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Janeese Lewis George grew up in Ward 4, the northernmost portion of Washington D.C. Her home ward, like much of the district, has changed drastically in the past few decades; it’s become whiter, wealthier, and ever more expensive. That progression, Lewis George says, is neither an inevitability nor a coincidence. Instead, it’s the direct result of corporate-cozy legislators pushing legislation that privileges business interests over the concerns of longtime residents.
Many of those legislators hail from Ward 4 in D.C. and are referred to as “the green team.” When Lewis George declared her city council candidacy against a green team member, she says, “It wasn’t just like I was taking on an ordinary incumbent. It was framed like I was taking on this ten-year dynasty of very well-funded, well-resourced candidates.”
Lewis George didn’t have family or corporate money propping her up; indeed, the candidate, a democratic socialist in her early 30s, was burdened by student loans. Most people in D.C. didn’t expect her to get far. Many thought her views were too progressive to find widespread support. Some even told her she should “focus on being a wife.” (Nevermind that Lewis George was already an ambitious attorney, barred in two states, and an active community organizer.)
But her platform — which focused on issues like affordable housing, labor rights, and criminal justice reform — resonated and she managed to build significant support, participating in the district’s first public campaign-financing program. Lewis George didn’t just win the June primary, she won by more than 10 percent. “Many people saw my [primary] win as a statement, not just in Ward 4, but across the city, about where our values should lie,” she says.
Ahead, Lewis George talks about her stunning primary win, moving from organizer to legislator, and why her faith is stronger than ever.
[Editor’s Note: Lewis George has made it to the general election on Nov. 3. Washington D.C. offers in-person voting, early voting, and absentee voting. Please check here for the most up-to-date information.]
MELISSA BATCHELOR WARNKE: Tell us a little bit about your ward in Washington D.C. — what its political dynamics and some of its big industries and issues are.
JANEESE LEWIS GEORGE: One of the biggest things people need to understand about the District of Columbia is that we have more than 700,000 residents. That’s more than Vermont, more than Wyoming, and comparable with other states like Delaware and Alaska — yet we’re not a state. Some people tend to think that Washington is only home to politicos and transplants from other cities, but we’re very much a city outside of those walls. Our people face many of the same socio-economic issues that our country faces.
For a long while, D.C. was known as “Chocolate City.” We had one of the highest populations of African Americans in the country. We also had a lot of middle-class African Americans who benefited from the fact that D.C. was the seat of Congress, so many of our families worked for that bureaucracy, whether it was in the State Department or the [Department of the] Interior.
Over the past 10 years, D.C. has experienced one of the most aggressive rates of gentrification in the country. More than 20,000 D.C. residents have been displaced. Roughly 90 percent or more of the displaced residents were Black and Brown. Our affordable housing crisis is very real. When we talk about “affordable housing” in D.C., we’re not actually even talking about people making less than $30,000 a year or less than $50,000 a year. There isn’t even housing for those who make between $50,000 and $80,000 a year — what we would consider “workforce housing.”
Because we don’t have statehood and because of the Home Rule Act, it’s difficult to achieve criminal justice reform here. The President of the United States appoints the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia — so there really aren’t any checks and balances for us here. Under the current president, that has not gotten any easier or better.
We have some very serious health disparities in our city. Wards 7 and 8, which are east of the [Potomac] river, are predominantly Black wards. Those wards recently lost their hospital, United Medical Center. Yet those are the wards that experience the highest amount of crime involving traumatic injury. When people get hurt in those wards, they have to cross the river to get services. Providence Hospital closed two years ago. Even people who are insured do not have actual access to hospitals and services. We have the highest rate of mortality for Black mothers in the country, right here in the District of Columbia.
MBW: When we talk about traveling long distances for healthcare access, we tend to focus on rural areas. It’s especially striking to hear that about D.C., which you’d think of as a dense, networked city.
JLG: It’s very embarrassing for us, particularly given that this city has gained wealth and grown over the years. This disparity is particularly alarming and disheartening for me as a Black woman. When we look at D.C.’s criminal justice system, we have the same issues. If D.C. were considered a state, we would have one of the highest incarceration rates in this country.
