The proliferation of political signs in front yards or on roadside medians depict the intensity of the fight underway in Ward 4. Janeese Lewis George, Marlena Edwards, and incumbent Brandon Todd are vying for the Democratic nomination in the June 2 Primary.
It may seem the typical campaign story. Beneath the surface, however, is a political narrative marked by undertones of race, class and ageism. Some have expressed concerns frequently heard in communities that are in transition or experiencing gentrification, as is happening in some parts of Ward 4. Further, the campaign appears to be a proxy for the continuing battle between the far-left wing of the Democratic Party and those who are considered more moderate liberals.
Edwards acknowledged during my interview with her last week that as she has knocked on doors prior to the public health emergency, she saw some division. “People may say they have issues with gentrification. We need to be sure the neighborhood continues to be diverse and inclusive” and that “older families are able to stay.”
The Rev. Graylan Hagler, a popular and progressive minister, said he has witnessed tactics by some George supporters, particularly DC4Democracy, that he called “ageist and racist.”
George declined to be interviewed for this article, according to the campaign’s communications director Alex Dodds.
Affordable housing, better resourced public schools, improved health care for all District residents and better public safety are mentioned in the campaign literature and speeches by all the candidates. However, as in most such contests, the proverbial devil is in the details.
For example, Edwards said development on the campus of the former Walter Reed Medical Center known as The Parks, “rolled out too slowly.” She was critical of the current design, arguing that it should replicate Reston Town Center or perhaps the area around Chevy Chase Pavilion on upper Wisconsin Ave. NW. She said she twice tried to persuade Todd to take a trip with her to Reston. He never did.
“The only anchor store is Whole Foods. I have not heard of a comprehensive plan,” to bring others, continued Edwards. “It was critical to have a strong anchor. It could have meant a couple hundred of jobs were created there for residents who may be unemployed or underemployed--not just construction jobs.”
Highlighting her 23 years with the District government, expertise in implementing health care initiatives, work with various elected officials and civic organizations, Edwards asserted that she is the “most qualified” of the candidates. However, a recent poll indicated Todd had a 10 to 13-point lead over George; Edwards’ name was not included in the matchup.
“I have been focused on bringing the bacon to Ward 4,” said Todd, citing as examples, development at Walter Reed and Beacon House. He said he has been fighting for the middle-class, citing as further example his support of workforce housing. Without that, he said the city will become one for the very rich or the very poor.
Todd touted his push for health care improvements including dental services for senior citizens and reduction in property taxes. He noted the modernization of several public schools including Roosevelt Senior High, MacFarland Middle School and Calvin Coolidge High School. “I am proud to have pulled things over the finish line.”
None of that seems to have muffled George’s criticism of him. A native Washingtonian, she once worked in the Office of the DC Attorney General under Karl Racine. She also was a prosecutor in Philadelphia before returning home 2016 to care for her father, who eventually died.
Seemingly casting herself as the defender of the downtrodden, George’s mantra is “No one in our city should be left out or left behind.” What does that mean?
Is that some touchy-feely political lingo designed to protect the speaker from accusations of other-ism? Is that like the phrase we have heard during this COVID-19 induced public health emergency: “We are all in this together”--until we aren’t?
The mantra may be left to interpretation. The specifics of some of George’s proposals are not, however. For example, she has said, if elected, she would push to divest in the police department, rerouting funds to violence interruption programs whose results have not been fully evaluated. She also would permit the decriminalization drugs--all drugs, albeit phased in.
“That is like a libertarian perspective,” said Hagler, who when I spoke with him last week had not decided who he would support. He has since endorsed Todd.
Early voting starts Friday, May 22. But many residents have already begun voting by mail.
Todd told me that throughout his time on the council he has “never heard from any ward 4 residents” a request to divest in the police department. “[George] also wants to decriminalize sex work; that is problematic.
“Her focus is not on ward 4 concerns,” continued Todd. “I don’t know whose concerns she’s representing.”
