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Whispers of frustrations with Councilmember Brandon Todd float among the elected neighborhood commissioners, residents, and political onlookers in Ward 4. They criticize Todd for his close ties to Mayor Muriel Bowser and his positions on major policies such as the voter-approved elimination of the tipped minimum wage (Initiative 77), paid family leave, and campaign finance reform.
“He votes whatever way the mayor tells him to vote,” says Rev. Graylan Hagler, the pastor of Ward 4’s Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ since 1992 and an Initiative 77 supporter. “That’s the impression people have. It’s not like you have an independent councilmember. It’s not like you have someone who raises questions on behalf of the ward. That’s the feeling here.”
The perception likely stems, at least in part, from the fact that Todd is the third generation of the so-called “Green Team,” which began with Mayor Adrian Fenty’s rise from an Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) to the Ward 4 Council seat to the mayor’s office. Bowser took a similar path and was Fenty’s chosen successor on the Council. She then tapped Todd, who had worked on her Council staff and as her chief fundraiser, when she was elected mayor in 2014.
Todd did not agree to an interview for this story, but Bill Lightfoot, a lawyer, former councilmember, and Green Team booster, comes to his defense when confronted with criticisms of Todd.
“You have newer people who move into the city, and they think they’re entitled to the good public services we have now, and that it happens automatically, and it doesn’t,” Lightfoot says. “The stellar public services we have are in large part due to the work of people who share the philosophy of the Green Team.”
To be sure, not every Ward 4 resident is completely dissatisfied with Todd’s tenure. Even critics manage to sing a few praises.
Erin Palmer, newly elected to ANC 4B02, does not agree with many of Todd’s policy decisions, but she says she appreciates his work on behalf of senior citizens and a bill aimed at protecting immigrants from extortion.
“He’s certainly done some positive legislation,” she says. “I have liked some of what he’s done, and disliked some of it. Unfortunately I think what I’ve disagreed with is more substantive. So for me that somewhat outweighs the positive.”
As Bowser and incumbent councilmembers prepare for the next Council session, a contingent of Ward 4 residents are shopping around for 2020 challengers. Although few are willing to raise their hands this early, there’s talk of efforts to push Todd out of office.
“I think that is on the ground out here for sure,” Hagler says of the Green Team overthrow bubbling in Ward 4.
For Todd’s detractors, the results of this past election cycle, as well as a recent public censure of Todd from an entire ANC, expose potential vulnerabilities to exploit.
The biggest question, then, for Tom Lindenfeld, who has worked as a campaign strategist for both Fenty and Bowser and in 2014 pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud charges stemming from work he did on former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah’s 2007 campaign for mayor of Philadelphia, is the competition.
“While it may be increasingly obvious that Brandon is politically vulnerable, the question of how this might turn out has more to do with what the field will look like at the end of the day,” Lindenfeld says. “If many candidates run, that might be to his advantage.”
Hagler and others are reading the tea leaves leftover from this past election cycle. They see the results of the Ward 4 State Board of Education special election in December and the race for an at-large Council seat between Dionne Reeder and Councilmember Elissa Silverman as potential bad news for Todd and what’s left of the Green Team.
Bowser endorsed Reeder, but Silverman beat Reeder by 12 percentage points citywide and in Ward 4, where Bowser and Todd reside.
Todd’s handpicked candidate for the State BOE race, Rhonda Henderson, lost to Frazier O’Leary by eight percentage points, a total of 421 votes.
Lightfoot believes both Reeder and Henderson lost to “qualified candidates,” and “that’s a plus for everybody,” he says.
And while he downplays the existence of an organized political machine (possibly to avoid acknowledging its fading influence), he still refers adoringly to the “goals and aspirations of people who’ve identified with the Green Team.”
Others who talked with LL share a different view.
Former Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander, who the Green Team backed at one time, says the State BOE loss “does have implications politically if you are the lead person in the ward, and your endorsement doesn’t win.” That being said, she adds that “in D.C. politics, people can support you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll support the people you endorse.”
John Capozzi, a former D.C. shadow representative, has a more blunt assessment of Todd’s situation.
