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Not quite a year ago, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine was all in on Kamala Harris. His national profile on the rise, boosted by his office’s lawsuits against President Donald Trump and his work as the co-chair of the Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA), and Racine was an obvious contender for the Department of Justice’s top post in a Harris administration. A 2019 Politico profile called him “perhaps the single most important player in restoring Democratic clout in America’s legal system.”
But a lot has changed since then. Harris’ campaign officially collapsed late last year, and Racine has yet to make another endorsement (Mayor Muriel Bowser, meanwhile, has loaned her support to billionaire Mike Bloomberg).
While Racine mulls over his role in the national landscape, he’s started shifting his attention to local races ahead of D.C.’s June Democratic primary. A quick scan of the candidates in each of the local primary races reveals a common thread: Racine.
Janeese Lewis George worked for the Office of the Attorney General as a prosecutor in juvenile court and is challenging the incumbent, longtime Bowser ally Brandon Todd, in Ward 4.
At-Large Councilmember Robert White worked on Racine’s transition team and was hired as OAG’s director of community outreach after losing the non-majority at-large race in 2014. He was elected to the Council as a Democrat in 2016 and is running for re-election this year.
Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White joined Racine’s staff as a community development specialist after he lost the 2015 special election to LaRuby May by about 100 votes. Trayon White came back and defeated May, another Bowser-backed candidate, in the 2016 Democratic primary. One of his challengers this year is May’s former Council staffer Mike Austin.
The newest entry into the crowded Ward 2 field, Brooke Pinto, announced her candidacy less than a month before the deadline to turn in petitions to qualify for the ballot. She worked under Racine’s direct supervision in his policy office.
“And Veda Rasheed in Ward 7,” says Racine, reminding LL of yet another former staffer looking for a spot on the Council.
Rasheed is the only former staffer and current office seeker Racine is not officially supporting, citing his existing relationship with Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray. But, he says, he is willing to help the other four candidates however he can, be it with endorsements, fundraising, or door knocking.
What does that mean in a town where political coattails haven’t counted for much recently?
“He’s building a political machine,” says Chuck Thies, a political consultant and ardent Bowser critic. “And if that wasn’t obvious after Trayon and Robert, it’s now indisputable. You don’t endorse four candidates, all of whom are former employees, and don’t have that be part of a political machine.”
(Thies is the treasurer of Gray’s reelection campaign and speaks in his individual capacity.)
The impact of Racine’s endorsements could have implications beyond his own political benefit. His chosen candidates, with the possible exception of Pinto, whose campaign is still young, are ideologically to the left of Bowser and her Green Team, who are generally more business- and developer-friendly.
Racine pushes back against the idea that he is actively recruiting OAG employees for Council campaigns.
“The bigger point is this: I think the Office of the Attorney General … attracts people to the office that are extremely public interest-focused and want to make a contribution to the District of Columbia,” he says. “And we’ve got good people who care about individuals and their interests and give them challenging assignments so that they can grow.”
At the suggestion that four or five potential allies on the Council could boost a future run for Bowser’s job (Racine was a speculative candidate in 2017), the AG sticks with the same answer he’s given in the past.
“I think that’s a question that people always ask, but that question does suggest intention,” he says. “I don’t have an intention, number one, to recruit folks to have them run for the city council, nor have I expressed an intention to run for mayor in the future.
“I’m focused on the attorney general job, and at an appropriate time, which certainly isn’t 2020, I’ll consider whether I return to the private world or try to keep my job here, or seek another job,” he continues.
Racine has more than enough time to think it over (his current term ends in 2023), and Bowser isn’t even halfway through her second term. She has a 67 percent approval rating, according to a recent Washington Post poll.
But don’t sleep on Racine’s popularity. In addition to his lawsuits against Trump, he gets plenty of positive local ink for his office’s pursuit of cases that deal with perhaps the most pressing issue in the District: affordable housing.
Recently, local news outlets reported on Racine’s efforts to force slumlords to repair neglected properties, on the $1 million settlement he secured against a notorious landlord Sanford Capital LLC, the “largest-ever recovery of rent from a District landlord,” according to his office, and on his exposure of rental companies who discriminate against people using housing vouchers and leaving homeless shelters.
He has cleaned up at the ballot box as well. In 2014, Racine became D.C.’s first elected attorney general, winning in all eight wards (with his highest vote total coming in Bowser’s home, Ward 4) and earning nearly twice as many total votes as the next candidate.
While celebrating his uncontested primary election victory in 2018, Racine revelled in the fact that he topped Bowser’s vote total by 9,700 votes. In the general election that same year, he earned nearly 36,000 more votes than Bowser did.
Both Racine and Bowser also weighed in on that year’s non-majority at-large race. Bowser endorsed Dionne Reeder, who lost to Racine’s pick, incumbent Elissa Silverman.
As for Pinto, Racine’s latest endorsee, the 27-year-old Georgetown Law graduate is hoping her former boss’ support will help make up for her late entry into a primary race with seven other Democrats.
“Karl has been an incredible mentor to me,” Pinto says. “I approached him that I was interested in doing it, and he, as he supports all the lawyers in the agency, was very supportive of my desire to go pursue this.”
Some cash from his donor network wouldn’t hurt either. Although Pinto says she hasn’t specifically asked Racine for help bringing in contributions, Racine says he’s given her advice on how to build an effective fundraising apparatus.
And he would know. The AG took in roughly $690,000 in contributions in 2014, not including a $451,000 loan from himself, and about $482,000 for his 2018 campaign. Access to Racine’s donor network in the legal community could prove useful for Pinto, who so far is the only Ward 2 candidate not participating in D.C.’s new public financing system.
“Fair Elections was not intended to be a program for every candidate,” Pinto says. “I am cautiously hopeful and optimistic that I can raise money through traditional means. And my view was if I can do that, then why spend taxpayer dollars?”
In an interview last week, Racine described Pinto’s short, two-year stint in his office. She started in early 2018 as a Charles F.C. Ruff Fellow working on commercial tax litigation. After about eight months, Racine was so impressed with her work that he plucked her from the commercial division and moved her to the front office to work directly for him on policy and legislation, where she would get exactly the kind of experience a Council candidate might want.
“I think you’ve got somebody who is mature beyond her years in a wide open race that’s a sprint, and she has a chance to catch fire,” Racine says. “Is it hard? Damn right it’s hard. The AG race five years ago was a sprint. Nobody knew my name at all. But I got a little momentum and got lucky. I think she can create momentum for herself.”
Pinto bills herself as a candidate who has experience crafting local legislation and will focus on regulation of small businesses competing for government contracts through the city’s Certified Business Enterprise program, an issue she worked on at the AG’s office. The program is designed to give preference to small, local companies but, Pinto says, many business owners have complained that out-of-town companies exploit the program by setting up sham headquarters in D.C.
Pinto, a Connecticut native, says she’s lived in D.C. for the past six years. During a phone interview last Friday, she said she was fairly certain that she’s voted in D.C. at least once, but after double-checking, found that she had not. DC Board of Elections records show she registered to vote in D.C. in March 2019.
Thies, for one, believes her campaign could change the entire race.
“It’s a major accomplishment to get in the race late, and pull off a victory,” he says. “If a well funded, qualified woman gets in this race of frat boys, she’s going to change the dynamic of that race overnight, and now that candidate has the endorsement of a very well liked, prestigious elected official.”