It takes a special kind of vision and ability to meaningfully influence public policy, and these traits do not always accompany electoral prowess. Scores of successful politicians have come and gone from public life without making much of a dent in the government they were elected to run. Indeed, it is far more the exception than the rule for a member of Congress to leave a lasting legislative legacy, even after decades of service.
A recent New York Times article about the Coastal Barrier Resources Act reminds us that not long ago Delaware was represented by a politician who, in a short time in office, showed how effective one very focused and skillful person can be. Tom Evans, our state’s lone congressman from 1977 to 1983, understood that elected office requires a sense of purpose and urgency and an ear for political dynamics beyond one’s district borders.
As his late former aide Darry Carmine put it, within months of his election, “Tom quickly became something of a master at bringing together members with widely divergent politics to accomplish something important to the nation. I was amazed to see liberals join with conservative forerunners of the tea party to support legislation I suspected they would never have supported without Tom serving as a catalyst.”
Evans’ success was all the more remarkable in that he was a very junior member in a very minority party in the United States House of Representatives. In his era, Republicans in that body were generally viewed by long-reigning Democrats more as a comfortable piece of furniture than a force to be reckoned with.
It is true that Tom Evans came into Congress with the kind of national political experience few of his colleagues could match. He had served as a general chairman of the Republican National Committee and been an early supporter of Ronald Reagan’s presidential ambitions, placing the former California Governor’s name into nomination at the national convention where he became the party’s candidate in 1980.
Yet Evans was not satisfied with being a prominent friend of the White House. He used his stature and political savvy to get things done.
Among other accomplishments, this included partnering with Senator John Chafee to engineer passage of a common-sense, but far-sighted law that “simply declared that on sensitive coastlines that were then undeveloped, any future development would have to occur without federal subsidies.” The Coastal Barrier Resources Act shrewdly but appropriately made it national policy that our beautiful, fragile coastlines were valuable national assets and the federal government would play no role in incentivizing their development. As the Times piece explains, this effectively meant that taxpayers should not be carrying the risk – through federal flood insurance – of those who wished to build on sensitive, erosion-prone real estate.
Preserve beautiful natural coastlines + save billions in taxpayer dollars. Who could argue?
It was political high art. Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike came together to support the bill. None other than Ronald Reagan himself called the measure a “triumph for natural resource conservation and federal fiscal responsibility” when signing it into law.
This kind of artistry might be expected of someone married to another Delaware star, the celebrated painter Mary Page Evans.
The First State is fortunate to have been gifted with this remarkable duo, who have done so much to contribute to our nation’s natural and cultural heritage.
Certainly, Tom Evans’ relatively brief tenure in Congress reminds us that political alchemy is possible if our leaders are up to the job.