Get our free newsletter
Most people know or have met a person like Karl Racine. He’s that guy who, no matter how early you get to the gym, is already there on the stationary bike or the elliptical, sweating through his shirt, churning as if his life depends on it.
Such discipline is impressive to fellow gym rats, but it also signals an almost robotic focus and intensity that makes you wonder, why is he going so hard? On a Tuesday.
“I usually don’t trust people like that,” says a well-connected businessman who knows and respects Racine. “A little too perfect, like there’s something else going on there and you don’t quite know what it is.”
As D.C.’s first elected attorney general, Racine burst onto the political scene virtually out of nowhere, loaning himself close to a half million dollars and cruising to victory over a short field of challengers in 2014.
Almost from the start, as if a political origin story had been written for him, he was being discussed as a potential aspirant to the mayor’s office.
Mayor Muriel Bowser has helped feed that narrative with her missteps and her Green Team’s ethical lapses, to say nothing of her prickly demeanor and a perception that she is consumed more by development deals than the fate of the less fortunate, who seem more marginalized with each rising crane.
Toss in the prospect of a toxic rematch between Bowser and self-styled nemesis Vincent Gray, the Ward 7 councilmember who wears mayoral ambitions on his sleeve—not to mention public fatigue with D.C.’s political version of the Hatfields and the McCoys—and Racine looks like the great hope of voters seeking true change.
“Four years, gentleman,” Racine is said to have muttered to fellow onlookers as they watched Bowser, having taken the oath of office in January 2015, celebrating and dancing at her inaugural ball with Sheila E.
If the Bowser-Racine rivalry seems contrived, consider the earliest days of Bowser’s mayoralty, when she tried to expand the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel, attempting to dictate a principal-agency relationship between her office and the newly elected attorney general—particularly where public policy is concerned.
Whereas the public passed a referendum to create an elected office and then voted for an independent attorney general, Bowser’s play sent a message that she felt threatened by an assertive counterpart who could mobilize his office not only to expand its legal authority but also to advocate for legislative reform.
Which is precisely what Racine has done. Consumer protection, landlord-tenant abuse, juvenile justice, campaign finance reform—he has explored the boundaries of his office deliberately where he senses a public need or leadership vacuum. He has burnished his profile by politicking with state attorney generals on issues that appeal to proponents of D.C. statehood. And through ties as a former lawyer on Capitol Hill and in the White House, he has dabbled with a national profile. (Racine also is vice co-chair of the Eastern Region of the National Association of Attorneys General.)
Yet there are factors that complicate the picture of Racine as a singular figure toying with the notion of higher office: At 54, he is young and still relatively untested. And there’s a perception that he might be willing to wait his turn. Plus, he loves his job.
“I think he’d run [for mayor] if he thought there was a need, but I don’t think he needs it for himself,” says At-Large Councilmember Robert White, a fellow lawyer and political newcomer who considers Racine a friend.
Racine’s election in his first political race after leaving the white shoe law firm Venable LLP was bound to make Bowser uncomfortable. Asked if he savors the freedom to be more nimble and assertive than his predecessors, who were mayoral appointees, he does not balk: “It is the most extraordinary aspect of the job. By upbringing, I’m an independent type. This goes back to the initial battle with the mayor—a battle, by the way, that we didn’t seek. One of the things the mayor wanted us to do to redefine our role was to say she’s the principal, we’re the agent, [meaning] she tells us what to do. The second thing she sought-—eh, I don’t want to personalize it—what they sought, was to make clear that they determined the public interest, not the [Office of the Attorney General].”
A prime Racine initiative is 2015’s launch of the Office of Consumer Protection. His predecessors had been constrained by a role subordinate to the mayor, but here he was seeking to make residents feel as if he represented them, like other elected officials, by submitting legislation to bring consumer protection in line with state and federal laws. Town hall meetings on house flipping, illegal construction, and shoddy renovations, and follow-up pamphlets and legal advice sessions with Advisory Neighborhood Commission, all helped him elevate the visibility of his office.
“For state attorneys general, it’s the heart of what they do,” he says. “Our office has a mediation branch. Do you know that in the two years these folks have mediated between consumers and businesses, they’ve returned $6 million to consumers without filing a lawsuit?”
In two particular cases, Racine made headlines by forging a stronger relationship with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, encouraging the agency to prioritize problems within its jurisdiction, then acting as its enforcement arm.
Perhaps most visible has been his effort to hold Sanford Capital accountable for slum conditions at two of its properties. Racine’s office asked the court to appoint a receiver, or a third-party property manager, to address egregious housing-code violations at one of those properties after Sanford failed to over several years. Racine’s attorneys recently won that request. He has also sued Sanford for misrepresenting to tenants that it would provide them habitable living conditions. If the District wins, Sanford will be forced to return some rent money to tenants. This suit is under the city’s consumer claims laws, and it is the first time D.C. has used those laws in a landlord-tenant matter.
