News & Politics

DC Voters Oblivious to Crucial Race for First Elected Attorney General

Here's why this election may even be more important than the mayoral one.

Irv Nathan, DC’s current attorney general. Photograph by Flickr user Doug Gansler.

DC will elect a new mayor on November 4, but the more important vote might be for the city’s first elected attorney general. By many measures, the attorney general will have more power and impact, and the winner will have a clear shot at running for mayor. But, so far, DC voters seem oblivious.

Recent polls show nearly 60 percent of voters are undecided in the attorney general race. That’s way too many clueless DC residents, especially for such a crucial election. Granted, the US Attorney prosecutes major crimes in the capital, but the AG still has plenty of clout.

Let’s say you hear a loud crunching sound early one morning, look out your back window, and see a DC trash truck wedged against your brand-new car. In the alley, you snap pictures of your car with the front quarter panel smashed in. You exchange information with the truck driver. He apologizes. You sue the city to fix the car. The matter goes to a lawyer in the attorney general’s office. At that point, the lawyer represents you, as a DC citizen, and the trash truck, as part of the Department of Public Works. Will he or she pay up or blow you off and take the case to court?

Good question, because the city’s attorney general represents both the citizen and the government.

Another example: A federal judge throws out the District’s gun-control law as unconstitutional and orders the city to allow people to carry a pistols in public.

Do you appeal the decision—all the way to the Supreme Court? Or do you hang back and let the DC Council write a new law?

Again, the city’s attorney general decides.

Ditto on whether the District has budget autonomy from Congress. Voters in 2013 approved a referendum to allow the DC government to spend funds from local taxes, but the current, appointed attorney general, Irv Nathan, said it would violate federal law and argued against it.

Will the new attorney general push to honor the referendum and use the office to try to free the District from congressional control?

That depends on which candidate prevails on November 4.

Paul Zukerberg, one of five candidates for the post, vowed to fight in court for budget autonomy, but veteran attorney Karl Racine did not.

“I don’t think that filing every lawsuit enhances our credibility,” Racine told the small gathering that attended a candidate forum sponsored by the American University’s Washington College of Law at WAMU’s studio Wednesday night.

District voters in 2010 approved a referendum to elect the city’s attorney general, starting in 2014. The DC Council voted to postpone the election, in part because members feared few qualified candidates would run and win an election. Thanks in large part to Zukerberg, who sued to enforce the referendum, the election will take place, and five qualified candidates are on the ballot. In addition to Zukerberg and Racine, attorneys Lateefah Williams, Edward “Smitty” Smith, and Lorie Masters joined the race.

Polls show two things: Few voters know enough to have a preference, and Paul Zukerberg has a slight lead over the other four.

Zukerberg and Racine have the best chance of breaking from the pack and facing off for the post. Both are experienced trial attorneys.

Zukerberg has cast himself as the insurgent. He earned the mantle by pushing for decriminalization of marijuana and using the federal courts to force next month’s vote for attorney general.

Racine is the establishment favorite. He has the endorsement of the Washington Post and the backing of the DC Chamber of Commerce. He managed his law firm, Venable, and beats Zukerberg on that score.

The fact that federal prosecutors handle major crimes in the District sticks in the craw of Home Rule advocates. Under the Home Rule charter, the US Attorney prosecutes felonies; in most major cities, a local district attorney or attorney general handles major criminal prosecutions.

The five attorney general hopefuls want to expand their power to prosecute felonies, but, if DC residents can’t muster the interest to participate in the first election, the chances of that are slim.

Find Harry Jaffe on Twitter at @harryjaffe.