Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd in 2018
Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd in 2018 Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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This story is a part of City Paper’s 2020 election coverage. To participate in our coverage, let us know what issues matter most to you by texting us or filling out this form.

Whenever LL asksBrandon Todd about his re-election campaign, the Ward 4 councilmember is acutely aware of the exact number of days before the primary.

“We have an election in 56 days,” he told LL during an interview in early April. “So I’ve spent a considerable amount of time reaching out to supporters, to voters, looking for creative ways to connect with voters, but also making sure people are getting what they need.”

Early voting starts May 22, and runs through the primary election on June 2. The Board of Election is encouraging voters to request mail-in ballots rather than voting in person during the pandemic. 

As Election Day nears, and campaigns shift their strategies due to social distancing, LL thought to check in on Todd’s operation after hearing some complaints from Ward 4 residents. Here are a few of the councilmember’s strategies.

Put campaign signs in people’s yards without their permission.

Sign wars are unavoidable in any election cycle, and Ward 4’s are getting good.

After a Department of Public Works employee removed more than 250 of challenger Janeese Lewis George’s campaign signs, the department referred to the incident as an “honest mistake.” Todd has denied his campaign’s involvement.

But LL is fairly certain the Ward 4 councilmember’s team is behind the green “Re-elect Brandon Todd” that have popped up in residents’ yards without their permission.

Yaron Miller says he noticed several yards around his Fort Totten block with signs for both George and Todd. They must be split households, he thought. About a month ago, he returned from a walk to find that someone stuck a Todd sign in his yard, right next to the George sign that was already there.

“It’s bizarre campaign behavior,” Miller says. “Especially during a pandemic. It’s not violating social distancing, but people are on edge when it comes to personal space.”

He donated to George’s campaign that same day.

Drew Mitnick, a Petworth resident, tells a similar story. Last week, he too returned from a walk to find a Todd sign stuck in his yard.

Mitnick can’t recall who he voted for in the 2016 election, and before Todd’s sign appeared he hadn’t landed on a candidate.

“Having a campaign that does things that are subversive to the democratic process and fairness of the election is not something I look for in a candidate,” he says, adding that he trashed the sign.

Todd says his campaign has received complaints about the errantly placed signs and each time moved to correct the mistake. These things happen when you’re fielding hundreds of requests for yard signs, he insists.

“I don’t put a sign in a yard until we’ve confirmed that you want one,” he says. “That’s always been my strategy, and I’ve been at this for a long time.”

What about Miller, who already had a sign for George and didn’t request one? “I’ve seen people who have both signs in their yard,” Todd says.

Allow a pro-charter school group to tout the work of the whole council to promote your campaign.

The pro-charter school group Democrats for Education Reform recently sent out campaign mailers in support of their favorite candidates. DFER’s mailer endorsing Todd touts his role as a co-author of the D.C. Council’s two emergency bills responding to the widespread impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mailers highlight the bills’ provisions prohibiting evictions and utility shutoffs, protecting healthcare benefits, extending family medical leave and unemployment benefits, providing support for small business owners, and extending SNAP and TANF benefits.

“Brandon is working hard to help local businesses impacted by the public health emergency re-open their doors when the crisis is over,” one version of the mailer states. “Similarly, the law he co-authored provides unemployment compensation and protects other safety-net benefits for residents impacted by this situation.”

Before the mailers began popping up in mailboxes, LL asked Todd which of the provisions he specifically contributed to the bills. Todd highlighted the 90-day deferment on mortgage payments and the support for the Board of Elections. He did not author either provision, he clarified, but those are two that stood out. The bills were a cross-Council effort to quickly help residents.

In a follow-up interview this week, Todd wouldn’t say which pieces of the bill he contributed and promised to send them in a separate email. LL is still waiting for an answer.

COVID-19 has become an inevitable part of 2020 campaigns, for better or worse. But DFER is using the work of the entire Council to boost Todd’s candidacy. 

Don’t show up to candidate forums, then botch the written answers.

Due to a “competing commitment” Todd missed last week’s ACLU  candidate forum. Todd’s campaign manager, Jackson Carnes, says the conflict was “personal.”

LL asked Todd to submit written responses to the questions his fellow candidates answered during the virtual event. In his initial answers, sent via email from Carnes, Todd did not give clear positions on a hypothetical halfway house in Ward 4 or for the Second Look Amendment Act, which would provide a path for resentencing for young people who committed serious crimes. He also omitted two questions entirely on the first try.

No-showing candidate forums, where his ideas and solutions to problems facing his constituents can stand alongside those of his challengers, appears to be a pattern. Todd skipped DC for Democracy’s forum in October 2019. DC4D chairJeremiah Lowery says Todd initially responded to the progressive group’s invitation by passing the request to Carnes.

“I then got no replies after multiple follow-up emails to both him and his scheduler,” Lowery says, adding that they kept an empty chair on stage in case Todd showed up.

Mark Rodeffer, the chair of the Sierra Club’s political committee, also tried wrangling Todd for a forum, but abandoned the entire event when Todd’s campaign didn’t respond.

“I emailed three or four dates, and said ‘Let us know,’ and didn’t hear back,” Rodeffer says. “And I emailed once or twice more, and never heard anything from him at all. Ultimately, we decided with him not attending, we weren’t going to do it.”

Both DC for Democracy and the Sierra Club endorsed George.

Todd also didn’t respond to Greater Greater Washington’s candidate questionnaire before the nonprofit urbanist advocacy group published his opponents’ responses on its blog.

GGW’s housing program organizer, Alex Baca (a former City Paper staffer), says their elections committee initially emailed questions to candidates on March 3 with a March 24 deadline. They published answers from George and Marlena Edwards, the third Ward 4 candidate, on April 15. The next day, Carnes asked if Todd could still submit his answers, and Baca agreed. She says she received Todd’s responses last week, but GGW hasn’t published them yet.

The Ward 4 Democrats hosted a virtual candidate forum Tuesday evening, which Todd attended. 

Accept donations from developers, contractors, and government employees who you oversee.

In the 11 months since Todd filed to run, his war chest has swelled to over $450,000, according to his March campaign finance report. His list of donors includes a who’s who of developers, contractors, and D.C. government employees, some of whom direct agencies that Todd’s Committee on Government Operations oversees.

Mayor Bowser chipped in $250, and her chief of staff, John Falcicchio, contributed the maximum $500. Former Ward 4 Councilmember and Mayor Adrian Fenty also tossed Todd $500 all the way from California.

At the end of 2018, the Council passed sweeping campaign finance reforms that prohibit businesses that have contracts with the District government worth $250,000 or more, or are seeking them, from contributing to local campaigns.The law doesn’t take effect until after this election cycle, though, so Todd’s in the clear. And the current law doesn’t restrict District government employees’ right to contribute to candidates.

Asked whether the donations from directors of agencies he oversees and from contractors that will be prohibited next year raise any concerns, Todd says: “My campaign is in full compliance with District of Columbia law. Period.”