I can point to many people whom I consider to be great leaders, from my mother, who guided our family with a simple philosophy rooted in faith and education, to my hero, the Rev. Leon Sullivan. There were many others: teachers and preachers, business executives and small-business owners, government officials and government gadflies.
Regardless of their stations in life, these women and men shared two common traits: They believed in the possible, and they had no fear of personal failure. They understood bold ideas aren't always popular ideas.
As a legislator, I used those lessons to transform the district I represent into a thriving center of commerce and culture. As chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, I used those lessons to revitalize Philadelphia's School District, fund the Convention Center, develop grocery stores and jobs in our neighborhoods, cut taxes for people and businesses, improve our transit system, advocate for the arts and the environment, and sound the alarm about handgun violence when no one listened.
My leadership skills are such that Gov. Rendell said: "On pure merit, [Dwight Evans is] the best-qualified candidate of all. He has the best experience, the best background, the best understanding of the issues."
Twenty-seven years ago, I ran for office because I wanted to use my experience as a teacher and community activist. The naysayers were many. West Oak Lane was a declining neighborhood, and Ogontz Avenue was a shell of abandoned, broken buildings. Conventional wisdom said I could not effect change.
But through sheer force of will, creative thinking, and a firm belief in the possible, the transformation began. I persuaded the police to step up patrols in the area, and crime went down. I formed the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation, and soon economic development projects were under way. People moved in, businesses opened, and those who served our churches, our schools, and our local groups also began to believe in the possible.
There were failures along the way. Transforming a community is a slow, frustrating process complicated by a lack of funding, varying views, and individual agendas. I spent many hours searching for dollars, persuading bureaucrats, and soothing bruised egos.
But my role was to step back from the petty and the personal, and keep everyone focused on the goal: the revitalization of West Oak Lane and Ogontz Avenue.
The attitude of despair in my neighborhood was not unlike the attitude of despair Philadelphians had toward our school district. The naysayers once again threw up their arms. The schools were doomed, they said. But I believed it was not just possible, it was our obligation, to find a way to better serve our children.
My ideas weren't popular, especially my belief that parents should have a choice about their children's education. I risked my political career, but I backed the state takeover of the district, championed charter schools, and used my influence to direct much-needed dollars into our public schools. The result is a school district far better off today than it was five years ago, one that will be even better five years from now.