Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Janeese Lewis George walks up to the patio at Jackie Lee’s with the jitters of a first-time Council candidate.

The 31-year-old suggested the Kennedy Street NW watering hole as a venue to discuss her campaign to unseat Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd. Her childhood home is right around the corner, on 2nd Street NW, and she attended elementary school nearby at the now-shuttered Rudolph Elementary School.

Her mother, a postal worker, was forced out of the home in 2011 when she could no longer afford the rent. And the old Rudolph Elementary building now houses Washington Latin Public Charter School, she points out, giving a couple examples of how her personal experiences will shape her campaign.

Lewis George, a member of the DC Democratic State Committee, former deputy attorney general, and attorney in the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, essentially positions herself as the anti-Todd. She resigned from the District in July to campaign full time and plans to officially register her candidacy with the Office of Campaign Finance this Thursday, August 1.

She criticizes Todd’s record on everything from opposition to paid family leave and his vote to repeal Initiative 77, to his vote for what she considers a weakening of the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act and his support of the sole-source sports gambling contract the Council approved on July 9.

She also disagrees with Todd’s vote not to remove Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans from all Council committees while he is under investigation by the Council and federal law enforcement.

“To serve the people of the District is a privilege, and when people say an elected official is guaranteed due process before any action is taken, I think that goes against that notion,” she says.

Todd’s unwillingness to challenge his Council predecessor and one of his strongest allies, Mayor Muriel Bowser, and his acceptance of campaign donations from corporations and developers undermines his credibility, she says. The residents of Ward 4 deserve a councilmember who is, in her words, “unbought and unbossed.”

Although the 2020 primary is nearly a year off, Lewis George’s campaign has a few potential implications. 

As a progressive candidate, she’ll seek to challenge the Council’s block of entrenched, moderate Democrats, including Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who recently announced his support for Todd. Her plan to use D.C.’s new public campaign financing will test how the program stands up to the buckets of money Todd is likely to receive from wealthy donors, if history is any indication. And after Bowser’s support of at-large candidate Dionne Reeder failed with Ward 4 voters in 2018, the power of her expected support of Todd this time around remains an open question.

***

Todd critics and progressive groups in D.C. have been eyeing the Ward 4 seat since 2016, when he eked out a victory against the largely self-funded Leon Andrews. Despite a massive war chest, name recognition, and support of the sitting mayor, whose home base is Ward 4, Todd won by just 10 points. (Todd’s 2016 committee is still open, according to the Office of Campaign Finance. The campaign spent all of the $418,326.30 it brought in, according to OCF, though about $39,000 of that was spent after the 2016 general election, according to publicly available OCF records.)

Now, those groups appear to have found their champion in Lewis George.

“I think she’s smart, brilliant,” says Jeremiah Lowery, the chair of DC for Democracy. “She is very knowledgeable about what’s affecting Ward 4 and our city.”

Lowery won’t say whether he supports Lewis George over Todd without the blessing of his organization. But when asked for his thoughts on Todd’s first full term, he chuckles: “How much time you got?”

Lowery rattles off some of DC for Democracy’s key issues, such as paid family leave, lowering the voting age to 16, and eliminating the $4.45 tipped minimum wage, all of which Todd opposed.

“He’s never really been an ally for the progressive community in any fashion whatsoever,” Lowery says. “Janeese has been talking with union allies, housing advocates, a lot of folks who are very disgruntled with Brandon Todd. This is going to be one of those races where you’re going to have a disgruntled progressive left investing a lot in Janeese, and they’re really going to try to unseat Brandon Todd.”

On the patio at Jackie Lee’s, Lewis George talks quickly and she occasionally repeats herself as she runs down her own list of her top issues: affordable housing, quality education, livable wages, and access to quality health care. She promises to release specific policy plans in each of these areas throughout the campaign.

“We can’t wait for 22,000 more residents to be displaced. We can’t wait for more black mothers to die in the hospitals. We can’t wait for more neighborhood schools to close down,” she says. “That’s why this race is so important.”

Her words make it clear that her values closely align with the priorities of lefty advocacy groups like DC for Democracy, Jews United for Justice, and DC Working Families. Without much of a voting record, however, LL wonders how voters can trust that she won’t simply be a mouthpiece for these groups.

Lewis George scoffs a bit at the question. Her personal experiences drive her politics, she says.

“If what I’ve seen in the community, and through my work at the attorney general’s office then aligns me with Jews United for Justice principles, then I don’t mind being criticized about it,” she says. 

She describes taking the bus from 2nd Street NW to attend Alice Deal Middle School. She applied for special permission to attend the out-of-boundary school where her grandmother worked as a lunch lady, she says.