Public interest advocates applaud him for leveraging his independence to seek constructive solutions to problems that have left predecessors hamstrung by politics. “A lot of legal solutions don’t address underlying issues, but he didn’t just say, ‘Let’s shut the buildings down,’” says Will Merrifield, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “He refused to let [Sanford] off the hook, and he stayed engaged.”
Says Racine, whose office boasts some 600 community events since he took office, “As a public interest law firm, with a public interest mandate, you have to learn to engage with the public to understand what is going on, on the ground. Sanford is an example of having relationships with service lawyers who help poor tenants and real residents of the District of Columbia. So we go out into the community, and that has created opportunity for career lawyers to raise their hands to say, ‘Hey, I’m up for going out, getting involved with civil rights protection for senior citizens.’”
When Digi Media began installing digital outdoor signs without requisite permits, and DCRA fined the company, Racine again went to court to obtain a temporary restraining order to enforce city regulations. In doing so, he endeared himself to open space advocates like The Committee of 100 and government watchdogs who smelled a bad actor. That action also portended a political showdown with Bowser and friend-of-Digi Jack Evans, the Ward 2 councilmember, both of whom looked to thwart DCRA and Racine. (Bowser and Evans ultimately folded after a series of City Paper stories.)
In other areas, Racine has maintained a press outreach that has become a hallmark of his operation. Human trafficking workshops and juvenile justice initiatives? Check. Joining with state attorneys general in support of a lawsuit against the revised immigration ban? Check. Legislation aimed at campaign finance reform? Check.
Earlier this month he even appeared in a YouTube public service announcement alongside Olympian Simone Biles on behalf of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility. (He also has penned AARP bulletins for its online magazine.)
Robert White says Racine’s frenetic pace and efforts reflect his private-sector experience, and he credits the attorney general with an unselfish brand of leadership that is largely unseen by the public. “I can see why he finds it difficult to understand why politics and government are so slow,” says White. “But his path to problem-solving will pull in experts from the outside and smart people from within, and he’ll delegate to others. He does not seek the attention that most politicians would legitimately seek.”
Not all observers buy into the champion-of-the-people narrative. A former elected D.C. official notes that after Racine recused himself from the Pepco-Exelon merger negotiations because of his former firm’s representation of Pepco, he got involved first in opposition to a proposed settlement, then in favor of a final resolution. “He’s just another person who gave in,” says the former official. “He comes from the business side. I would rather have someone more committed to public causes.” Racine says his recusal was due to an “overabundance of caution,” and that, finding no clear conflict of interest, his office joined with the Office of the People’s Counsel to negotiate a better deal for the city.
Racine has handled city litigation in ways that others find hard to reconcile. In settling a lawsuit—for $13 million—that a predecessor filed against Bank of America for its role in a fraudulent tax refund scheme while it served as the District’s depository bank, he avoided a battle that might have had a greater upside in court. “Our case analysis was that if we went to court maybe we could win $20 million at best, or the court would reject our case and we’d end up with zero, so we negotiated our tushes off to get a pretty decent settlement,” he says.
Contrast that with two cases Racine has litigated to death against former D.C. officials who exposed government wrongdoing. In the case of Jeff Mills, the former food services director for D.C. Public Schools who brought a whistleblower suit against Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality that resulted in a $19 million recovery for the city, Racine’s office fought in court for a year over Mills’ whistleblower share. (Mills prevailed.) And after Eric Payne, former contracts director for the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, stood up to lottery contract interference and won a $1.7 million jury verdict in a wrongful firing case, Racine’s office sought to set aside the verdict.
“Do you want an attorney general who protects whistleblowers who stand up to corruption, or one who protects D.C. against whistleblowers?” asks a veteran political observer. “[The Payne case] shows he’d rather turn back to the ways of the past. That limits his claim to being a change agent.”
Racine bristles at suggestions that he is too pro-business, or a defender of the status quo, pointing to his campaign finance reform and anti-wage-theft initiatives. Of the whistleblower suits, he says, “I have an obligation to give legal advice and represent government agencies in court, and also defend the public interest. You could say those dual mandates conflict at times. I am more comfortable advocating in the public interest. But I’ve tried to get to a place where a judicial finding is fair to plaintiffs and the District.”
If Racine’s professional narrative seems conflicted, his personal story is ready for prime time, and he shares it with gusto.
Racine is engaging and, unlike Bowser, instantly likeable. Handsome, graying, quick with a quip or an F-bomb, he projects as a genial man’s man whose values are rooted in family, civic engagement, and team sports. He speaks slowly when making a point, eyes wide, hands gesturing, lending the impression that he is visualizing his words as he speaks. He also shows a gregariousness that can confound his handlers. (In a pair of lengthy interviews, Racine has been content to keep talking until his staff dragged him off to his next appointment.)
Karl Racine was born in Haiti to a mother and father of Haitian descent. His father was town mayor, his mother a teacher. When he was six months old, his parents emigrated to the United States, leaving him and his elder sister, whom he clung to, to the care of a grandmother, aunt, and uncle. At age three, he was reunited with his parents, who had settled in D.C. Asked about separation trauma, he cracks, “I’ve thought about that a lot, particularly when I’m pissed—gives me a reason to be upset.”
The family settled permanently in Northwest on Nebraska Avenue in a leafy neighborhood that he jokingly refers to as the mean streets of D.C. The Racines had been engaged in civic affairs in Haiti, with relatives who had been beaten and jailed for speaking out about the brutality and repression of the Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier regime. As a child, Racine had an awareness of political unrest, darkened by the riots of 1968. “I remember we had to get on a bus at 14th and U Street to get to our house,” he says. “We were not able to go around the city freely. But we lived in a [multicultural] neighborhood: Latin Americans, Caribbeans, Koreans, Guyanese, Jamaicans, blacks—it was Ward 3, but it was pretty diverse. Those neighborhoods of course are now condos for young people with their professional degrees.”
Raised Catholic, Racine attended Murch Elementary, Alice Deal Middle School, Wilson High for a couple of years, then St. John’s College High School, an all-boys, Catholic military school. If his was a privileged life, it did not go to his head. He played baseball and basketball, which took him all over the city to compete, where he saw blight and inequity depicted simply in the difference between a net on one basketball hoop and a chain or no chain at all on another. “It was clear those players were coming from a completely different background from me in terms of not coming from a two-parent household, and confronting issues related to crime that I was not,” he says.
A familial emphasis on education distinguished young Karl as well, and he recognized it. “I’m talking to my mom and I’m saying, ‘These guys are every bit as smart as I am, and they are excellent guys, but I know they are not going to have the same opportunities as me and it’s because of you [and dad],” recalls Racine, who went from a predominantly white elementary school to a middle school shaped by busing and desegregation. “It was clear as day that my sister are I were better prepared, and we were going to do better than a lot of other people and for no other reason than zip code and the thing that attached with that, which is our parents.”
Racine excelled at basketball. Even at the rec centers or the Police Athletic League level, he hewed closely to old-school coaches and would-be mentors. He credits them to this day, dropping names as if it were yesterday, referring to some as “loving disciplinarians” and others as “motivators” and “builders of young men.”
“I had the luxury and benefit of excellent coaches,” Racine says. “Even in the community centers, we were very close with D.C. rec workers. Incredibly supportive people. Reliable, honest, positive in their encouragement. I’m sure they raised any number of kids. You could go the way of these leaders, or you could go toward adults on the sidelines with their radios going and the jewelry—always action there. You had to make a choice. I can remember going to playgrounds and seeing that choice.”
A brush with flagging grades and some troubling associates landed him at St. John’s, where, Racine concedes, he initially felt intimidated: “I was a confident kid, but I didn’t know if I could compete with private school kids. So that was a challenge.” A military environment, no female distractions, the rigors of a Catholic education, and an emphasis on humanities allowed him to flourish, he says: “A lightbulb went [on] that I could literally do anything these guys could do. Academically, I became confident in that realm. There was structure. You had to do the job or get disciplined.” (Asked what military rank he achieved, he concedes that he graduated a sergeant, an honorary rank bestowed on all seniors.)
A schoolboy hoops star—he readily displays a cellphone photo of himself on the McDonald’s Capital Classic team, along with future Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing—Racine eschewed the “swag” of a potential college scholarship to instead attend University of Pennsylvania. “I wanted a full scholarship, because I thought that was cool, and it was important to alleviate the financial burden,” he says. “But my parents, they said, ‘You’re gonna go to the best school.’”
Racine’s also played basketball at Penn, where he was a point guard and a two-time MVP whose team won two Ivy League championships.
After graduating from Penn, Racine attended law school at the University of Virginia, which was starkly different than the urban experience of Philadelphia. And having spent so much of his life either in class or on the basketball court, he delayed his studies for a year to live abroad and experience a bit of the world.
