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A few days after Karl Racine won the race to be the District’s first elected attorney general, LL talked with him about his plans for the office and whether it’s fair to call him the establishment choice for the job.
Read Washington City Paper‘s “People Issue” this week to see more from Racine, including how he decided to put $450,000 of his own money into the race and what he thinks of D.C. Council chairman Phil Mendelson‘s late endorsement. Note: Questions and answers have been condensed for clarity.
On whether he’d support using a eminent domain to take land for the D.C. United stadium—-an idea that looks more likely after developer Akridge says it could be necessary if the Reeves Center is taken out of the deal.
Muriel Bowser was talking about potentially using eminent domain if the stadium deal doesn’t go through with Akridge…
Another chance for us to overbill clients at Venable (laughter).
If it comes to eminent domain, certainly the Office of the Attorney General would have a role in that. What do you think of that idea?
I’m not up to speed fully on it.
I think it’s relatively a new idea that’s been floated after the Council’s report came out.
Obviously, I thought it was used appropriately with regards to the Nationals stadium. And clearly, the evidence is in that the Nationals stadium deal and the process was overwhelmingly positive here. I’d have to evaluate that, of course, and certainly work with the mayor in order to fulfill the legislative objectives.
On being the “establishment” candidate:
During the race, after Mark Tuohey bowed out and you came in, some people said the rap on you was that you were the establishment candidate.
Racine spokeswoman Marrisa Geller: That was your rap.
Racine: “Some people.”
Do you think that’s a fair description?
I guess I’ll ask you, and I think this whole thing is fair, potentially, obviously a fair question. People can clearly have that impression. But what do you mean when you call something “establishment”?
Your David Wilmots, Mark Tuohey for example, your high-powered lawyers. Certainly it came up more in this race because you were up against Paul Zukerberg, a sole practitioner. Edward “Smitty” Smith, a relative unknown. The sense was that you were sort of the guy who was put in by the people who didn’t want the attorney general race to happen in 2014.
I mean, I can tell you that no one “put me in” to the race. I made that decision to get into the race. I did that. I was the person who committed his resources, substantial resources, to the race. I’m the person, along with my great team, who devised what would be our platform—the Keys to Justice.
That’s Mark Tuohey, Wilmot, whoever else—they did not submit paper to those positions. Far from establishment, I am independent. That I think is the truthful characteristic.
The other thing I’d say is, you know, we’ve had great, really, really talented corporation counsel and attorney general over the history of the District of Columbia. I mean, extraordinary lawyers going back to Herbert Reed, Mayor [Marion] Barry‘s first corporation counsel. And I think that there are indicators of excellence in the law that folks kind of go through in order to determine who might fill a position like the attorney general, or like the U.S. Attorrney’s Office.
I just think that the establishment moniker was an easy moniker. You weren’t even as creative as you normally are. What you’ve come up with on that one—-it’s just easy because of the fact that I worked at a law firm, a significant law firm and was the managing partner at that law firm, and that I was on the D.C. judicial nomination commission.
But in a real way, I think fundamentally, I’m independent. And I think that that’s what people around town who know me and who respect me professionally, that’s how they view me. They fundamentally view me as a guy who is independent, not establishment.
Trust me, in a legal industry where minority lawyers are scarce, there is no way that I could have been as successful as I’ve been—whatever, however you judge that, by being establishment. Totally an independent dude, period.
In fact, some people might criticize me for having such an independent work style. And I’m sure some people will end up being disappointed that I have not—My guess is that I’m not going to engage as many folks who are traditionally viewed as establishment in my daily workings. And I’m sure that I’ll get some grief for that, but I don’t really care. I’m very independent.
Look, politics? I’m a Democrat, obviously been involved in politics at different levels, but never ran for office at all.
I guess with respect to Vincent Gray he was kind enough to ask me to co-chair that  transition group on public policy for justice issues with [former attorney general] Bob Spagnoletti. That’s about as close to government, D.C. government work as I’ve ever done.
So in a real way, I’m an unknown dude who has done well in the legal realm, but is truly independent. And I think you’re going to see that in this office; it’s going to be very independent.
On future clashes with Bowser and the Council:
You talk about how independent you’ll be from the mayor and the Council. I’m curious if you see issues you think you’ll be differing from them on already.
Right now, I think what’s most important when you talk about an independent attorney general’s office and the Council are two things. First, we need resources, and clearly both the mayor and the Council are going to have a lot to do with the budget going forward with respect to the office, and so it’s going to be very important that I develop strong personal relationships, relationships of trust, where they know that when I’m asking for money and people it’s for a good reason and it’s for a reason that’s totally justifiable and will bear fruit for the citizens.
I think that is a natural kind of challenge area, because my guess is I’m going to want more than they’re going to want to give me. So that’s one area.
Second, there are items, areas where I’m going to ask Councilman Mendelson and the Council to provide greater subpoena power. We need to have that subpoena power back that we had during the [Peter] Nickles administration. And the Council is not unanimous on that issue, but we need to have full subpoena power. I imagine that’s going to be a healthy discussion and a challenge.
Additionally, the organizational structure of the office is something that I can foresee, after some time in office, asking them to make some changes to that structure. We’ll work with what we have right now, what we have right now—-which you know better than most—-is that many of the attorney general are off to agencies.
I’ve said this on the campaign, as did Mr. [Edward “Smitty] Smith and Paul [Zukerberg]. I think they said it well. And that is that there are inherent conflicts to that structure.
That also I think negatively impacts the concept of preventive law where you’re really advising agencies in the first instances to what it is they should to do stay out of trouble. It just seems to me that having the [agency counsel] report to the attorney general is the right way to avoid any miscommunication, misunderstanding, just flat out inconsistencies with the interpretation of the law.
So we’ll be revisiting that, and I think that’s going to be a challenging discussion going forward. So I think those are the key areas.
I can also see, look: An attorney general is going to be focused on procurement, transparency. I’m in favor of strong ethics rules and campaign finance reform and pay-to-play politics. And I thought Irv—his position on those issues was right. He really wanted stronger ethics legislation.
Mayor Gray wanted that, actually, and I’m strongly in favor of those types of restrictions and regulations. And so, to the extent that I’m able to communicate my view from the attorney general’s office, it could conflict with the Council’s view. We didn’t do enough, the bill that went through, the ethics bill was watered down a lot.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery