Kishan Putta at the 2014 Palisades Parade
Kishan Putta at the 2014 Palisades Parade Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

As Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans fights to prevent his political career from flatlining, five men are clamoring to take his seat.

Evans, the District’s longest serving councilmember, has coasted to re-election unopposed in his past two election cycles. Now, as Evans faces a federal investigation into his private business dealings, the potential loss of his committee chairmanship, and ethics violations that cost him his seat on the Metro board, these challengers want to seize on his vulnerability.

A crowded field of opponents benefits Evans, especially since a single frontrunner has yet to emerge. Aside from splitting the anti-Evans vote, some of the candidates have political liabilities of their own.

Take Kishan Putta, for example: The most recent candidate to throw his hat in the ring is a member of the DC Democratic State Committee, but his Republican past still haunts him. In 1996, while he was a student at Dartmouth College, Putta wrote a letter to the editor of the student newspaper defending Dinesh D’Souza’s 1995 book, The End of Racism. In that book, D’Souza, a right-wing provocateur who promotes conspiracy theories and received a pardon from President Donald Trump last year after pleading guilty to breaking campaign finance laws, tries to make the case for “rational discrimination.”

“High crime rates of young black males, for example, make taxi drivers more reluctant to pick them up, storekeepers more likely to follow them in stores, and employers less willing to hire them,” D’Souza writes. “Rational discrimination is based on accurate group generalizations that may nevertheless be unfair to particular members of a group.”

D’Souza also writes in that book that slavery was not a racist insitution, that “the American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well,” and that the main “obstacle facing African Americans is neither white racism, as many liberals claim, nor black genetic deficiency, as Charles Murray, and others imply. Rather it involves destructive and pathological cultural patterns of behavior: excessive reliance on government, conspiratorial paranoia about racism, a resistance to academic achievement as ‘acting white,’ a celebration of the criminal and outlaw as authentically black, and the normalization of illegitimacy and dependency.”

In his letter, Putta argues that some interpretations of the book manipulate D’Souza’s arguments.

“D’Souza’s formulation of rational discrimination (that urban cab drivers may be hesitant to pick up blacks opposed to whites given the greatly higher urban crime rates of blacks) does not justify its existence,” Putta writes. “Rather, he finds that it is an unfortunate result of the decay of urban black culture.”

Putta explains in his letter that D’Souza, a fellow Dartmouth alumnus, had recently spoken at their alma mater and “told us that while there are great differences between blacks and other groups in almost all cultural standards (test scores illegitimacy rates, savings) even when controlled for socioeconomic situation, there are basically three causes for discrepancy: racism, genes and culture.”

In another letter to the editor from his college days, the now 45-year-old Putta complains about being excluded from a discussion of a debate involving D’Souza hosted by an on-campus group called Women of Color United.

“Some of my father’s hard-earned money goes toward funding the Women’s Resource Center, and the College supports it and yet, this event is off limits to me and every other male and white female at Dartmouth—that is an exclusion of over 90 percent of the student body!” Putta exclaims. “I am a member of the Conservative Union where we often have liberal students attend civilly and they are welcome. At the Young Democrats, the principle of non-discrimination also holds; as it does at AAm, DAO, La Allianza, or Women in Politics. But this group gets to discriminate by both race and sex!”

Today, Putta prefers not to engage specifically with questions about his college-aged views. He says his conservative upbringing played a role in his perspective as a college student, and after re-reading his letters now, says his views then were wrong.

“I’m a staunch and loyal progressive in my record in D.C., and I am a different person politically than I was 25 years ago,” Putta tells LL. “If you want to ask again about 23 years ago, it’s hard for me to remember all the arguments I might have raised back then when I was involved in campus politics that I really left behind after college. All I can tell you is what I believe now. Let me talk about that.”

As an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 2 (he currently represents Georgetown, Burleith, and Hillandale, and is a former Dupont ANC), Putta says he authored a resolution officially opposing the racist name of the local NFL team. He says he’s protested with Black Lives Matter, and has supported the effort by At-Large Councilmember David Grosso to decriminalize sex work.

“We’re not condoning it, but we’re not going to penalize them for coming forward,” Putta says.

Putta’s campaign, like those of Evans’ other challengers, emphasizes restoring trust in local government. Putta pledges to hold monthly meetings with constituents and, in his support for term limits, promises to serve only two consecutive terms if elected. He also intends to take advantage of D.C.’s new public campaign financing, as will his fellow challengers.

Putta is no stranger to crowded campaigns. He ran as an independent along with 14 other candidates in 2014 for the at-large seat that Elissa Silverman ultimately won. Putta says he officially changed his party affiliation from Republican to Independent in 2012, and after attending the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, changed parties again. He’s running in Ward 2 as a Democrat.

Putta credits his shift in political ideology to his progressive-minded wife, whom he met in 2007, as well as his work for D.C.’s health insurance marketplace as an outreach coordinator, and his contact with local progressive advocacy groups such as DC for Democracy and Jews United for Justice.

For Rev. Graylan Hagler, who ran against Putta in the 2014 race, the letters are not a disqualifier.

“He’s a nice guy and wants to be thoughtful,” Hagler says. “But if you say these are the rules, he’s not gonna question why the rules are in place or who made the rules. He’s going to operate within the rules.”

Eugene Puryear, a lefty activist, author, and radio show host who also ran against Putta in 2014, is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. The letters are a distraction from what Puryear believes is the bigger issue: Evans.

“I think this is exactly the type of thing that the Jack Evanses of the world are hoping for, that people don’t focus on what’s really going on here,” Puryear says. “It’s not about the individual challengers, it’s about the fact that [Evans’] role in the District of Columbia has been controversial and corrupt and institutionally racist. Those are the issues that should be debated.”

As chair of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, Puryear says, Evans has contributed to policies that have disinvested in black citizens, “and increased the gulf between black and white residents in the city.”

Evans’ other challengers include Logan Circle neighborhood commissioner John Fanning, Foggy Bottom neighborhood commissioner Patrick Kennedy, political newcomer Jordan Grossman, who touts his work in the Obama administration, and another political newbee, Daniel Hernandez.

None of them are perfect, of course. Aside from Grossman and Hernandez’s lack of experience in local politics, Hernandez is registered to vote in Ward 1, according to the Board of Elections, despite listing a Ward 2 address on his candidacy filing. Hernandez tells LL that he changed his registration back in May through the Vote 4 DC app and believes the information with the Board of Elections just hasn’t been updated yet.

Fanning has had a long career in government and has worked for every mayoral administration since Mayor Marion Barry. He’s also trying to seal his criminal arrest record related to a minor assault charge, though he appears to have a reasonable explanation and says he acted in self defense.

And Kennedy served as a co-chair of Evans’ uncontested 2016 re-election campaign.

Evans has not yet filed for re-election, but he told LL in April that he intends to run in 2020. He did not return a call seeking comment.

Recently, though, Evans resigned as chairman of the Metro board after an investigation revealed that he violated several ethical rules. Evans initially denied any violations before acknowledging that Metro’s ethics committee sustained a single violation.

Evans is also steeling himself for what would be a devastating blow to his influence and power on the Council. Following Metro’s investigation, Chairman Phil Mendelson recommended the Council remove Evans as chair of the finance committee. Evans called that a “drastic action” and pleaded for a chance to explain himself.

He’s scheduled to make his case to his colleagues tomorrow, July 2. The Council will vote whether to revoke his chairmanship on July 9.