DC Attorney General Forum
From left: Brian Schwalb, Ryan Jones and Bruce Spiva debate in the attorney general's race. Credit: Alex Koma

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As soon as Friday, the attorney general race could officially be a three-man contest. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie has been such a huge presence in the race that it’s difficult to imagine things without him around.

Voters got their first chance to do so Tuesday night at an intimate forum the League of Women Voters hosted at George Washington University for the other three contenders: Ryan Jones, Brian Schwalb and Bruce Spiva. McDuffie could win his way back on the ballot after an eligibility challenge from Spiva forced him off, but organizers chose to keep the councilmember off the stage as his court challenge plays out.

The suspense isn’t likely to last long. The campaigns have been told to expect a ruling from the D.C. Court of Appeals by sometime Thursday, quite the rapid turnaround for the notoriously sluggish institution. But the primary is less than two months away, and the D.C. Board of Elections has asked for a decision before it holds a lottery to determine the order of candidates on the ballot Friday and then starts printing ballots Monday. If the three-judge panel hearing the case can’t decide by then, McDuffie’s campaign has asked for a delay of the entire June 21 primary, a development that would upend the local political ecosystem.

It’s difficult to read the legal tea leaves, but two of the three judges that heard McDuffie’s case Wednesday morning sure seemed skeptical of his legal team’s arguments. (Much of the debate centered on how much deference they should give to the elections board as it interprets the statute determining McDuffie’s eligibility for the AG role.) Given their comments, it seems prudent to start considering a world where he’s out of the running.

If the GW forum made anything clear, it’s that the race sans McDuffie will get a lot more dry and lawyerly. The candidates generally rushed to agree with outgoing AG Karl Racine on most issues, clashing only occasionally over who has more experience in the Big Law world to take on the job. And since the remaining candidates lack the roots in D.C. politics that McDuffie could claim—most of Schwalb’s engagement in local affairs came via his charitable work, while Spiva did pro bono work on some local cases and was involved in statehood advocacy—that professional experience is suddenly pretty relevant.

Schwalb, who leads Venable’s D.C. office, argues that he has the background to put together an elite team of lawyers to continue Racine’s work, particularly when it comes to pursuing cases with nationwide implications, like Racine’s challenges to Google and Amazon.

“This is really not the place for on the job training,” Schwalb said.

He also argued that because he’s represented such a wide array of clients in his time at Venable, he’d be in a better position to exercise judgment about which consumer protection cases to pursue and which companies to leave be.

“We can’t shut ourselves out by becoming so unfriendly to business that they don’t want to be here,” Schwalb said, parroting an argument that Loose Lips has heard so many times from business leaders (despite its faulty assumptions) that it made his eyes roll into the back of his head.

Spiva’s pitch is a bit stronger on consumer protection, arguing that he spent 11 years representing regular people directly in class-action cases instead of just corporate clients (though as a former managing partner at Perkins Coie, he wasn’t exactly fighting for the little guy for his entire career either). Still, he has a decent story to tell about representing public housing tenants in Columbia Heights and a sexual assault survivor at Howard University as evidence that he’ll take up Racine’s mantle of lawyering for the public good.

“I’m the one in the race that actually has experience fighting these bad corporate practices,” Spiva said.

For his part, Jones generally appears to be a nonfactor, from both his weak fundraising numbers and his attempts to keep up with the other contenders on the debate stage. His answers were often a bit nonsensical, such as his assertion that violent music and video games are partly responsible for shootings in the city or his contention that homeless encampments need to be cleared because residents could infect passers-by with COVID-19.

But the other two seem to be in the position to make similar cases to voters about why they should follow in Racine’s footsteps. Though he may have progressive credentials now, Racine himself came from Big Law, too. He shares a history at Venable with Schwalb, which no doubt contributed to his endorsement.

Spiva has picked up some media coverage in the wake of his challenge to McDuffie, and appears to have the ability to self-fund his campaign, at least to some extent. That might not be enough to overcome Schwalb’s own hefty public financing (and the goodwill associated with Racine’s nod), but it seems clear that a race without a presumed frontrunner like McDuffie is highly unpredictable.