“He’s gonna lose,” Capozzi says of Todd. In addition to the failed endorsement, Capozzi cites the recent election of Ward 4 Democratic State Committeeman Todd Brogan, a progressive, outspoken critic of Todd and the Green Team.
“Typically a councilmember wants to keep control of Democrats,” Capozzi says. “You don’t want people from inside fighting against you.”
It isn’t just Todd’s failed endorsement of Henderson in the State BOE race that has critics licking their chops. It may well be how he endorsed her.
At least one candidate in that race has already filed a complaint against Todd with the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, alleging that the councilmember sent campaign emails to addresses gathered through his Council office, as first reported by WAMU.
Shortly after, ANC 4C voted 7-1, with one abstention, in support of the investigation. Under city law, it is illegal to use government resources for campaign purposes. The D.C. Office of Campaign Finance confirms to LL that an investigation is underway.
Todd has denied any wrongdoing, saying in a statement last December that he used “emails collected by a variety of means through his engagement with the community over more than 10 years.” He has thus far not elaborated on exactly where the constituent emails came from.
“At no time were emails directly or indirectly given to any campaign,” Todd’s statement says.
Campaign rules have been a bother for Todd in the past as well. He was fined $5,100 by the District’s Office of Campaign Finance for failing to properly document a total of $151,000 in deposits to his 2015 special election campaign fund.
Since ANC 4C’s vote, other neighborhood commissioners who talked with LL also expressed support of the recent investigation. Some took the opportunity to vent their frustrations with Todd.
Stacey Lincoln, for example, just won re-election in ANC 4A02 over another Todd-backed candidate. Although superb constituent services have been a hallmark of the Green Team, Lincoln suggests that commitment comes with a price.
“I think the councilmember’s office provides constituent services to those affiliated with the Green Team,” Lincoln says. “Those who aren’t don’t get the same services.”
Lincoln’s name has been floated as a possible 2020 challenger but he denies that he has plans to run. Several other ANCs tell LL that Todd and his staff are extremely responsive to relatively minor constituent issues such as potholes and trash pick-up.
Renée Bowser, the ANC in 4D02 and an incoming D.C. Democratic State Committeemember in Ward 4, says the energy to push a viable candidate to run in 2020 is stronger than in years past.
Bowser (no relation to the mayor) has heard a few people floated as potential challengers, though she declines to name names—except her own. She challenged Todd in 2015 and lost, and hasn’t ruled out another run.
So is the Green Team’s influence waning?
From Lightfoot’s perspective, the gang is thriving, and the haters just don’t recognize the progress they’ve made.
“I see a deficiency in the knowledge about the history of our city and how far we have come from 15 or 20 years ago,” he says. Improvements to the education system, public safety, and public services over the long term, Lightfoot says, are attributable, at least in part, to the Green Team.
Then there’s the more progressive types—the Haglers, Brogans, and Capozzis of the world—who see Green Teamers raking in piles of campaign donations from wealthy developers and business interests and want more attention paid to lower income and working class residents.
“Is the Green Team’s star fading in Ward 4?” Brogan posits. “I think yeah, or maybe it was never that bright to begin with. The only way we’ll know for sure is elections.”
Considering the past two election cycles, when Green Team-endorsed candidates have lost five out of six times in major elections, one could make the argument for the Green Stain.
Candace Tiana Nelson, president of the Ward 4 Democrats and a friend of Todd’s, believes that his endorsement overshadowed the State BOE election.
“[The endorsement] became bigger than the candidates, and everybody started talking about the fact that he endorsed anyone,” Nelson says. “I’m not against him doing it, but it’s unfortunate that became the story. The entire race was hurt.”
As for Todd’s political future, Lindenfeld makes a final point: When Fenty lost to Vince Gray in the 2010 mayor’s race, conventional wisdom said Bowser was also vulnerable.
“Not only did she not lose, but she rose to become mayor,” Lindenfeld says. “Brandon has serious political concerns ahead of him, but that was the case for Muriel as well.”
This post has been updated to reflect that Renée Bowser is the incoming, not outgoing, D.C. Democratic State Committeemember in Ward 4.