Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd campaigning in 2015.
Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd campaigning in 2015. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/FILE

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In the early days of Brandon Todd’s first D.C. Council campaign, James Salt was among the volunteers dispatched to knock on doors and introduce the first-time candidate to Ward 4 residents.

It was his third or fourth day of volunteering, Salt recalls, and they were knocking on doors near Takoma when he turned to Todd with a question that every politician must answer: Why are you running?

Salt was fishing for some deeper insight into Todd’s motives and his core values, something he could use to describe the then-candidate to voters.

Todd mulled it over for a moment, and then, Salt recalls, he said: “I got that alleyway paved.”

Todd was referring to his work in then-Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser’s office. The answer left Salt feeling deflated.

“It just came up so short,” Salt tells LL. “Is that the deeper meaning of our endeavor together? I don’t want to condescend to paving alleyways, but it doesn’t strike me as the leadership we need with the endemic poverty that exists around me, and the police shootings, and the street violence, and the ecological crisis facing our world.”

In the five years since, Salt says he’s watched Todd’s Council tenure with frustration. Like his answer that day, Salt feels it has come up short.

“I say this as someone who considers Brandon a friend,” Salt says. “He’s a nice person, and I believe he is well meaning, but for me, the results aren’t there, and Ward 4 suffers because of it.”

Matt Santoro, who worked as the field director on Todd’s first campaign and as his communications director when he took office in 2015, echoes Salt’s sentiments.

“Brandon doesn’t really care about issues at all,” says Santoro, who was asked to resign from Todd’s office around September 2015. “He cares about being respected. He doesn’t believe he needs to care about issues, and believes Ward 4 residents will continue to elect him because of his constituent services.”

Santoro recalls several examples from his time working for Todd to illustrate his point.

In the first, he remembers sitting in Todd’s office in the Wilson Building when Jackson Carnes, Todd’s former constituent services director, who is currently managing his re-election campaign, walked in with the councilmember’s coffee order: an extra hot white mocha.

Todd took a sip, Santoro recalls, and then turned to Carnes and said, “This is not extra hot. I told you extra hot.” Todd then sent Carnes away to heat up the beverage.

In another example, Santoro accompanied Todd on an outing to the Fort Stevens Recreation Center, where the councilmember was invited to participate in a BINGO birthday celebration for seniors. Santoro was there to take pictures.

After a few rounds of BINGO, the celebration was winding down and Todd and Santoro were preparing to leave. A rec center employee thanked Todd for showing up and told him how appreciative the seniors were of his time and attention.

When they reached the front door, out of earshot, Santoro says Todd asked him, “Can you believe her?”

Puzzled, Santoro asked Todd to explain.

“She thanked me for coming here? This is my rec center and my ward. How dare she,” he recalls Todd saying.

“It proved in that moment that all the stuff he does for seniors is not about the seniors,” Santoro says. “It’s about how he looks and what it can get for him.”

In another, Santoro recalls the time Todd told him to unsend an email newsletter because it did not give him enough credit for a particular accomplishment.

“I told him an email can’t be unsent, and he said ‘No, I know it can be,’” Santoro recalls. “’I used to be Muriel Bowser’s communications director.’”

A third person who worked on Todd’s first campaign, but asked not to be identified, describes the Ward 4 rep in similar terms.

“I never saw him do anything terrible, but it was just the sense that everything had to have his face plastered on it,” the former campaign staffer says. “I did feel like he was one way in front of constituents and completely different when we were by ourselves. I never heard him talk about constituents or their issues when they weren’t in the room.”

Santoro’s description of Todd as an endlessly self-promoting politician who can’t resist a good photo opportunity is not necessarily new, and would not surprise anyone who’s stepped foot into his home and seen the giant portrait of himself hanging on the wall by the stairs.

Critics’ references to a lackluster legislative record are frequent talking points as well. (During a recent candidate forum, Todd said his proudest legislative accomplishment during his five years in office is establishing a free dental care program for seniors.)

Todd emailed a statement in response to the criticisms offered by Santoro and his former campaign workers.

“There are serious issues facing the District right now and none of us have any interest in being drawn into petty squabbles days before an important election,” Todd’s statement says. “I wake up every morning with one priority and that’s to work on real issues that affect the lives of Ward 4 residents. Everyone has the right to their opinion about me or any of the other candidates running for election, including disgruntled former employees. However, I believe the majority of Ward 4 constituents and those I’ve worked with these past 13 years, know that these characterizations don’t paint an accurate picture of me or my work. I plan to stay focused on the real issues that affect our everyday lives such as affordable housing, educating our kids and taking care of our seniors.”

