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Dwight Evans says he'll challenge Fattah in '16

State Rep. Dwight Evans, a longtime powerhouse in Philadelphia Democratic politics, will challenge embattled U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah in next year's primary.

State Rep. Dwight Evans, a longtime powerhouse in Philadelphia Democratic politics, will challenge embattled U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah in next year's primary.

He filed the needed federal paperwork late Monday afternoon.

Fattah, seeking a 12th term in Congress while under federal indictment, took the news in stride Monday, saying he looks forward to the race and feels confident about his chances of reelection.

Evans' decision sets up a clash between two politicians, each with more than three decades in elected office, both known as pillars of power in the city's African American community.

Evans, in his 18th two-year term representing the House's 203d District, which stretches from West Oak Lane to Lawncrest, told The Inquirer he would not seek another term in Harrisburg and would focus instead on the Second Congressional District, which covers parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County.

In an interview Monday at the offices of his new campaign's media consultant, Evans, 61, repeatedly deflected questions about Fattah's legal troubles, insisting that he is in the race to push Washington to develop a new plan to renew U.S. cities "block by block."

"I can't change the reality of what is occurring," Evans said of Fattah's indictment in July on charges of racketeering, bank fraud, bribery, and money laundering. "That will speak for itself."

Fattah, who on Monday attended the federal trial of his son, Chaka "Chip" Jr., on bank- and tax-fraud charges, touted his record in bringing government dollars home to his district.

"My focus is on doing the job," said Fattah, 58, noting that elections for his district seat are rarely competitive. "The city should rejoice in the opportunity to hear about my record and for voters to decide whether they want me to continue to represent them. I think I have a good idea what their answer will be."

Fattah has pleaded not guilty. His trial is scheduled to begin May 2, six days after next spring's congressional primary.

A Fattah-Evans contest would be a rematch, of sorts, of the 2007 Democratic mayoral primary that was won by Michael Nutter. Fattah finished fourth of five major candidates with 15 percent of the vote. Evans was fifth with 8 percent.

Evans has experienced political losses large and small. He ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1986, for governor in 1994, and for mayor in 1999 as well as 2007.

His Democratic colleagues, just days after losing political control of the House to Republicans in 2010, stripped him of his party's powerful Appropriations Committee chairmanship, a post he had held for 20 years.

A nonprofit organization Evans founded in Philadelphia came under scrutiny from state investigators for mismanaging millions of dollars in state grants, including funds spent on community events like the now-defunct West Oak Lane Jazz and Arts Festival and a weekly after-work party promoted as "Wine Down Wednesdays." Evans has responded to those setbacks by picking his political battles.

He was an early supporter of Tom Wolf, who trounced the 2014 field in the Democratic primary for governor and went on to unseat the Republican incumbent, Tom Corbett.

Evans then helped lead a contingent from the vote-rich Northwest Coalition, which provided pivotal backing to former City Councilman Jim Kenney in the May 19 mayoral primary. Kenney is widely expected to win Tuesday's general election.

Those are two significant political chips Evans could cash in as a congressional candidate.

"I hope at the appropriate time that they will be helpful for me when I make the case to them," Evans said of Wolf and Kenney. "They've both known me a long time."

In comments Monday to The Inquirer, Evans pitched himself as a partner in the nation's capital for the new governor and next mayor, pushing issues where they share ideas, such as economic development, job creation, education funding, and public safety.

"I'm going to be the biggest champion that you can imagine for our cities," Evans said. "I've got to go down there . . . and get [Republicans] to understand that cities do exist."

Evans has experience working in a General Assembly controlled by Republicans. He cited working relationships he has built across the aisle, naming Republicans known to be moderate who clash with their own party when it comes to ideology.

"I believe there will be somebody who is willing to work together to make a difference," he said.

Three other candidates, State Rep. Brian Sims of Center City, Ninth Ward Leader Dan Muroff, and Lower Merion Township Commissioner Brian A. Gordon, are also challenging Fattah for the Democratic nomination.

All three are white, running in the only congressional district in Pennsylvania where the majority of residents - 58 percent - are African American.

Democrats dominate the district, making up 81 percent of the registered voters, while Republicans are 8.5 percent and independents 10 percent.

On paper, Fattah appears to be disadvantaged. His campaign account contained just $822 as of Sept. 30, according to a report filed Oct. 15, when his debts and cash were tallied.

A legal-defense fund he set up reported on the same day last month that it had raised $109,000 - including a $85,000 loan from Fattah and $5,000 from his political action committee - and spent all but $9,000 of it on fees for attorneys in September.

Against those odds, Fattah aims for a comeback - a word Evans rejects when it is used to describe the arc of his career after being pushed from power five years ago by fellow Democrats in the legislative body where he has spent 35 years.

"I didn't go anywhere," Evans said. "If you're in politics long enough, you're going to have ups and downs. But at the end of the day, you keep pushing. You keep trying to make a difference."