Calls to defund the police have become a focal point of nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, with local politicians from New York City to Los Angeles weighing new budget cuts to their police departments. While some critics dismiss the idea as politically untenable, a city council election in Washington, D.C., this week offers lessons on how politicians can succeed while pushing bold positions on policing.
Janeese Lewis George, a 32-year-old democratic socialist, decisively won an election in D.C.’s Ward 4 — the northernmost part of the city — despite facing weeks of attacks from her opponent that she was too radical on policing. She ousted the moderate incumbent, a protege of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, by a margin of 55-43 percent as of Thursday afternoon.
Lewis George, a Ward 4 native, ran on a platform of expanding affordable housing, creating higher-paying jobs, fighting money in politics, and supporting criminal justice reform. She also campaigned on demilitarizing the police and reallocating portions of the Metropolitan Police Department’s budget toward social services and violence prevention initiatives — a position that drew the ire of backers of her opponent, Brandon Todd.
Democrats for Education Reform-DC, a pro-charter school advocacy group that endorsed Todd, sent out a series of mailers in the weeks leading up to the Tuesday election taking Lewis George’s comments out of context and smearing her as being anti-police.
“It was very disheartening for me that they were trying to use my message of demilitarization to say I don’t care about safety when the exact reason I spoke out was because I believe we need to be safe,” she told The Intercept.
Todd, a moderate and former Republican, by contrast has called for putting more cops on the streets, and praised the mayor for proposing an increase to the MPD’s budget. He has also consistently voted against some of the most progressive bills to cross the council’s desk. He was one of four lawmakers to vote against the city’s paid leave law in 2016, and he voted to repeal a ballot measure that would have gradually eliminated the city’s tipped minimum wage. (A majority of voters in his ward backed the measure.)
Like many insurgent candidates, Lewis George’s challenge to Todd was an uphill battle from a fundraising perspective. But through amassing robust grassroots support, she was able to overcome that by participating in D.C.’s first year of publicly financed elections, where candidates eschew PACs and corporate donations and have their local contributions matched 5:1. Todd declined to participate in the program, arguing public dollars were better spent elsewhere.
Lewis George urged other politicians considering whether it’s safe to back bold police reforms to step up.
“This time is not the time for political leaders to be in a place of comfort but to be in a place of courage,” she said. “If you stand with the people, the people will come out and show up for you.”
Lewis George has been particularly attuned to criminal justice issues since her time as a student at Howard Law School, where she learned about the immense discretionary power that prosecutors hold. She took this knowledge with her when she went to work as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, where she says she spoke out against what she saw as harsher punishments for the same offense when committed by black people. In 2016, she came back to D.C. to work for the city’s attorney general office, leading efforts in the Juvenile Section of their Public Safety Division that encouraged alternatives to jail time.
As a candidate, she urged an end to mass incarceration and the militarization of the police, ending cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and decriminalizing drugs and sex work.
It was these positions that drew attacks from DFER-DC. One mailer funded by the group misrepresented a tweet Lewis George posted in October, which promised to divest from the local police department and put money into “violence interruption” programs.
I will absolutely divest from MPD and put that money into violence interruption programs.
— Janeese Lewis George (@Janeese4DC) October 21, 2019
The DFER-DC funded mailer sent to Ward 4 voters claimed Lewis George “BRAGGED: ‘I WILL DIVEST FROM MPD!” It warned against letting Lewis George bring her “harmful ideas” to the city council and claimed she was looking to cut police officers.
Another mailer funded by DFER-DC pulled answers Lewis George had given to a Metro DSA questionnaire out of context.
The questionnaire had asked about whether she supported efforts to “demilitarize and disarm” police departments. Lewis George said yes, and explained “We’re told the institution of policing is intended to protect all of us from some suspicious menace, but the fact is that crime is a public health problem, not a battle of military opponents. The transformation of American police departments, especially the MPD, into military units trained to occupy the very communities promised protection is one of the greatest dangers to the future of urban life.”