My district, Ward 4, encompasses the northern-most part of the city. It’s extremely diverse in terms of race and socio-economic backgrounds. Historically, most of D.C.’s mayors have been Ward 4 councilmembers first. So unfortunately, when you run to represent Ward 4 on city council, people are like, “Oh, do you want to be the mayor?”
MBW: It’s seen as a stepping stone.
JLG: It’s seen as a stepping stone to become the mayor. And that’s created an issue in our ward.
When I ran in the primary, I decided to go up against the “Green Team.” Basically, Mayor Anthony Williams started this dynasty. When he left office, he chose Adrian Fenty, a Ward 4 councilmember, to be mayor. Adrian Fenty then chose Muriel Bowser, a Ward 4 councilmember, to be mayor. Then Muriel Bowser chose Brandon Todd, a staffer in her office, to replace her as the Ward 4 councilmember — the idea being that he would then become the next mayor.
Within this period of time, our ward started to realize that all the politicians on this team have bent to and had the backing of big developer and business interests. When people got interested in my race, they were like, “Oh my God. You’re going to take on the Green Team?” It wasn’t just like I was taking on an ordinary incumbent. It was framed like I was taking on this ten-year dynasty of very well-funded, well-resourced candidates.
Many people saw my [primary] win as a statement, not just in Ward 4, but across the city, about where our values should lie. Voters essentially said, “Listen up. Pay attention. We want to see a different type of leadership.”
MBW: What have been some other inflection points along the way where you’ve felt like, “Okay, we’re gaining steam, something’s happening here”?
JLG: Democrats for Education Reform spends a ton of money on candidates in our city and they’re pro-privatization. Democrats for Education Reform ran some very nasty hit ads against me. They sent out 19 mailers, five of which were ferocious. Their mailers actually pertained to my stance on demilitarizing the police, which I talked about in a debate that my incumbent didn’t show up to.
But as they were rolling those ads out, Ahmaud Arbery was killed. Breonna Taylor was killed right after that. And on the day their last nasty mailer was released, George Floyd was murdered by police. I always say that reality endorsed me at the right time. It’s a terribly sad thing, but that’s what happened. Because at first people had looked at my perspective like it was radical. But what was happening in the country started telling the story of what I’d been saying. People started to be like, “Hell yeah. That’s right. We support her.”
While that organization tried to destroy me, they ended up pushing people toward my campaign. In that moment, I realized that people were ready for change. That was the key moment.
MBW: Then came your wild primary election day.
JLG: It was crazy. On voting day, the lines were miles long. Voting opened at 7:30 a.m. and there were four, five, and six hour waits at each center. I went from center to center and across our ward, people told me, “I’m only standing in this line because I believe in your vision.”
We got the last voter in at one of our centers at 11:58 p.m. That last voter was just 22 years old. She had stood in line for four and a half hours. She told me, “I’m here for you. I want to see change.”
At the next voting center, the line was even longer. The last voter went in the booth at 12:19 a.m. Mind you, voting centers were supposed to close at 8:00 p.m., but they couldn’t because of the lines. That last voter had a Black Lives Matter t-shirt on. They told me, “You have been unafraid to say that Black lives matter; we need leaders who are unafraid to say that.”
In those moments, I felt like, “Oh my God, we’re going to win this election.”
MBW: Who, aside from your team members and your volunteers, has helped or inspired you in this process?
JLG: It always feels cliché when people say their mom, but my mom is definitely one of the people who inspires me. She’s a frontline worker with the postal service and has been for the last 33 years. She’s a union member. As a single mom raising three kids, she stood on her feet every single day serving people as a clerk. She has a service heart. When I was knocking doors, I kept hearing, “I know your mom. She’s wonderful. She helps everyone.” If someone doesn’t speak English, she always does her best to translate where she can.
I was worried about her going to work during Covid. But she said that the postal service is a service to the community. Every single day, she puts a smile on her face and serves — and she does it with such strength.
I’d be remiss not to mention the current squad in Congress: [Reps.] Ayanna Pressley, AOC, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, plus the new addition of Cori Bush. She’s a fighter in the Black Lives Matter movement like myself. She didn’t win the first time, but she got back out there again to fight. That was the most inspiring thing to see.
MBW: What’s been your biggest success so far?
