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In 2015, newly elected District Attorney General Karl Racine managed to hang on to much of his office’s power in its first year as an elected position.
“I think we had a spectacular year,” Racine says.
Now that 2016 is here, Racine has another challenge: doing it again. In his second year in office, Racine hopes to hold off any attempts by Mayor Muriel Bowser to chisel away at his office’s responsibilities—and maybe get a bigger budget in the meantime.
Racine won the District’s first elected attorney general term in November 2014, after months of wrangling between the D.C. Council, the D.C. Board of Elections, and attorney general hopeful Paul Zukerberg over whether the referendum-mandated election would actually happen.
Hefty political contributions and loans from his personal fortune vaulted Racine into office, though he’s still fundraising to pay back the loans. Endorsements from Washington establishment types ranging from the Washington Post editorial board to Bill Clinton didn’t hurt.
After taking office in January, Racine found the position slipping away from him almost immediately. New Mayor Muriel Bowser, who had voted in favor of delaying the attorney general election while she was still on the Council, moved in April to take approval for city development deals and other projects out of OAG and into her own legal staff.
“Demonstrating my complete naivete, I was surprised that the job would so rapidly become political,” Racine says.
Racine, fearing that his entire office would be subordinated to Bowser, managed to fend off the mayoral maneuver. He got help from simpatico councilmembers like Ward 5 Councilmember (and prominent Bowser antagonist) Kenyan McDuffie.
“It became absolutely important for us to understand how politics is played in the District of Columbia,” Racine says.
Racine has succeeded in keeping his office’s responsibilities out of the mayor’s office for now, ensuring that he can keep opposing Bowser. In November, he blasted the campaign finance loophole that allowed Bowser supporters to take unlimited contributions through now-closed political action committee FreshPAC. (Racine says he’s working on legislation with new restrictions on political contributions.)
Racine sued the owners of a decaying Congress Heights property that has ties to two prominent Bowser supporters in Ward 8, something Racine says he isn’t sure he would have been able to do if his office had been more closely tied to the mayor’s. And Racine’s OAG also opposed a portion of Bowser’s marquee crime bill that would have allowed police to search the homes of violent offenders who are on supervised release.
“We would, I’m sure, have been requested—directed—to support the legislation,” Racine says. “We did not, because we’re independent.”
But Bowser and Racine aren’t always in opposition. In January, Walmart pulled out of two planned stores in Ward 7—conveniently ditching the two stores that were likely to be the least economically viable—after opening three stores on the west side of the Anacostia River. Racine says OAG has been talking to Bowser’s administration about potential legal action against Walmart. The District almost certainly can’t force Walmart to open the stores, but the city might be able to get damages by leveraging the retailer’s leases, according to Racine.
Attempting to preserve his office’s responsibilities inspired Racine to politick the Council, a tactic he’s now hoping to use to get more money in the coming budget cycle to hire new staffers. For one thing, Racine wants his office to receive a cut of the settlements and court judgments OAG wins on the District’s behalf.
To some Wilson Building watchers, it’s clear that Racine’s tactics in ensuring a friendly Council go beyond power lunches. After former at-large hopeful Robert White lost a bid for a seat November 2014, Racine hired him to work his community relations office.
Racine did the same with Ward 8 Council candidate Trayon White, who narrowly lost to Bowser favorite LaRuby May. Now both Robert White and Trayon White are running again, facing Bowser-backed candidates in the at-large and Ward 8 races, respectively.
Given that Racine’s current position hinges on narrow Council voting margins and allies in control of certain committee chairmanships, the prospect of both Whites landing on the Council after next June’s primary must be appealing to Racine.
Racine will lavish praise on his former employees—Trayon White, he says, goes to “pockets of this city where many politicians never go.” But he says he isn’t trying to build a Racine-friendly Council bloc.
Still, Robert White even uses the political firm that helped put Racine in the attorney general’s chair. Racine claims LL is seeing a strategy where there isn’t one.
“There is no secret room at the Office of the Attorney General or in my residence where we are plotting out what’s going to happen in 2016,” Racine says.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery