Jazz Lewis steps out

The Maryland legislator and Steny Hoyer aide spent seven years as a staffer on Capitol Hill. Now the pragmatic progressive says it’s his time to serve

On a cold and rainy morning earlier this month, Jazz Lewis sat outside a Starbucks two blocks from the U.S. Capitol — the building where he had worked for seven years, until October. 

Though the weather had dissuaded walkers from strolling around the neighborhood that day, Lewis was holding court: First a campaign staffer for House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) walked by, hoping to catch up with the former Hill staffer. Then the legislative director for Rep. Anthony Brown (D-MD) passed and waved hello. 

It was “kind of weird,” Lewis said, to be on Capitol Hill as a visitor and not an employee. But he doesn’t expect his hiatus from the central hub of American democracy to last very long. He resigned from his position as senior policy advisor to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) last month to run for Congress in Maryland’s 4th Congressional District. 

“Folks want change today, right? Not something perfect five years from now,” Lewis explained. “They want something that will help them today. And I think we need to keep that in mind as we’re working with legislation.”

“Folks ask me about the why,” said Lewis. “We are grounding it in issues that are really important to our district, like food deserts and access to healthcare.” The big draw of Congress is “resources,” said Lewis, who also serves part-time in Annapolis as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, where he chairs the Democratic caucus. “Especially with the ability to talk directly to the secretary of agriculture or [Housing and Urban Development], we can direct resources to communities like mine that lack access to fresh food.”

Lewis hopes to succeed Brown, who announced last month that he will run for Maryland attorney general, leaving his congressional seat — a heavily Democratic district encompassing most of the majority-Black Prince George’s County and part of Anne Arundel County — wide open. Glenn Ivey, a former county prosecutor who has run for the seat twice before, has also declared his candidacy. The pair will face off in a June 2022 primary, and the deadline for additional candidates to enter the race is not until February.

Lewis, 32, will face a tough competitor in Ivey, who is nearly twice his age and has been a political mainstay in the county for more than two decades. Ivey’s wife, Jolene, is on the Prince George’s County Council, and their son Julian serves alongside Lewis in the House of Delegates. 

But Lewis garnered an early boost from his former boss, Hoyer, who endorsed him last week. “Jazz has always fought for our community,” Hoyer said in the endorsement. “He is a dear friend, and I can think of no one I would rather have as my partner in representing Prince Georgians in Congress.” 

In an interview with Jewish Insider, Lewis spoke of Hoyer as a mentor, and someone who has shaped his approach to politics, particularly when it comes to bringing together different constituencies. 

Jazz Lewis (Hilary Eldridge for Jewish Insider)

“What I have learned watching him is really how to bring people together,” Lewis noted. “Sometimes there’s things I want to say, but I don’t, from watching him, because I realized there’s going to be a tomorrow. Even though someone may not be with me on a particular issue today, there’s no guarantee that tomorrow they won’t.” 

Lewis is “unabashedly a progressive,” he says, but one who intends to make compromises to pass legislation — an identity that echoes Hillary Clinton’s 2016 comment about being a “progressive who gets things done.” (Lewis served as Clinton’s Maryland political director during the 2016 presidential primary.)

“Folks want change today, right? Not something perfect five years from now,” Lewis explained. “They want something that will help them today. And I think we need to keep that in mind as we’re working with legislation.”

After Hoyer endorsed Lewis, Ivey announced a slate of endorsements from local elected officials in Prince George’s County. But many in the district remain undecided, observers say. 

“I think we’re fortunate we’ve got two really good candidates, both of whom I feel confident will do the job,” said Albert Wynn, who represented the seat for 15 years until losing in a primary to Donna Edwards in 2008. “They’re both pragmatic in terms of how they approach politics. They want to get things done. I don’t think either one of them are going to run down to Washington and join the Squad.”

