The protege of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is gearing up to defend his seat representing the mayor’s Northwest Washington home turf.
Ward 4 council member Brandon T. Todd (D) has filed for reelection before any other incumbent and gone on a fundraising blitz. He raised $180,000, with an assist from the mayor and city contractors, according to campaign finance records filed late Wednesday.
Todd also drew his first primary challenger Thursday: Janeese Lewis George, a former D.C. government lawyer and a favorite of progressive activists.
At stake is the ideological tilt of an increasingly left-leaning D.C. Council.
Todd is one of the more conservative members of the panel on fiscal and business issues, and he has been a reliable supporter of the mayor. He was first elected in 2015 to succeed Bowser as the Ward 4 representative after serving as her constituent services director and as the fundraising chief for her mayoral campaign.
George, a 31-year-old Manor Park resident, is running to Todd’s left, criticizing his votes to repeal a tipped wage ballot measure, approve a no-bid sports gambling contract, and oppose a paid family and medical leave measure . She also has needled Todd for his closeness to business interests and the mayor.
“We need someone who is willing to stand up and fight and who would be unafraid to say something,” George said in an interview. Todd is “not willing to go against the mayor, and we absolutely can’t afford that going into the next election.”
Todd said he has been an effective representative for a ward that stretches from Petworth to Takoma, near the Maryland border. Ward 4 includes tony neighborhoods near Rock Creek Park such as Crestwood, parts of Chevy Chase and 16th Street Heights, and working-class areas including Lamond-Riggs.
“Literally seven days a week, I am at a community meeting, I am at a block party, I am sitting in someone’s living room,” said Todd, a 36-year-old Petworth resident. “I am going to campaign just as hard as I did in 2015.”
He said he’s proud of delivering parochial issues, such as the construction of new middle schools, a free legal clinic for seniors and constituent services, to a diverse mix of neighborhoods.
But his critics mock him as a legislative lightweight. Todd serves as chairman of the Committee on Government Operations, which oversees the mayor’s office, but his hearings are often cordial. He rarely takes the lead on major legislation.
“You can focus on big-picture items, and you can also focus on small quality-of-life issues that help residents,” he said. “We have to do more to support families that are squarely in the middle class.”
George was raised in Ward 4 and returned in 2016 after working as a prosecutor in Philadelphia. She said the city needs bolder leadership to address rising housing prices, education inequality and health-care disparities.
She said those issues are personal to her. Her mother, a post office worker in Brightwood, was priced out of a house in 2011. George returned to the city in 2016 to care for her ailing father before his death.
“My generation, my mother’s generation and Ward 4 residents have been left behind as the city has become rapidly more prosperous,” she said.
A graduate of Howard University Law School, she previously worked under Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) and quit a job in the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to run for office. Racine praised George on Thursday as an advocate for criminal justice reform who sought alternatives to detention as a juvenile prosecutor in his office. But he said it was too soon to endorse.
“She is very smart and has high character,” Racine said. “Period.”
The race will be the latest test of the mayor’s political machine, known as the Green Team. Her preferred candidates for an at-large council race and a State Board of Education race both lost in Ward 4 last fall. Bowser appeared at a campaign fundraiser for Todd last week, as did Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D).
Several businessmen who stand to benefit from the sole-source gambling contract approved last month held fundraisers for Todd after he voted for the contract, and some campaign finance reform advocates criticized that as pay-to-play politics. A new law will prohibit campaign donations from major contractors starting in 2022.
“I was hoping he would take this opportunity to show that he wanted to be beholden just to the people, and not to developers and contractors,” said George, who plans to raise money using the city’s new public financing program.
Todd dismissed the criticism, describing businesses as “the backbone of our economy.” He rejected public financing, although he supports it as an option for other candidates.
“I don’t think precious public dollars should be spent on campaign buttons, literature and pizza for volunteers,” he said.
The Democratic primary will be held June 2, 2020, and is tantamount to the general election in a deep-blue city.