Janeese Lewis George Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Janeese Lewis George couldn’t help herself. In what was an otherwise sedate Ward 4 candidate forum, George seized on Councilmember Brandon Todd’s explanation for his vote to repeal Initiative 77—a ballot measure approved by voters that would have gradually eliminated D.C.’s tipped minimum wage.

Todd said hundreds of tipped workers and small business owners spoke against the measure, worried that paying higher wages would force them to close. “To have small businesses shoulder that burden, I thought was unfair,” he said.

To George, the issue was that a majority of Ward 4 voters approved the measure. “The Council doesn’t just get to take the will of the voters away,” she interjected.

Candace Tiana Nelson, president of the Ward 4 Democrats and the forum’s moderator, cut George off while Todd calmly sipped from a glass of water.

The dynamic was representative of the Ward 4 race between the challenger George, a forceful, energetic speaker, and the incumbent Todd, who takes a more measured tone.

The decision for Ward 4 voters, based on last week’s forum co-hosted by the Ward 4 Dems, the Chevy Chase Citizens Association and ANC 3/4 G, is fairly cut and dry. LL can hardly recall a single issue on which the challenger and the incumbent agreed. Todd uses traditional campaign funding, George uses public financing; Todd keeps a constituent services fund, George would abolish them; Todd would not decriminalize sex work, George would; Todd wouldn’t commit to supporting the tax and regulation of marijuana, George supports a recreational market and has previously said she’s in favor decriminalizing all drugs in phases and based on scientific research.

Throughout the forum, George punctuated nearly all of her answers with criticism of Todd, who did not give in to the temptation to return the favor. The antagonism rubbed some viewers the wrong way.

Nelson says she got calls from at least two Ward 4 residents after the forum, who described George as angry, as if she had a bone to pick with Todd.

“What I thought was passion, some people said her responses came across like it was personal, like she had a vendetta,” Nelson says. “Both were women, one was African American.”

The criticism is familiar to George, who is well aware of the “angry black woman” stereotype that advisors have cautioned her against.

“I think I have to make the case for what he’s doing,” she says. “Brandon makes a point of taking pictures and making a facade of helping people when he’s not. I do have lots of bones to pick with him.”

With 15 days left until early voting begins on May 22, the Ward 4 Democratic primary has essentially come down to two candidates. A recent poll released by the Baltimore-DC Metro Building Trades Council shows between 40 and 43 percent of voters support Todd, while 27 to 33 percent of voters favor George. The third candidate still in the race, Marlena Edwards, was not included in the poll, and is largely self-funded.

Despite “some stumbles,” Todd recently locked down the Washington Post editorial board’s endorsement, which noted his close ties to Mayor Muriel Bowser as a plus.

“Instead of chasing headlines or pushing programs fashioned by advocates with a national agenda, Mr. Todd has focused on education reform and other issues of fundamental interest to Ward 4 residents,” the board writes.

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George has racked up endorsements from several unions and local progressive groups, including DC for Democracy, Jews United for Justice, Black Lives Matter, and the D.C. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (she identifies as a Democratic Socialist), which she hopes will help propel her into the Ward 4 seat.

“Ward 4 has been shifting over the years, and different neighborhoods are growing and changing,” Nelson says. “Especially in Petworth and other places, where you’ve had African American seniors who have been selling their homes and you’re seeing more families and younger families of different races. Caucasion, Asian, Ethiopian. More diversity and younger, so they’re interested in different things.”

But at least one longtime progressive voice is missing from George’s list of supporters. Rev. Graylan Hagler, a longtime activist, reliable Todd critic, and former Council candidate himself, says he hasn’t yet decided who he’ll support.

“It feels like she’s being chosen for me,” he says. “I don’t like that.”

Sometime in the winter of 2018–2019, Hagler attended a meeting on Georgia Avenue NW, where about a dozen people gathered to start plotting Todd’s defeat.

Although his recollection of specific details of the meeting is disputed, Hagler left feeling dismayed by the conversation and by what he believes was a flawed evaluation process.

“It’s sort of like this Young Turk politics, where some folks want to decide that other folks are irrelevant,” Hagler says, recalling the nickname once given to reform-minded pols including former Ward 4 Councilmember and Mayor Adrian Fenty. “And I don’t know what gives them that right.”

Jeremiah Lowery, the chair of the progressive group DC for Democracy, also attended the meeting. He says the group met to discuss Todd’s voting record and how to engage the public during the 2020 primary, but they didn’t settle on a chosen candidate.

“It was individual Ward 4 advocates … who were upset with Brandon Todd’s voting record who met to discuss their involvement in the upcoming 2020 election,” Lowery says. “What does the landscape look like? How are we going to talk about ensuring the public is informed about Brandon Todd’s voting record? But it was not like, ‘Hey, let’s select this candidate.’”

Still, Hagler is undecided. He says he doesn’t see any community stalwarts, “the people who’ve been here through thick and thin,” lining up behind George and, perhaps simplistically, describes divides across race, class, and age among the candidates’ support.

“It’s like Brandon is battling to walk with the older part of the Democratic party in Ward 4, and in some ways Janeese is going after the younger forces trying to infiltrate the party in Ward 4,” he says.

