Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Book Review: Making Ideas Matter by Dwight Evans

Making Ideas Matter:  My Life as a Policy Entrepreneur by Representative Dwight Evans with William Ecenbarger.  Philadelphia: Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania, 2013.

State Representative Dwight Evans is currently the Democratic candidate for the 2nd Congressional District, defeating incumbent Chaka Fattah in the primary. This book was published before his congressional run, but after previous unsuccessful runs for higher office. It is a slim volume (181 pages with an index) providing a history of State Rep. Evan's political career.  The first chapter is biographical, telling the story of his childhood and upbringing. He points out that after getting a part-time job in high school he didn't take money from his mother again, allowing her to focus on his younger siblings.

The rest of the book concerns his work as a state legislator and his personal life is not really mentioned again. Most of the chapters concern a particular subject -- one on education, another on the importance of access to healthy food choices. Others are on aspects of political culture -- there is a chapter on Walking Around Money (WAM) and how it can be used to leverage cooperation from political colleagues.

Evans outlines a number of projects he worked on,priorities he followed, strategies he used to reach out to fellow Democrats as well as Republicans, and how he developed rapport with legislators from other parts of the state to overcome overall hostility towards the Philadelphia area.

There is a focus on his work as chair of the Appropriations Committee, and his disappointment when he lost that position. He writes about his own personal values and how they informed his behavior, expectations of staff, and political behavior, and what happens to politicians who lose their moral compass.

He writes a lot about developing and maintaining relationships, not only with political allies but as ways of reaching across the aisle or to the far corners of the state. He writes about empowering staff (including giving staff the ability to tell him no), and holding them accountable for their work and ethics as well.

Evans only seems to write about one fault and that is the inability to tell his story effectively when running for mayor or governor. He wishes he could have continued as chair of Appropriations and that he could have helped a non-profit he had worked with maintain control of his district's main high school.

This book does explain how State Rep. Evans created some of the coalitions that passed legislation he wanted. It is a first person account and therefore does not include some of the context or reflection that a third person account might have. The writing is fast paced and easily read. The book could easily have gotten bogged down in self-congratulation or unnecessary details. As you might expect from a policy wonk, there are a lot of acronyms, but otherwise it avoids many of the pitfalls that other books of this kind fall into. Co-author William Ecenbarger is a former reporter and I credit his influence with a great deal of the book's readability.

Baring some sort of disaster Mr. Evans will be elected to Congress in November and his tenure in the state legislature will end. I hope that at some point a scholar writes a definitive history of his time there. I'm sure there are a lot more stories to be told. The book left me wanting more, which is surely the sign of a well-written book.

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