The DFER-DC mailers read “Our police officers have dedicated their lives to keeping Ward 4 families safe. But Janeese Lewis George calls them ‘one of the greatest dangers to the future of urban life,’” suggesting she was denigrating officers specifically, not the militarization of their departments.
DFER-DC’s director Ramin Taheri declined to comment on the mailers or on Lewis George’s win, but said in an email that his group stands in support of the police brutality protesters organizing in the wake of Floyd’s death. “Our mission has always been to elect candidates who will fight to reverse the educational inequities that too many Black children face, and like many, we are reflecting on how we can be a better ally in dismantling systemic racism in the District.”
He previously told Washington City Paper that his group crafted its mailers based on recent polling that most Ward 4 voters were less likely to vote for someone who wanted to cut police officers from the force. The telephone poll, which was conducted by Garin-Hart-Yang Research in late April, also said Todd had a 22 percentage point advantage over Lewis George, and that she was unlikely to win a majority of the 25 percent of then- undecided voters. Taheri told City Paper they quoted Lewis George correctly in their ads.
In an interview, Lewis George blasted DFER-DC and emphasized that cutting the police budget isn’t synonymous with cutting officers.
“The fact that they saw my platform as a weakness instead of a conversation to have in the community about what it means to be safe speaks to their ultimate goal which is not reforming education but retaining power within our political system,” she said. Lewis George also noted that when D.C. Councilmember and Education Chair David Grosso spoke out about the militarization of the police both in 2017 and as recently as a few days ago, DFER-DC did not object.
The subject of DFER-DC’s attacks on Lewis George have become especially relevant as the call to defund the police has gone mainstream over the last week amid nationwide police brutality protests. While activists have long called for the same types of reforms Lewis George champions, elected officials across the country are now taking note. On Wednesday, the president of the Los Angeles City Council introduced a measure asking city staff to find up to $150 million in possible cuts to the local police department, and to reinvest those funds into poor communities and communities of color. In New York, state Sen. Julia Salazar recently argued for cutting the New York Police Department’s $6 billion budget and transferring those dollars to nonprofit organizations and mental health services.
In D.C., a growing chorus of activists have been calling to defund the MPD, which is one of the 10 largest police departments in the nation. The city council is currently reviewing Bowser’s budget proposal, which would increase police funding by 3.3 percent — resulting in a budget of over $500 million — coupled with an 11 percent cut to violence prevention programs.
“I think it’s easy for people to lean on doing the same things again and again out of comfort,” said Lewis George, when asked about the proposed budget. “But the point has to come when you realize that doing the same thing over and over isn’t going to produce the results you want.”
Makia Green, a local organizer with the Working Families Party who embedded themself in Lewis George’s campaign, told The Intercept that they believe the negative mailers backfired.
“They were a complete failed attempt at misleading voters and putting forth scare tactics,” they said. “They tried to mislead about Janeese’s record, plans and support we have and instead I think it helped strengthen people’s resolve, and turn more passive supporters into active ones.”
Lewis George notably had the backing of not just DSA and WFP, but labor unions like the Washington Teachers Union, Unite Here Local 25, and SEIU Local 500.
Black Lives Matter DC and Sanctuary DMV also backed Lewis George — their first political endorsements ever. “We do not take making endorsements lightly,” April Goggans, an organizer with Black Lives Matter DC said in November. “Janeese[‘s] policy and budget priorities around public safety, policing, and addressing intra-community violence are informed by values and principles that not only align with ours but will result in real safety.”
Benjy Cannon, a spokesperson for Unite Here Local 25, called Lewis George’s win a victory for organized labor and workers. “Her campaign showed that when we’re united, a powerful coalition of workers, tenants, progressive advocacy groups, and grassroots activists can defeat even the most deep-pocketed corporate interests,” he said.
Correction: June 7, 2020
A previous version of this article misgendered Makia Green, who uses they pronouns.