Hagler still feels burned by the “so-called progressive” Fenty, who handpicked Bowser to succeed him on the Council. The sitting mayor is a frequent target of Hagler’s criticism.

“I’m very cynical about the politics and easy labels that people carry without the substance to back it up,” he says. “And that’s why I’m saying I’m standoffish.”

George has heard these doubts before, too. She counters by talking about her working class upbringing in a family who was pushed out of their home when the rent got too high. Her mother is still a postal worker at the Brightwood post office.

“All of my reasons for running for office are personal and come from a very personal experience and growing up here and having the leadership of Brandon Todd,” she says.

George’s progressive backing caught Chairman Phil Mendelson’s attention as well, but he doesn’t share Hagler’s skepticism. It’s one reason he’s supporting Todd.

“I think that’s the wrong direction for us to go,” Mendelson says. “I think that she is reflecting the views of a minority that claims to be progressive, but is actually left of that,” he adds, referring to her DSA endorsement.

He lumps George in with a group of three other progressive candidates running for Council seats: Jordan Grossman in Ward 2, Anthony Lorenzo Green in Ward 7, and Ed Lazere, who ran against Mendelson in 2018 and is now running for the at-large seat that Councilmember David Grosso is vacating.

Mendelson specifically worries George will be too much of a tax-and-spend type of councilmember or one who pushes to spend down the reserve funds.

“I look at it this way,” the fiscally conservative chairman says. “When these issues come before the Council, and I’m looking for the votes so we don’t spend down the reserves and can take a reasonable step, Brandon is there almost every time. Fiscally, he’s not someone I have to worry about doing a flack attack on the budget.”

Asked about Mendelson’s support for Todd, George says she looks forward to working with the chairman and respects his push to split up the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and reform the DC Housing Authority.

“I won’t hold it against him when I’m the Ward 4 councilmember,” she says.

Another of George’s statements that has Mendelson siding with his colleague is her posture toward police.

“I’m not interested in seeing someone on the Council who says publicly that we need fewer police,” he says.

Last October, George tweeted that she “will absolutely divest from MPD and put that money into violence interruption programs. Full stop.”

In a ward where public safety is a top issue for many voters, and with a significant number of senior residents, George’s statement puts some on edge.

“I don’t agree with that,” says Andre Carley, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner for Single Member District 4B01. “I’m a big proponent of community policing, and one thing that’s very important to us is working with police. Violence interruption, conflict resolution, they’re great ideas, but they’re just pieces of the puzzle.”

“That’s scary. I don’t know if the police need more money, but they certainly don’t need to operate with less,” adds Charles Gaither, who previously ran for the Ward 4 seat in 2007 and supports Todd’s campaign. “I think that’s turning the clock backwards.”

George also answered “yes” on a DSA questionnaire asking if she supports demilitarizing and disarming the police department.

“We’re told the institution of policing is intended to protect all of us from some suspicious menace, but the fact is that crime is a public health problem, not a battle of military opponents,” her answer says. “The transformation of American police departments, especially the MPD, into military units trained to occupy the very communities promised protection is one of the greatest dangers to the future of urban life.”

George clarifies during an interview with LL that she doesn’t want to completely drain the police department’s budget or take guns from officers. Rather, she says, if MPD shows it’s not using its budget effectively, she supports diverting some of their budget to other areas such as the violence interruption program or to support adding more social workers in schools. 

“I was speaking to the demilitarization piece of that,” she says of her response to the DSA questionnaire. “When we talk about police departments, they’re different from the armed forces. Police shouldn’t be coming into communities as if they’re going to war.”

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One of the most common arguments against George is typical of many challengers: Who is she?

“I never heard of her before, until she started running,” says Joan Thomas, who served as an advisory neighborhood commissioner starting in 1976. “I don’t know anything about her, so I can’t agree or disagree with her. I’m sure she’s a nice person. I just don’t know her.”

Several other older residents echo Thomas’ sentiments. They’re satisfied with Todd’s speedy constituent services and his attentiveness to seniors.

“I learned long ago, if you got a good one, you keep them,” saya Loretta Neumann, who has hosted parties for Bowser and Todd in her backyard, including Todd’s re-election campaign kick-off in early March. “It takes a long time to get experience working in office. He chaired the Committee [on Government Operations], he’s done well with that. You don’t get that just walking in the door.”

Without a legislative record or the equivalent of Todd’s five years in office, George’s response to people who ask about her community involvement is to point to a 2006 Washington Post article. At 17, she served as a D.C. youth mayor and spoke during a YMCA youth government legislative session about public housing, gentrification, and school funding. She was also elected to the D.C. Democratic State Committee and worked for four years prosecuting juveniles in Attorney General Karl Racine’s office.

“When people say, ‘I haven’t seen you,’ I say, ‘I’ve been here,’” George says. “Maybe that’s a testament to who you see, and maybe you haven’t seen people like me because working class people are struggling to stay here. Maybe it’s a testament to who you are, and who you’re paying attention to.” 

UPDATE: This article has been updated to clarify George’s position on the decriminalization of all drugs.