Kenyan McDuffie is surrounded by supporters as he announces the suspension of his AG campaign.
Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie has switched from an AG bid to an at-large race. Credit: Alex Koma

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Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie never uttered Marion Barry’s name Monday as he announced the end (for now) of his campaign for attorney general. But there is little doubt that he was trying to conjure some of the magic that the mayor-for-life used as he stared down the end of his political career.

McDuffie’s choice of venue to make such an announcement, the Big Chair at the heart of Anacostia, felt like a message in and of itself. Then consider two familiar faces McDuffie picked to join him behind the podium: Cora Masters Barry, the ex-mayor’s widow and close political confidante, and Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, Barry’s protege. Add in a defiant, strident message from McDuffie and the gathering felt less like a concession of defeat and more like a pledge that he’d be as politically resilient as Barry was over the course of his preternaturally long career.

“Despite the circumstances that we’re experiencing right now, I want you all to know, it’s only deepened my resolve to serve our city,” McDuffie said. “It’s going to take a lot more than not qualifying for the ballot to keep me down.”

But the role of aggrieved outsider fighting back against the system is an awkward fit for McDuffie in a way it rarely was for Barry. He can’t exactly pick up Barry’s claims of battling the political establishment on behalf of the neglected communities east of the Anacostia—McDuffie’s home political base is in Ward 5, and he doesn’t have much political history in Southeast. And he’s always been more comfortable with professorial paeans to “racial equity” than fire-and-brimstone speeches about D.C.’s race and class divides.

Instead, McDuffie found himself trying to frame a distinctly lawyerly dispute about ballot qualifications as a battle for justice. Count Loose Lips as skeptical that he’ll find much success with that effort, particularly given the uphill climb he faces back to relevancy in this year’s election cycle.

“People across the city have told me that this fight is symbolic of a much larger fight that D.C. residents are having across the city to ensure justice, opportunity, and equity for all the people with unmet needs,” McDuffie said, in one of his more sweeping rhetorical flourishes.

McDuffie added that he had not decided on a next move yet (though he made it clear he hopes to keep serving in elected office in some capacity) but, as LL sees it, his options are pretty limited.

The preferred option of many of McDuffie’s supporters (Ron Moten foremost among them) is that the D.C. Council change the law to clarify that he’s eligible to run for the post. The crux of fellow AG contender Bruce Spiva’s challenge to McDuffie was that he didn’t meet the plain language of the law creating an elected attorney general, so lawmakers could simply change the statute.

McDuffie confirmed Monday that he’d been discussing such a possibility with his colleagues, gauging interest in one of them advancing such legislation either in time for Tuesday’s Council meeting or soon afterward. But the D.C. Board of Elections has already begun printing ballots in order to be ready for the June 21 primary, so any eligibility change wouldn’t take effect in time for the Democratic nominating contest (absent any serious delays of the primary).

Plus, some Wilson Building wags suggest that McDuffie could be running afoul of conflict-of-interest rules by lobbying for a bill that would so directly affect his future—even if McDuffie recused himself from some hypothetical vote, Council rules prohibit councilmembers from working “for any direct and tangible personal gain,” and say they “shall not take an official action on a matter as to which they have a conflict of interest created by a personal, family, client, or business interest.”

These arguments generally seem like academic ones, given the current mood of the Council. Even if McDuffie argues that he could mount a credible campaign as an independent in the general election should he be made eligible, he still needs a colleague to back a bill on his behalf.

And Chairman Phil Mendelson told reporters Monday that, while many lawmakers he’s spoken with seem sympathetic to McDuffie’s cause, there hasn’t been any movement on backing a bill in time for Tuesday’s meeting. A Wilson Building source said that recent inquiries about whether such an emergency bill might be introduced in the near future have been met with crickets.

White’s appearance at McDuffie’s press conference at first gave LL the distinct impression that he was ready to step up in this department—the two lawmakers have never been particularly close political allies, but why else would he agree to get involved in McDuffie’s mess? Yet he didn’t address the crowd at the gathering and stood by silently even as McDuffie called on the Council to take action.

Still, McDuffie doesn’t appear to be giving up hope on such a solution, arguing that “it’s not unprecedented for the Council to act retroactively to clarify a law to permit a candidate to be on the ballot.” He’s referring to a 2016 vote to allow U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on the city’s primary ballot, even as the elections board was ready to block him. McDuffie’s campaign even had a member of the BOE from that time period, Dionna Maria Lewis, on hand to speak to reporters on his behalf, arguing that the board should generally have “a bias toward ballot access.”

But all of this feels like quite the bank shot for McDuffie, considering how hard it is to win without the Democratic nomination in D.C. He wouldn’t rule out other options either, like a run in the general for the Ward 5 seat he just relinquished. If he really wanted to spice things up, he could run at-large in the general or even challenge Mendelson for Council chair, but again, these would be long shots.

A return to politics two years from now feels like a substantially more likely outcome. Even Barry knew the value in biding his time.

“There are a number of possibilities for me, as somebody who is not going to stop representing the city in some capacity,” McDuffie said. “I’m not going to end my commitment to the residents of the District of Columbia, whether I’m serving as a councilmember, as an attorney general, or some other role.”