Actually, George’s policies are in line with a national political agenda being advocated by people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others who are intent on pushing the Democratic Party further to the left. Think U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. Some people I spoke with believe there is a patronizing element to the campaign dialogue that snatches agency from people of color placing it in the hands of whites or those who think they know what is best for working class blacks and Hispanics.
As example of those dynamics, Hagler offered this vignette: He was at meeting called last year by DC4Democracy; the group had gathered to consider candidates who could run against Todd. “I was the oldest person in the room; everyone else was mostly in their 30s. I was one of only three black people there,” said Hagler, elaborating on a story first reported in the Washington City Paper.
“How can you have an initial discussion, when the people in the room don’t even look like we look in the ward,” he asked.
A few names were tossed around as individuals that could run against Todd. “Someone threw out a name [Erin Palmer],” continued Hagler. “Someone counter that she would be good, but we have to hold her for next time because she’s white.”
Palmer did not return my telephone call requesting an interview.
Ward 4 stretches from its northern boundary (Eastern Avenue) with Montgomery County, Takoma Park and Prince George's County in Maryland to its southern border with Ward 1 on Spring Road, Ward 5 to the East and Ward 3 to the West. It also includes Barnaby Woods and Hawthorne and portions of the Chevy Chase neighborhood west of Rock Creek Park,” according to the DC Office of Planning.
While comprised mostly of middle- and working-class families, the Ward includes communities locally described as the Gold and Platinum Coasts--areas heavily populated by upper-income African Americans, who increased their wealth through public sector jobs or launching their own businesses during the time when the path forward wasn’t always smooth. Nearly 50 percent of Ward 4 residents hold some type of college degree, according to the city’s planning office.
Sections of Ward 4 have witnessed rapid gentrification, particularly in communities like Petworth and Manor Park. The shifting demographics have brought in more whites to neighborhoods that previously had been predominantly black. It also has brought in families with younger children. Many of those families have also come with different ideas about how they want their government to look, feel and act. Some have immersed themselves in local politics. Palmer is an advisory neighborhood commission and head of the Manor Park Citizens Association. Zach Teutsch, the chair of George’s campaign committee, is a resident of Petworth, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner and the founder of Values Added Financial, an investment company.
“I believe in progressive politics, but where has [George] been?” asked Hagler. “People I know are people I met on the streets, doing the work. She’s not been there.”
Todd said that despite being on the political frontlines for 13 years, he never saw “Janeese Lewis George before she decided to run.”
Todd and Edwards told me they are committed to representing every resident, regarding of race, age, or income. As they should.
I am a big proponent of civic engagement. Every taxpaying citizen should be involved in the government. George may have left the city, but her family remained. DC is her home; she has ownership rights. Still, the questions being raised about experience and longevity are not inappropriate.
Consider that Dodds, George’s communications director, admitted in a published article that she is a 15-year resident of Ward 4. However, until last year she didn’t even know that “individuals could testify before the council. In fact, and I am slightly embarrassed to admit this, I had never step foot in my council members’ offices in the Wilson Building.”
Dodds used Todd’s office that day last year to gather herself before her testimony and to print out copies of her statement. Now she is working to kick him out the door.
Jews United for Justice (JUFJ) instigated her involvement. That organization’s Campaign Fund endorsed George and has been instrumental in bringing support to her door. She has won endorsements from a variety groups and individuals, including Greater Greater Washington, 1199 SEIU, the Washington Teachers Union and AG Karl Racine. Last week, At-large Council member Elissa Silverman, a former JUFJ member, and one of the key members of the far-left wing of the council, who self-identify as progressives also threw her support behind George.
Edwards has not yet received any endorsements.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, the Laborers International Union of North America, the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees have been among the endorsements Todd has received. In its endorsement, the Washington Post editorial board noted that “instead of chasing headlines and pushing programs fashioned by advocates with a national agenda,” he has been focused on issues affected Ward 4.
The endorsements are good for the candidates; they may bring money and additional volunteers. Ultimately, however, the only endorsement that really matters is that from Ward 4 Democratic voters, which won’t come until June 2.
Other commentary written by jonetta rose barras appears at TheDCLIne.org