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With few exceptions, D.C. politicians are dull. They have no flair for the dramatic, they are not highly quotable, they do not light up the room. It’s as if God allotted a set amount of personality for D.C. politicians, and Marion Barry used it all up.
The current crop of candidates for the at-large D.C. Council special election aren’t much different. They are a cautious lot; they don’t stick out or say things that might get them into trouble. With less than two months until the election, none of the candidates has managed to generate significant buzz.
But one of the seven is trying to make himself the exception—a defense attorney running as the race’s cranky truthteller, unafraid to throw elbows or stake out politically unpopular positions. Paul Zukerberg is the campaign’s quirky uncle who thinks the path to the Council dais is doing whatever’s the opposite of what a typical politician would do. He probably won’t come anywhere close to winning, but at least he’s spicing things up.
For starters, Zukerberg has staked his campaign on one main issue: decriminalizing marijuana. (A large share of Zukerberg’s legal practice is representing accused pot smokers.) The Wilson Building has been in no rush to even ponder relaxing the laws on pot, and no one’s talked much about it in other recent local races. Decriminalization is different than legalization; Zukerberg says the city should assess civil fines to people caught with small amounts of pot, not criminal penalties. He says the only reason the idea hasn’t gotten much attention is because D.C. politicians are afraid to talk about the toll unfair drug laws have on District residents.
“It’s the largest civil rights issue we have in the District of Columbia,” Zukerberg says during a recent interview. He cites statistics showing that D.C. leads the country in per capita marijuana arrests and the fact that black residents are eight times more likely to be arrested for lighting up than white residents. “We’re saddling a lot of African Americans, mostly young black males, with criminal records.”
Zukerberg notes that several states and big cities have moved recently to either legalize or decriminalize marijuana and says D.C. is falling behind in a national trend because feckless local politicians are afraid of upsetting the federal government. The D.C. Council legalized medical marijuana in 2010, but the city has yet to see a single prescription for medicinal pot filled. Meanwhile, residents of Colorado and Washington have voted to legalize pot, and cities like Chicago and Philadelphia have decriminalized it.
“This is a company town, and I don’t work for the company,” Zukerberg says.
Since you’re wondering: Yes, Zukerberg says he used to smoke pot when he was a younger man. But the 55-year-old father of two, who lives in Adams Morgan, says he no longer partakes simply because he’s gotten too old: “Those days are behind me.”
Nowadays, Zukerberg’s new drug is D.C. politics. He sees himself as the antidote to politicians and candidates who seek a Council seat because they need the money or the status that comes with it. He may be taking that nonchalance a little too far: Zukerberg has eschewed typical campaign things like serious fundraising, putting together a campaign staff, or sending out mailers because he says that stuff is mostly useless and overrated.
“I don’t think that more junk mail is going to carry the day,” he says. “I’m just trying to talk common sense to people and see if they respond to it.”
Zukerberg hasn’t been shy about attacking his opponents, something none of his opponents seem particularly eager or willing to do. He essentially called former Loose Lips columnist-turned-D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute advocate Elissa Silverman a hypocrite for unsuccessfully challenging his nominating petitions after she advocated on behalf of a ballot initiative that came up a few signatures short of qualifying to go before voters. “The so-called, self-described ‘integrity candidate’ is not fooling anyone,” Zukerberg wrote in a press release, and then accused Silverman on his blog of not wanting the homeless to be able to vote. Silverman says “that’s not true, obviously” about her stance on homeless voters and that her challenge was legitimate because she didn’t think Zukerberg had the requisite 3,000 valid signatures. And when Zukerberg accused the Board of Elections of violating city laws by not updating its voter rolls, the BOE responded with a strongly worded statement saying Zukerberg’s claims were “wholly inaccurate and have absolutely no merit or basis in fact.”
The son of a self-taught musician who was a big wheel on the bar mitzvah and Jewish wedding circuit in Paterson, N.J., Zukerberg moved to D.C. 30 years ago to go to law school at American University. He said he was drawn to criminal defense law because he likes going to trial and he “just can’t stand when someone gets the raw end of the deal.”
As a young lawyer in the ’80s, Zukerberg had a front-row seat to many of the city’s social ills. He defended drug dealers, prostitutes, and people trying to get released from St. Elizabeths mental hospital. Zukerberg also practices personal injury law, won millions in backpay for underpaid D.C. retirement home workers, and helped a D.C. cop beat a bribery charge. If he somehow wins and the Council decriminalizes marijuana, he says, a “lucrative part of my business will go down the tubes.”
One thing Zukerberg made sure LL noted: how rare it would be for a councilmember to advocate for something that would hurt his personal bottom line. Unfortunately, that does indeed set him apart from other politicians.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery