,” and deal making are clearly near and dear to Evans’ heart. He truly believes they are how government runs best. In that sense, the volume is a process story, though not so much an illustration of the process but rather an argument for that process and a plea for its survival.