In the ward’s election this year to fill its D.C. Council seat, those changes are the backdrop of a conflict between the established and the new. Longtime residents who praise Todd for scrupulously meeting their needs — including recently organizing meal deliveries in his ward, the worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic — find themselves disagreeing with newcomers who are drawn to Janeese Lewis George, a candidate in the June 2 Democratic primary with an array of liberal proposals.
George bills herself as a democratic socialist — a label rare in local politics, even in the deep-blue District — and aims to appeal to fans of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) while also trying to reassure older voters she will serve their interests.
She has been endorsed by prominent leaders in D.C. politics, including District Attorney General Karl A. Racine, in whose office George formerly worked as a prosecutor, and council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), a fellow liberal who took the somewhat rare step last week of backing someone challenging a fellow council member.
“It was anguishing, because Brandon and I have a very cordial relationship,” Silverman said of her decision. “Covid-19 has highlighted the inequities in our city and how key votes on issues around equity are. I think Janeese will be a good ally in furthering equity.”
Todd, a moderate voter and a close ally of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, who endorsed him to fill her old seat when she was elected to the city’s top post, says George’s policy stances are too far left for his ward’s voters — especially George’s calls to “divest” certain resources from the D.C. police and to legalize prostitution.
Todd has not often taken the lead on major legislation, but residents rave about his careful attention to constituent services. Peter Tabor, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative for the Kennedy Street corridor, said he sees Todd everywhere, from fall festivals to ANC meetings.
George is a less familiar face at community events despite growing up in the neighborhood, though many residents fondly note they recognize George’s mother, a longtime postal worker at Brightwood’s post office. George challenges the perception that she isn’t as visible in the ward, telling the Washington City Paper, “Maybe that’s a testament to who you see.”
“Janeese’s literature seems to be more geared toward saying we need to do a lot more and change the paradigm a little bit. Brandon Todd’s approach seems to be: ‘Look what we’ve done. Ward 4 is growing,’ ” said Tabor, who said he hasn’t made up his mind yet between the two. He said Todd deserves credit for the commercial and residential development in the ward. “I can go outside my door, and in any direction I’ll look, there will be construction underway, which is generally a good sign.”
Todd says the coronavirus crisis, which has hit his ward particularly hard — Ward 4 has the most cases in the city — underscores the need for a council member who is ultra-responsive to residents’ needs.
“We’ve been getting people meals seven days a week. We have a group of volunteers. We deliver toilet paper and hand sanitizer and water,” he said. “This morning a constituent emailed me. She wanted to get her son tested. . . . It’s my job to make sure my constituents have what they need.”
George, who has been endorsed by a long list of labor unions and progressive groups such as Black Lives Matter D.C., Our Revolution and Jews United for Justice, tells the story of Todd’s time in office differently — and interweaves it with her personal narrative.
In 2016, she says, she was using up her vacation days and eventually taking unpaid leave from her job as a prosecutor to care for her dying father. That experience led her to advocate with Jews United for Justice for the District’s paid-family-leave law, which Todd voted against.
The next year, she took advantage of D.C. tenants’ right to purchase the house they are living in before the landlord offers it for a general sale — just before Todd championed legislation doing away with that right for single-family dwellings.
And the year after that, George signed up as a witness to testify before the council in favor of increasing wages for tipped workers, planning to speak about her time working as a waitress while she studied law at Howard University. Todd voted to overturn the wage increase, even though voters had approved it in a ballot initiative.
“Our council member decided to repeal the will of the voters,” she said. “We already don’t have a vote in Congress. We already are disenfranchised. How dare you disenfranchise us further? To me, that was the final straw.” She decided to run against him.
George is Todd’s most serious challenger; local Democratic activist Marlena D. Edwards is running a mostly self-financed campaign that has drawn relatively few supporters.
Todd’s vote on paid family leave in particular is remembered by some residents. ANC representative Tiffani Nichole Johnson said even four years after that vote, the subject remains one of the most important to her as she decides whom to support in the council race.
“As a single parent who works full time . . . ensuring that paid family leave is appropriately funded and supported is something that is very, very important to me,” she said. (The law passed, and Todd has vowed to work to see it implemented.) “Who do I think is not going to oppose the beginning of paid family and medical leave?”
Johnson called the race “a very hard decision,” and echoed what many in the ward have said: Broadly speaking, Todd appeals most to older African American residents, and George appeals to liberal newcomers, many of whom are white. “They each come with a broad base of knowledge of what they have experienced over time and what their core demographic has experienced. If you put all that together, it would make one really wonderful candidate speaking for all demographics of the community,” Johnson said.
George says she is trying to explain her socialism to older voters. “We talk about how capitalism really hasn’t helped our communities, particularly black and brown communities,” she said. “When I put it in that way, they’re like, ‘Oh, okay, I understand and I get it — I totally agree with you.’ ”
Her comments about the need to “divest” from policing and put resources into non-police violence interruption strategies have been a particular flash point in the race. The national advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform, which takes a conservative position on certain education issues, paid for mailers blasting George for those comments.
Todd calls the subject of policing “one of the biggest differences” between him and George. “Not once have I heard a Ward 4 resident say they want less police. They always want to see more police,” he said. “I want to put more officers on the street because it helps people feel more safe and more confident.” Similarly, about George’s support for legalizing prostitution, he argues, “Uniformly, residents in every single neighborhood are in opposition.”
One topic on which both candidates agree: The virus will dampen turnout this election, despite the city’s efforts to make absentee ballots and early voting available.
“It’s really unpredictable who is going to vote in this election,” Silverman said, “which makes the outcome unpredictable as well.”