Not all of Todd’s former staffers share Santoro’s perspective. A person who worked in Todd’s office at the same time as Santoro would neither corroborate nor refute his stories, but tells LL that Todd generally treated them with respect.

Santoro’s successor, Jordan Rummel, describes Todd as a hard working and passionate public servant.

“I don’t think there’s anyone more present in the D.C. government than [Councilmember Todd] is,” he says.

Rummel describes joining Todd at the crack of dawn after a 2016 snow storm to shovel residents’ driveways and sidewalks across the ward. “We literally did it until his car stopped running that night,” Rummel says.

The timing of Santoro and Salt’s public rebukes is not lost on LL. Todd is in the home stretch of perhaps the toughest election of his career. He’s facing a challenger to his left in Janeese Lewis George, who has overwhelming support from the local progressive community (and the resources and human power than come with it), as well as one of Todd’s own colleagues, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman. (In 2015, it was Silverman who encouraged Salt to get involved in Todd’s campaign).

Todd, meanwhile, has endorsements from Bowser, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, and Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie. (He recently incorrectly listed Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh among his supporters, and later corrected the announcement. Cheh tells LL she’s not supporting anybody in the Ward 4 race.)

Santoro says it’s precisely because Todd is up for re-election that he’s speaking publicly.

“The last time, he was still a young [councilmember]. Plenty of time for growth,” he says. “But he’s utilizing the same playbook. Avoiding forums, disrespecting groups he thinks aren’t critical to his re-election.”

Santoro has also worked on campaigns for Bonds, Bowser, and At-Large Councilmember Robert White.

“I have nothing bad to say about any of them, including Muriel,” he says. “We’ve butted heads in the past, but I respect her game. Brandon is unique in his lack of qualifications to be doing the work that he’s doing. The apple fell far from the tree when it comes to the [Green Team],” he adds referring to the political machine that helped elect former Ward 4 Councilmember and Mayor Adrian Fenty, Bowser, and Todd.

During this re-election campaign, Todd has skipped several forums. His explanation for skipping a forum hosted by the ACLU-DC, for example, was a “personal” conflict, but he declined to elaborate during a previous interview with LL.

A person familiar with Todd’s re-election campaign this year says that avoiding the question and answer sessions is a part of the game plan.

“His strategy was ‘I’m the incumbent. I don’t need to go to these things. Let my opponents fight it out. I’ve already won an election,’” says the source familiar with internal campaign discussions.

When the DC for Democracy forum came around, Todd and his staff planned to organize a fundraiser or meet and greet for the same evening in order to have an excuse not to attend, the source says. The plan never came to fruition, but Todd still didn’t show up.

But internal campaign emails shared with LL shed more light on Todd’s resistance to participate in the forum hosted by the progressive group Jews United for Justice.

In response to a request from JUFJ (which has endorsed George), Todd emailed his team: “I’m not @ all inclined to respond.”

Sherryl Newman, Todd’s chief of staff, replied “To them. Nope. But there are some issues here that can be incorporated into talking points and position statements. Once they put it out, these will become topics of conversation, and JUFJ will say you refused to respond. You can craft a narrative that responds to but gives them no platform.

“Why? because they are racially biased as evidenced by the last correspondence they published. You cannot participate in that!”

Asked for clarification on her assertion that JUFJ is racially biased, Newman explains in an email to LL that the organization previously apologized to Todd for an email it sent to its body that invoked an “harmful racist trope.”

“They apologized to him and Black residents, and asked what they could do to remedy the matter,” Newman writes. “CM Todd decided not to pursue a public apology. However, I felt their subsequent request for information was likely to be biased given this incident.”

Due to the Jewish holiday of Shavuot and the observance of Shabbat, JUFJ Campaign Fund was unavailable to comment. LL will update this post if the organization responds to requests.

Salt, for his part, says he’s speaking up because he sees an opportunity to change leadership and is supporting George’s campaign, in particular because of her views on public safety.

“My kids were on the playground a couple months ago when gunfire erupted near them,” he says. “I want a leader with bold solutions, and I don’t think that’s what Mr. Todd is offering.”