Edwards, who represented the district from 2008 to 2017, is the wild card in the race. She has not made an announcement about running, but a source with knowledge of the situation said she is strongly considering it, and the pro-choice political group EMILY’s List is helping her recruit campaign staff. (A spokesperson for EMILY’s List did not respond to a request for comment, and JI was not able to reach Edwards for comment.)

“If former Congresswoman Edwards gets in the race, it’s going to become a national race,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. Edwards ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2016, with an endorsement from EMILY’s List and a strong national following. Edwards has also faced criticism from leaders in the Maryland Jewish community for her stances regarding Israel. 

Edwards “probably paid attention to national issues more than local leaders would have liked,” said Josh Kurtz, founding editor at the nonprofit news site Maryland Matters. “All that said, I think she’d be formidable in the race, particularly if it’s two guys and one woman. I think that gives her some advantages right there.” The state’s current congressional delegation is all male. 

Ivey “is probably the early favorite,” said Kurtz, given how long he’s been active in Prince George’s County politics. But Lewis “absolutely is to be taken seriously. He’s been regarded as kind of an up-and-comer ever since he got to the legislature.” 

As a student at the University of Maryland, College Park, Lewis got his start in politics “for selfish reasons,” he noted. 

”I thought I was going to be an architect growing up, because my dad was an electrician, and I thought he and I would do something like ‘Property Brothers’ together,” said Lewis. “But when the recession happened, there was a proposed tuition hike to try to balance the school’s budget. I worked my way through school, and that would have priced me out of my education.”

He joined several hundred other students in protesting the tuition hike, even showing up at the university president’s office. 

“I realized, this is how people power happens. We organized,” Lewis recalled. “Between pressuring him as well as the state legislature, they found the money and the tuition hike didn’t happen.”

His architecture career didn’t pan out, but “the organizing bug stuck,” said Lewis, who joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as a community organizer in Baltimore after graduation. After going back to College Park for a master’s in public policy, Lewis thought he would focus on international development after doing research with the State Department. “Steny Hoyer called me, and I went a different route,” he said.

Lewis worked first for Hoyer’s campaign and then for his congressional office, where he advised the majority leader on issues including transportation, small businesses and economic development. Running for office was not something he actively thought about — “I thought about it in the sense of anyone who works around politics thought, like, ‘I might run for office one day’” — but when a member of the Maryland House of Delegates stepped down after being indicted on bribery charges, things changed. 

The replacement for the seat was chosen by members of the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee, who voted after hearing speeches from Lewis and eight other interested candidates at a packed union hall. He quickly gained a foothold in Democratic leadership in the statehouse. 

“Jazz is bright. That’s clear just from the conversations I’ve had with him, seeing him run the caucus meeting, and so on. He would come [to Capitol Hill] as experienced with the ways of the Congress, by virtue of his work for Steny,” said Sandy Rosenberg, who has represented Baltimore in the Maryland House of Delegates since 1983.  

Since getting to Annapolis, Lewis has prioritized work on public safety and police reform. “My mom’s a retired cop, so I think I have a more complex understanding of the situations that law enforcement lived through, while also being a young Black man and having to experience the other side of law enforcement,” said Lewis.

It’s this issue, he argued, that illustrates his approach to compromise and coalition-building. Lewis was initially opposed to a controversial bill to allow Johns Hopkins University to employ its own, private police force, but he saw that the bill had the votes to pass  — so he added amendments to “make this the most accountable, responsive police force in the nation,” Lewis explained. “And the catch for that — because this is the way things work — if you’re going to amend it, you have to vote for it.”

The bill passed in 2019 with the amendments from Lewis and a handful of allies. “I got a lot of flack for that,” Lewis acknowledged. “But then now, after George Floyd passed and Breonna Taylor and everyone else, the state had its own reckoning with police violence. A number of our colleagues who were apprehensive [about] police accountability were open now because they already voted for it for Johns Hopkins.” A new police accountability law — applying to all police forces in the state — took effect last month, after legislators overrode a veto from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. 

