The members of the Gay and Lesbian Ac-tivists Alliance of Washington, D.C., are the high-information voters that campaigns dream about. They grade political candidates on a 20-point scale, considering their stances on issues from liquor-license policy to the D.C. United soccer stadium deal. Like SAT essay graders, they like long, long answers.
But even they’re confused by how to handle the five candidates competing to be the District’s first attorney general. While GLAA handed down opinions on the nuances of this year’s mayoral and D.C. Council candidates last week, the group didn’t rate the candidates for the attorney general.
“That was just really triage,” GLAA president Rick Rosendall says.
After nearly a year of legal and legislative wrangling, residents will get what they asked for in a 2010 ballot measure—they’ll vote for the District’s first elected attorney general in November. Next up: figuring out what the District’s first elected attorney general will actually do.
It’s a question a lot of District voters are wrangling with, or at least the ones that are thinking about it. A Washington Post poll taken earlier this month found that a staggering 57 percent of voters are undecided. Compare that to just 15 percent undecided in the Post poll on the mayor’s race, or 26 percent undecided in a campaign-sponsored poll on the D.C. Council at-large election.
The question is further complicated by what changing the attorney general position from a mayoral appointee into an elected position will mean. Would an attorney general with political ambitions of his or her own be as eager to help write an unpopular but necessary law like the new legislation on carrying guns, or defend the District in school-closing cases?
Already, one question will be resolved on Oct. 1, as the Office of the Attorney General loses a third of its attorneys to District agencies, a move meant to make sure that the agencies’ general counsels owe their loyalties to the mayor instead of a potential political rival.
In fact, the only people with a strong idea of what the new office will be like are the five candidates themselves. And they’re thinking big. At a forum earlier this month sponsored by voting rights nonprofit DC Vote, each of the hopefuls—white-shoe law firm attorneys Karl Racine and Lorie Masters, former FCC attorney Edward “Smitty” Smith, policy advisor Lateefah Williams, and Paul Zukerberg, whose lawsuit kept the election in 2014 after the Council tried to push it back—talked up how independent their office will be from future mayor Muriel Bowser, David Catania, or Carol Schwartz.
That sounds perfect to Walter Smith, the executive director of the DC Appleseed think tank. Smith hopes that a more independent attorney general will push more strongly on issues like budget autonomy from Congress.
“Up until now, I think it would have been very unusual for an appointed attorney general to say, ‘You know what, I think the mayor’s wrong,’” Smith says.
If they’ll be independent from future mayors, though, the candidates aren’t all that independent from one another. They all promise to promote statehood and hunt down crooked politicians, and they all think that consumer protection cases are important. Pity the candidate who can’t promise to make new laws. Smitty, whose Shaw campaign office features a whiteboard flowchart on the District’s juvenile justice system, has managed to make himself the candidate of making that process more reparative. Still, his rivals aren’t exactly rushing to take the other side of that issue.
Blame it on the fact that important but sleep-inducing issues make up much of the Office of the Attorney General’s work. Whoever wins the race will spend a lot of time not on comparatively sexy issues like budget autonomy—and the fact that budget autonomy is considered the hot side of this race could explain why voters are giving it a pass—but on managing lawyers who give advice about eminent domain and real estate, or cases against deadbeat parents.
The lack of issues in the race has turned the competition for attorney general—the position on the November ballot that would be best with as as little politics as possible—into the most rawly political race on the ballot. With few options to distinguish themselves with their platforms and a tightened election season thanks to the legal fight over the race, the candidates and their wealthy co-workers-turned-donors pour money into lamp-post signs, palm cards, and campaign organization. In the August campaign finance statements, Racine reported already putting $225,000 of his own money into his campaign.
To hear Attorney General Irv Nathan tell it, attorney general hopefuls with big policy dreams would be better off running for the D.C. Council anyway.
While an attorney general can focus on what priorities his office sets—say, antitrust cases over other consumer investigations—making a sweeping change to how the office handles that law would be much more difficult. In other words, if you’re voting for a candidate based on what they promise to do in office, don’t be so sure they’ll even legally be able to fulfill those commitments.
“It’s not the prerogative of the attorney general to set legislative priorities or policies,” Nathan says.
Whoever wins in November, though, they won’t have any experience in the attorney general’s office. Hatch Act restrictions against government employees engaging in political activities kept OAG attorneys from taking leaves of absence to run for office, meaning that the people likely to be most familiar with the office would have to abandon their careers for a chance to lead it. Legislation introduced last year aimed to resolve the Hatch Act dilemma was rejected by the Council, a majority of which voted to move the election to 2018 anyway.
Concerns over the candidates’ actual familiarity with the attorney general’s office inspired Shana Frost Matini, the president of the union that represents OAG employees, to invite the candidates to meet with her. (Matini also points out that the requirements for the elected attorney general to be a practicing lawyer for five out of the past 10 years means that the pool of potential candidates is even smaller.)
Still, 43 states and Guam have managed to have elected attorney generals without falling apart. Now it’s the District’s turn—whether anyone is paying attention or not.
Photo of Zukerberg by Darrow Montgomery
Photo of Smith by Will Sommer