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Amid change in Congress, Philly’s Brendan Boyle, Dwight Evans vie for power

Philadelphia is about to see a changing of the guard in Congress — and Reps. Brendan Boyle and Dwight Evans are each vying for influence. Only one is likely to get it.

U.S. Reps. Dwight Evans (left) and Brendan Boyle (right) are both vying for new influence as Democrats take control of the U.S. House. Both Philadelphia Democrats are seeking a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
U.S. Reps. Dwight Evans (left) and Brendan Boyle (right) are both vying for new influence as Democrats take control of the U.S. House. Both Philadelphia Democrats are seeking a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff - left; SUSAN WALSH / AP - right

WASHINGTON — Philadelphia is about to see a changing of the guard in Congress. With Rep. Bob Brady's impending retirement, January will be the first time since 1995 that neither he nor Chaka Fattah represents the city.

Reps. Brendan Boyle and Dwight Evans are brimming with ambition, each hoping to give Philadelphia a bigger voice in the national debate as their party takes control of the U.S. House.

But Boyle and Evans may run into each other in a contest to become the city's go-to person inside the Capitol.

Both Democrats are seeking a seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, a powerful perch that often serves as a launching pad. Only one of them, at most, is likely to get it when the new term starts in January.

"I would hope to do on the Democratic side what Paul Ryan did on the Republican side," said Boyle, 41, referring to the Wisconsin Republican who used slots on the Budget and Ways and Means Committees to become a national force on fiscal policy, the GOP's vice presidential nominee in 2012, and, now, House speaker.

Evans — 23 years older but newer to Congress — is touting his experience in the Pennsylvania House and has made clear he doesn't see himself as a junior member.

"I'm not new at this. I was chairman of the Appropriations Committee for 20 years," Evans said, referring to his long tenure in Harrisburg. "I've earned the consideration, and that's the case I'm trying to make to people."

In pushing to become players in big, national debates, they envision a shift from the predecessors who represented the city for two decades.

Brady, in office since 1997, had an intensely local focus, working mainly as an ambassador and fixer for Philadelphia. He pushed for funding to dredge the Delaware River and deals to protect refinery jobs and rushed home to settle labor disputes. On major policy debates, he mostly just echoed party leaders.

Fattah held a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, using it to steer money to Philadelphia, and in recent years was mostly known for carving out a niche on science funding and brain research. He served from 1995 until 2016, when he was forced out of office after a conviction on federal corruption charges, including misusing federal dollars.

Boyle and Evans envision more sweeping roles.

"These are two men who want to do something," said Larry Ceisler, a Democratic strategist from Philadelphia. "They want to be of consequence."

Evans pointed to Pennsylvania's increased weight within the Democratic caucus, given the party's gains in the past election.

"We will be more of a factor, and I keep reminding people — this is where America started," Evans said of Philadelphia.

He touted big ideas to repair schools and expand infrastructure projects, and offered a comparison to another Philadelphian, the late Bill Gray, who chaired the Budget Committee and later became the third-ranking Democrat in the House.

Boyle first ran for office when he was 27 and joined the state legislature just before turning 31.

After winning a competitive 2014 primary for Congress, Boyle talked about how big, liberal cities like Boston, New York. and San Francisco produced leading figures who could drive national debates — and argued that a Philadelphian should have similar stature in Democratic politics.

He founded a "Blue Collar Caucus" to try to appeal to working-class voters.

"I think I've built a reputation as someone who, yes, is very proud to be from Philadelphia and works hard to represent his district, but is also a voice in our national and international politics," Boyle said this week.

Given his relative youth, Boyle has the potential to serve in Congress for decades, often a requirement to rise up the ranks. (New Jersey's Rep. Frank Pallone, for example, is 67 and finally in line to chair the Energy and Commerce Committee, after 30 years in the House.) Evans is 64 and about to begin his second term.

At stake is a committee post that would give either Boyle or Evans a front-row seat on taxes and spending — leading to influence and a likely flood of campaign donations.

The Ways and Means Committee handled the GOP's two biggest legislative priorities this past session, its tax bill and health-care overhaul. When former Rep. Pat Meehan of Delaware County landed on the panel, he amassed a campaign war chest that had national Republicans eyeing him as a potential Senate candidate. (He passed, and resigned this year after revelations of a sexual-harassment claim.)

Former Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Montgomery County was the last Southeast Pennsylvania Democrat to hold a seat on Ways and Means. She ran for governor in 2014.

Several Democrats interviewed for this article envisioned Boyle taking a shot at a Senate run, perhaps as early as 2022.

"The guy went to Notre Dame and Harvard. He's a smart guy and ambitious, and he's always angling," said Neil Oxman, a Democratic media consultant from Philadelphia.

"The honest answer is I don't know," Boyle said. "My outlook has been to just work hard and do a good job in the job I'm in, and that may lead to other opportunities."

Evans, too, has spent much of his life in politics, and frequently looking to step up. He joined the state legislature in 1980 and has since run for governor, lieutenant governor, and for mayor, twice.

Shortly after winning a 2016 special election to replace Fattah, he wrote to Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi to request a seat on one of Ways and Means, Transportation and Infrastructure — two heavily sought-after panels rarely given to freshmen — or the Agriculture Committee. He ended up on Agriculture but says now that his first-term work and his long history in Harrisburg should give him an avenue to Ways and Means.

"You put your name in and do the best you can and hope in return that people look at your skill set, and that's all you can do," Evans said.

Both congressmen said there is no acrimony in the contest.

Boyle would appear to have the inside track.

He has seniority, having joined Congress nearly two years before Evans. Given the turnover in the area, he will begin his third term next year as the longest-serving House member from Southeast Pennsylvania.

Boyle also noted that he traveled this year to campaign for fellow Democrats and gave $125,000 to the party's House campaign arm — often a key factor in deciding who gets the plum committee assignments. On election night he was on stage to celebrate with Pelosi in Washington, where she praised his efforts.

Boyle said he also has support from Brady and the dean of Pennsylvania's Democratic delegation, Rep. Michael Doyle, another major point in deciding who lands on big committees.

Brady said he pledged support for Boyle last year, before he knew of Evans' interest. Even so, he said the transportation committee — which Evans retains an interest in — might have more local impact, especially as Democrats push for a major infrastructure bill.

"Ways and Means is like a status kind of thing, but I don't know what it brings back to your district," Brady said. "Being on transportation you can really be helpful."

The process of choosing who gets the coveted assignments, however, is fuzzy and can often depend on the whims of party leaders.

Evans — who has prominently touted his support for Pelosi and hosted her at Philadelphia events during the campaign — is vying for the seat at a time when a new wave of Democrats are pushing the party to do away with the old traditions that rely on seniority and campaign donations. It's also a moment when minorities are seeking greater influence within a party that increasingly relies on their support.

Evans has appealed to the Congressional Black Caucus for support. The caucus' chairman, Evans said, "hasn't said no to me."

Party leaders aim for regional balance on the most powerful committees — which means that it's unlikely that more than one Philadelphian could land a seat on the panel, if either can.

Each also has to contend with the crop of Democratic newcomers. They, too, have bold ambitions.