Police reform is one of the key issues Lewis hopes to tackle as a congressman, naming the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act as a priority. He is also eager to work on foreign policy again. “I’m really interested in how we leverage our aid dollars to help grow domestic industry across the world, particularly among the developing world,” said Lewis. “I would say, I’m into community-building. How do we grow bilateral arrangements that are beneficial for everybody, while also taking care of our friends?”

“I think if folks have criticism of the American government, or the Israeli government, that’s fair. It’s fair for friends to criticize each other,” Lewis explained. “It’s not fair for friends to put the safety and security of their people at risk. And that’s what was on the line there.

He named Israel as “one of our core friends,” and said he thinks U.S. foreign aid should be increased. “I think the aid is well spent. I think if anything, we could increase our aid, not just to Israel, but to other partners around the world who need it,” said Lewis. 

He added that he “would have 100% voted” for a recent bill providing supplemental funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system that passed the House in September 420-9. (The bill remains stalled in the Senate.)

“I think if folks have criticism of the American government, or the Israeli government, that’s fair. It’s fair for friends to criticize each other,” Lewis explained. “It’s not fair for friends to put the safety and security of their people at risk. And that’s what was on the line there. That wasn’t a vote of conscience, of saying you criticize some specific policy.” 

It’s on this issue, too, that Lewis takes inspiration from his longtime boss.

“Jazz shares my view that the U.S.-Israel relationship reflects both our strategic interests and our enduring values,” Hoyer told JI in a statement. “He’s worked for years to build stronger ties of unity and allyship between the African-American and Jewish communities in Prince George’s County and in Maryland, and I know that this effort has played a central role in his commitment to standing up for Israel and rejecting efforts to hold it to a double standard or to mislead about its history.”

Lewis traveled to Israel before the COVID-19 pandemic with the American Israel Education Fund, a nonprofit education affiliate of AIPAC. “I was kind of shocked when I arrived at the airport in Tel Aviv, and then we drove to Jerusalem, where we stayed the first night,” said Lewis. “The distance, I timed it, was, like, an hour. It’s about the distance between D.C. and Baltimore. It’s not a large country, which put [it] more in perspective, for me, a number of the security concerns that they have.” 

Lewis is positioning his support for Israel as part of his progressive worldview, and he urges progressive members in the House who are critical of Israel to visit the country. “The amount of aid that the people of Israel do for not just their own youth, but Palestinian youth,” he explained, “takes the conversation out of whether you agree with everything the Israeli government did or didn’t do, and the importance of the relationship between the American people and the people of Israel.”

Jazz Lewis (Hilary Eldridge for Jewish Insider)

On his trip to Israel, Lewis would wake up early and go on a run through the winding streets of the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, meeting shopkeepers and workers. “I fell in love with the people. And that is the message I would carry to progressives on the Hill, to get to know the people,” Lewis reflected. 

“A lot of people in the Jewish community view him as not only a potential… pro-Israel voice, but potentially a strong progressive pro-Israel voice like Ritchie Torres,” said the JCRC’s Halber, referring to the freshman Democratic congressman from the Bronx. 

Like Torres, Lewis did not express a desire to align with the Squad, the group of several far left members of Color including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN), most of whom have staked out positions harshly critical of Israel in Congress. “I see myself as a consensus-maker. I hope to make friends of the Squad as much as I hope to make friends of anyone who’s willing to work with me to move forward the issues that are important to people in my district,” Lewis said.

It’s those bread-and-butter issues that kept Lewis going when he grew demoralized in the Trump years. 

“I [would] do a full workday here on the Hill, and then on Monday nights, I would drive from the U.S. Capitol to the Maryland State Capitol. It’s about an hour,” he recalled. “I would be transformed from frustrated and pissed off to energized — well, here we can do something. Here we can make something happen.”

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