JLG: The big one is obviously winning the primary — and winning by more than our win number. But the most meaningful piece for me was seeing so many progressive groups in our city come together around our candidacy. Sometimes our progressive groups have been divided on issues and it’s kind of created turmoil. My campaign was the first time that Jews United for Justice, Black Lives Matter, D.C. for Democracy, and the Working Families Party all backed the same candidate.
It was also the first time frontline unions decided to back on a non-incumbent. We received the endorsement of the Washington Teachers’ Union; UFCW Local 400, which is our grocery workers; SCIU, which is our healthcare workers; and UNITE HERE Local 25, which is our hospitality industry workers. People were shocked.
It felt so good to be able to bring these organizations together. There were pictures that no one ever thought we could get, like the head of BLM next to the head of JUFJ. These organizations might have had their issues, but their members were smiling together like, “We’re here because we believe in this candidate and this mission.”
Some other unions decided to not endorse and they told the other unions who did support me, “Oh you guys are crazy. This is a bad idea.” The day that I won was such a win for all of these umbrella left and progressive organizations to see, wow, this is what happens when we rise above our differences for a greater cause. We figured out something that people [in power] didn’t want us to figure out.
MBW: What has your biggest challenge been?
JLG: I always say, “Door knocking is my love language.” If I was ever feeling low-energy, my campaign staff would be like, “We need to get her out and around people.” Not being able to do traditional campaigning once Covid hit was really hard. I can make the strongest impact when I interact with people in person.
And we had to balance health concerns with the desire to be at the Black Lives Matter protests. I wanted to be at every march. I did get out there, but then I’d go get tested and, until the results came back, I’d have to quarantine, which meant I’d miss another march. It will be interesting to see how I’m able to transition from being a grassroots foot soldier to being on the electoral end of things. It’s kind of weird because I’m like, “The tenants are striking, I want to go down for the tenant’s strike.” Everybody says, “No, you’re on the other side now.”
How do I redefine [my relationship to advocacy work]? I’m like, “Just because I’m not a council member doesn’t mean I can’t go to a strike.” But people are like, “Yeah, that is what that means.” The biggest challenge for me is figuring out how to make this new role my own as I transition from organizer to legislator.
Another challenge has been finances. My husband and I thought that, if I made it through the primary, I could take on a temporary job before the general election. But now, during the pandemic, there are no jobs. There are financial concerns weighing on me that I try to keep to myself, because other people [are dealing with worse]. But my husband is still taking on the brunt of our mortgage and we’re dealing with student loan debt; federal loans are paused right now, but Navient is still collecting theirs. It’s real and it’s difficult.
MBW: I know there are so many big issues, but what are two or three of the policies you’re most committed to securing once you take office?
JLG: Housing, education and health are the top issues right now. With housing, we’re figuring out how can we cancel rent, while also supporting small landlords in that process. We are going to hit a bigger housing crisis, so I’m keenly focused on that.
D.C.’s school system is all virtual right now; there was a fight between the teachers’ union and the current administration around that, which the teachers won. But we have a digital divide here in our city. A recent survey found 60 percent of families still need digital devices to learn online and many of our families don’t have internet access. Students are regressing in their education and we need to address that head-on.
And you can’t talk about education or jobs without considering childcare. These are my immediate concerns because of where we are. We don’t know whether the pandemic will put us into a recession. But if it does, we’re going to have to make some very hard decisions. And as soon as I enter office in January, I’ll be fighting to ensure those decisions won’t be made on the back of working families.
MBW: What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned about yourself as a first-time candidate?
JLG: That’s a hard question. I’ve seen my resilience and faith grow over time.
MBW: Your faith in God or your faith in yourself?
JLG: Both. When the attack mailers were sent out or the moment when the pandemic shut everything down — those moments are moments when a number of years ago I would have crumbled and stopped going. Being able to move through them was a testament to how much I’ve grown.
My father’s passing in 2016 was one of the biggest blows I’ve experienced in my life. When that happened, I thought I would never get back up again. I felt that I would never get back to being confident, strong, all of those things. And it tested my faith.
In the course of this campaign, I knew I could survive because I had survived so much before this. When my family almost lost our house, I felt like my world was falling apart. How were we going to do this? How was I going to go through law school while working two jobs? But I did. Every time I go through one of these life-altering experiences that’s so hard I feel like I should give up, I don’t. There isn’t much that can take me out now.
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