The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Janeese Lewis George, the democratic socialist who beat one of the D.C. mayor’s allies, says she’ll be a pragmatic council member

Janeese Lewis George won the Democratic primary for the Ward 4 council seat this month. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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Janeese Lewis George didn’t think her views on policing would play much of a role in her campaign for D.C. Council.

When she decided to run against incumbent council member Brandon T. Todd to represent Ward 4, the northernmost corner of Washington where she grew up and has lived most of her life, George planned to focus most heavily on three legislative issues: tenants’ rights, workers’ wages and paid family leave, a topic she couldn’t bring up without crying the first several times she tried to campaign on the issue, because it meant talking in public about quitting her job to care for her dying father.

Policing was low on her list. But then her opponents noticed she had said she believes in taking away military equipment from Washington’s police force and cutting funds from the police budget.

To her surprise, an interest group paid for mailers blasting her for those views. Todd called the subject “one of the biggest differences” between himself and George. “Not once have I heard a Ward 4 resident say they want less police,” Todd said. “I want to put more officers on the street.”

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And then came the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and voters in the District went to the polls at the very same time they went to the streets, flocking to the area around the White House night after night to demand police reform.

It turned out her views on policing were shared by other Washingtonians. And George, a 32-year-old self-identified democratic socialist, beat Todd, one of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s closest allies, in the Democratic primary by nearly 12 percentage points.

Now, as George prepares for a November general election she is very likely to win, given the highly Democratic electorate in the District, one might expect her priorities would match the heady moment, when local governments nationwide are listening to left-leaning activists’ calls to rethink police budgets.

But when George was asked what was atop her list for her first days on the council, assuming she joins the body in January, her response was a lengthy, enthusiastic explanation of all the street intersections she has been visiting, noting where she’d like to see new traffic lights and speed bumps.

“When you’re a ward council member, you have to balance two roles,” she said, explaining that constituent services will be just as important to her as her left-leaning policy goals, which will probably make her among the most liberal of the city’s legislators. “On the local end, it’s safety and streets.”

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Her approach matches the blend of pragmatism and personal values, rooted in her Washington upbringing, that colleagues and mentors say they’ve seen her bring to earlier roles as a prosecutor, activist and volunteer.

George worked as a prosecutor in adult criminal cases in Philadelphia before returning to Washington to care for her father, who was dying of a rare heart condition. She was hired as a juvenile prosecutor in D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine’s office in 2016, and colleagues say she often mentioned stories from her upbringing when talking with them about how to handle juveniles’ cases.

“As a young person, I knew some of those individuals who were killed, and some of the individuals who were charged with violent crimes. And I knew that a lot of them were victims of their circumstances. A lot of the violence they gave out into the world came from violence they experienced at home,” George said. “I was in the same situations as some of these young people. I believe that young people can be rehabilitated and changed.”

As a juvenile prosecutor, she was able to divert some cases to the behavioral health system or restorative justice, a process of mediating between the child and the victim instead of going through criminal proceedings. “Sometimes it feels really good. You see a young person you gave a chance to, you see them graduate high school and go on to college, thanks to that mercy you gave them as a prosecutor,” she said.

Santha Sonenberg, who formerly led the juvenile section in Racine’s office, said she watched George work long hours on hard cases, including homicides. “These were difficult situations, and she wasn’t afraid to prosecute,” she said. “A prosecutor ethically has a dual obligation to both prosecute and do justice. That’s an especially hard balance to reach in juvenile cases. But she did it very well.”

Outside of her work in Racine’s office, George volunteered as a mentor to a young woman of color going from high school to college to law school, working through the same mentoring program that assisted George as a first-generation college student at St. John’s University in New York and then Howard University Law School.

Inspired by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign for president, George got involved with the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party. She became an activist on local issues, working with Jews United for Justice to advocate for the District’s paid family leave law and campaigning for the 2018 ballot question on raising the minimum wage for tipped workers, which was passed by voters but repealed by the council before it went into effect.

“I could name a whole list of people, people like Janeese prior to her running for office, that people don’t know or recognize — and that do the actual work of progress in this city,” said Nikki M.G. Cole, an advocate for the minimum wage increase who ran with George for the D.C. Democratic State Committee in 2018. “Janeese has been an unsung hero for a long time.”

George said Todd’s vote to overturn the wage increase, which she saw as going against the will of the people, was a strong factor in motivating her to run against the council member.

D.C. Council repeals Initiative 77, which would have raised wages for tipped workers

The day after George won the primary, Cole said, she got a text from George, who vowed to take up the issue once she is in office: “Next up, one fair wage.”

The Rev. Aaron Jenkins, a lifelong friend of George who officiated her wedding last year to Kyle George, whom she first met at a high school graduation party, compared her rise from grass-roots activist to elected official to that of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a fellow young woman of color and democratic socialist who won an upset victory in 2018 over an incumbent. The protests for police reform provide a moment that could see George win, he believes.

“She was running against an incumbent with name recognition with support from the mayor,” Jenkins said about George. “The energy we see in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Someone from the community, someone from very humble beginnings, goes against an establishment candidate, and their message resonates with people so deeply — people took a step back and said, ‘Who do I want representing me at a time like this?’ And they said they wanted a change.”

To George, that change comes down to not just the policy issues on which she hopes to push the council to the left, but also to her own background, which she has always believed to be an asset. (When she was ringing voters’ doorbells in the months before the coronavirus pandemic, she often found that the people who answered recognized her because her mother served them at the Brightwood post office, or their children attended now-closed Rudolph Elementary with her.)

After her primary victory, she joined a Zoom call about gun violence with several council members as well as community members who asked questions.

One teenager on the call asked those taking part: “How many times have you heard gunshots in your life? How many people have you lost to gun violence?” George said — and she jumped in to answer.

“Probably every week of my life I heard gunshots” as a child on Kennedy Street, she said. “People I played tag with lost their lives to gun violence.”

She was answering that teen, but she also noticed the looks on the council members’ faces. “I could see some of the other council members being like, ‘Whoa,’ ” she said. George took that as a sign that her approach — blending the personal with the political — would work in her newest role.

“I could already tell this is going to be good,” she said.