“Everything was completely different, from how safe you felt, to the grocery stores, to the quality of the school,” she says. “That was the first time for me at 11, 12 years old realizing that where you live and the connection of your family determined a lot of the opportunities to succeed in the city.”

While in high school at School Without Walls, Lewis George served as a youth mayor in the YMCA DC Youth & Government program. For college, she went to St. John’s University in New York and earned a degree in politics with a minor in sociology. She then spent a year tutoring seventh graders in Los Angeles through an AmeriCorps program called City Year before attending Howard University School of Law.

She worked as a prosecutor in juvenile court in Philadelphia and then took a job with the Office of the Attorney General under Karl Racine.

With the OAG, Lewis George continued as a juvenile prosecutor and helped develop the local program known as HOPE Court, which is designed to help young survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking.

Other reform-minded programs in the OAG’s office—such as assigning kids to read a book and write a reflective essay, rather than serve jail time—help shape her public health approach to crime and criminal justice, she says.

Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham’s recent statement pushing for harsher consequences for gun-related crimes in order to deter similar crime is an “archaic” approach, she says.

“That’s the tough-on-crime, not smart-on-crime approach,” she says. “That’s the approach that hasn’t worked in our country for a number of years. I’m not a proponent of being tough on crime. That should not be the only solution that is proposed to solving the city’s gun problems.”

Although Racine says it’s too early to offer an official endorsement, he has only positive things to say about Lewis George.

“I think she’s smart. I think she’s sincere in her interest in helping D.C. residents in any geographical location that she’d be running for,” he says. “I think that she’s honest and hardworking, and I think those qualities are attractive to D.C. residents, including me.”

***

Todd, meanwhile, seems to be feeling the heat. So far, he is the only incumbent councilmember up in 2020 to file for re-election (though Ward 7’s Vince Gray has said he intends to run again), and isn’t wasting time raising money ahead of the June primary.

Some of the subcontractors who benefited from his vote to approve the sole-source $215 million lottery and sports wagering contract are happy to pitch in.

Okera Stewart and Keith McDuffie, among others, hosted a fundraiser for Todd on July 16. Stewart is the principal for Potomac Supply Company LLC, which will receive $3 million over five years to supply paper products such as betting slips for the lottery. The Washington Post identified Keith McDuffie, a cousin of Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, as the CEO of Potomac. Both Keith McDuffie and Stewart have insisted that Keith McDuffie was mistakenly listed as the CEO and has no financial interest in the company.

Last week, Pedro Alfonso, CEO of Dynamic Concepts, Inc. and a prolific contributor to local campaigns, hosted a Todd fundraiser in his backyard garden, complete with a buffet and bartender, according to a source who attended.

Emmanuel Bailey, another beneficiary of the lottery contract, is listed on the host committee for that fundraiser. Mayor Bowser and Chairman Mendelson also made appearances at the event. Mendelson confirmed his endorsement of Todd on the Kojo Nnamdi Show last week, and tells LL that Todd “has been good on the issues, and has been an ally, and I would like to see him return to the Council.”

Which issues, specifically, chairman?

“Lots of issues,” he says.

Yes, but which specifically, LL prods.

“Lots of issues,” the chairman repeats.

LL can’t blame Todd for getting an early start. His seemingly narrow victory over Andrews in 2016 may still be in the back of his mind.

Then there’s the multiple campaign finance violations, the latest of which stemmed from his failed endorsement of a State Board of Education candidate and resulted in a $4,000 fine from the Office of Campaign Finance.

Lewis George says she plans to use D.C.’s new public campaign financing program, which prohibits her from accepting donations from corporations, businesses, and political action committees, as well as individual contributions above $50, as opposed to $500. The program also requires that she participate in debates.

Following a brief phone conversation, Todd promised LL he would call back to talk about the race when he had more time, but he never did.

But if LL’s readers are looking for some type of gauge, Todd most often voted in line with At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds (89 percent), Evans (82 percent), McDuffie (82 percent), and Gray (83 percent), according to local activist Keith Ivey’s analysis of recent Council votes. Mendelson and Todd agreed 78 percent of the time, and Todd voted with At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, considered one of the most progressive members, 41 percent of the time.   

Asked for her thoughts on Lewis George, Silverman invoked her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Lewis George is a bit fatigued after nearly two hours of talking on a humid Sunday afternoon, but she’s willing to continue answering LL’s questions and emphasizes her sense of urgency. 

“We’re at a point in D.C. where we can return to a true Democratic city with Democrats who are people powered and prioritize the needs of people and working families,” she says, laughing when LL asks if she’s calling Todd a Republican. 

“I was told he was a Republican,” she says. “But I think there’s a difference between establishment Democrats who accept funding and support from corporations, and Democrats who are people powered.”

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