He joined Venable LLP out of law school but left after three years to work for the D.C. Public Defender Service. Venable partner Jim Shea, who had Racine as a summer associate during law school, recalls Racine as “confident without being brash, personable without being too fun-loving.” Racine was bright, Shea says, a natural leader who was “able to demonstrate his intelligence” in an unpretentious manner.
A pattern of Racine’s career is that he has toggled between public law and private practice, and some who know him say his path is a driven, calculated one. After serving as associate White House counsel during the Clinton years, he ended up back at Venable, where he was elected managing partner in 2006.
His foray into politics has drawn a moderate amount of scrutiny. He loaned his campaign more than $450,000 and drew criticism for incomplete campaign finance reports and for raising money to pay himself back after he was elected. An opponent slammed him for audits that showed Venable overcharged the D.C. government in representing the Troubled Asset Relief Program while he was managing partner, and accused him of being too close to then-mayor Vince Gray.
Racine was elected in November 2014 with 36 percent of the vote. He’s a bachelor, never married, a proud uncle of three. He lives with his 82-year-old mother, who still teaches.
The question of what Racine will do next is one of the more persistent ones in D.C. political circles. Councilmember Robert White says mayoral aspirations were thrust upon him practically before he was sworn in. “I’ve never understood the origin of that rumor,” White says. “I don’t think it’s the most healthy dose of speculation. People always assume that politicians aspire to higher office, but I don’t see him as an opportunist. I think he’s an authentically good person.”
Whether he has sought the spotlight or been thrust toward it, Racine now must weather the trash talk that comes with D.C.’s insular political culture. Some political know-it-alls, for instance, have questioned whether he has a sufficient identity, message, or base to be a mayoral contender. “I see a weak political future,” says one veteran observer, laughing off suggestions that Racine could be mayor someday. “You walk down the street and 2 percent of the people know who he is. There’s nothing in it for him, because he’d lose. He can do whatever he wants as AG.”
A Ward 8 political operator sees him as a potential stalking-horse, perhaps in cahoots with others who want to knock Bowser off her perch: “I see him as a debutante, a pretty boy who makes headlines. This shit is window dressing, smoke and mirrors, a basketball play to box out Muriel.”
If Racine would defer to anyone, it’s Vince Gray, say sources who know both men—and who know how both men feel about Bowser. One source tells City Paper that Racine sees Gray as another mentor and has said he will not compete against him, which could still allow him to be an effective voice in support of Gray, provided a third, viable contender jumped in to erode Bowser’s support in more affluent wards.
Racine denies that he is in league with Gray or inclined to step aside for him. “I respect Vince Gray,” he says of the man whose mayoral transition team he helped lead. “What I decide to do has nothing to do with any decision he might make.”
If Bowser thinks her pathway to a second term goes through Racine, she doesn’t let on. “It doesn’t matter to me who is in the field,” she recently told Kojo Nnamdi on WAMU’s Politics Hour. Of Racine, she merely allowed, “He’s doing a fine job. … Karl’s focus on consumer protection is particularly important.”
Yet there’s a widespread view that Bowser’s performance—including questionable fundraising, backroom deals with developers who are contributors, and campaign scandals involving her allies—is precisely what could drive Racine to make a precipitous decision. In fact, he is known to have intimated that concerns about competence and corruption could be factors that get his competitive juices flowing.
“We need independent leadership,” Racine says. “People judge you by your actions. They want clear competence, and they also want leadership that is collaborative without regard to who is getting the credit for leading. I think people in the District of Columbia really want that.”
Of Bowser, and her inner circle, he says: “I believe when the mayor and her team are collaborative and bringing other leaders to the table to participate in a discussion on how best to advance the interests of District residents, she is at her best. But in my experience, that is not their general modus operandi.”
On the issue of corruption, Racine is prone to passionate outbursts. He has spoken out publicly against FreshPAC, the ill-fated fundraising machine Bowser’s proxies assembled to bankroll her preferred candidates. He sees a dotted line between that sort of behavior and the campaign finance controversy currently swirling around her handpicked successor in Ward 4, Brandon Todd. And he disapproved of Bowser’s attempt to direct homeless shelter building contracts to her donors and inner circle.
Which is why he thinks District residents are tired of a pay-to-play culture that plagues D.C. politics. “I sense that. People tell me that. I’ve observed it. I think that is real. I think people want to move away from even an appearance of impropriety. They want that questionable color-of-corruption stain, they want that to be removed.”
Racine concedes he already has one of the best jobs in D.C.—one that comes with independence and an opportunity to lead and be a champion for District residents. Still, the idea of being the great hope of a frustrated electorate seems to tempt him. Does he see a day of true change for the District?
“It’ll happen if the people demand it,” he says. “I think there will be change when people put in a different kind of leader or a different kind of leader runs successfully.”