Schwalb Spiva signs
Signs for attorney general contenders Brian Schwalb and Bruce Spiva have suddenly become ubiquitous in many D.C. neighborhoods. Credit: Alex Koma

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After a few weeks of legal wrangling, there’s a Kenyan McDuffie-sized hole in D.C.’s attorney general race. So who, exactly, will fill it?

That’s the question District politicos have been pondering ever since the Ward 5 councilmember’s embarrassing exit from the campaign. Few expected Bruce Spiva’s challenge to McDuffie’s ballot eligibility would actually stick, so this leaves things in uncharted territory with just over a month to go until the Democratic primary.

Brian Schwalb seems to be the logical beneficiary of the loss of the race’s presumed frontrunner, by dint of his endorsement from outgoing AG Karl Racine and his strong fundraising efforts, and most political observers agree that he’s now in pole position in the contest. But Spiva has serious potential to make this a real race given his growing popularity among the city’s progressive left. (Most election watchers agree that Ryan Jones, comparatively light on lawyering experience and campaign cash, will be a non-factor.)

Before McDuffie’s fall, the District’s constellation of left-leaning advocacy groups hadn’t really known what to do with the race. They generally weren’t great fans of McDuffie, given his business-friendly record on the Council, and Racine’s backing wasn’t enough for some to get past Schwalb’s past defending big corporations at Venable. Spiva’s background had a bit more appeal (his history with cases fighting for tenants and voting rights is a big point in his favor) but he too hails from a Big Law firm, Perkins Coie. Plus, he’s accepting big checks from non-D.C. donors instead of embracing the new public financing system, as Schwalb is.

Nevertheless, Spiva has won some key support on the left as this new, three-man race has taken shape. Both the Sierra Club’s D.C. chapter and progressive stalwart Ed Lazere endorsed Spiva last week, benefitting from some goodwill for chasing the establishment favorite out of the primary. If Spiva can successfully brand himself as the lefty choice in the race, he could pull some crucial support away from Schwalb and make this a serious contest.

“I truly am the progressive in the race,” Spiva says. “I can stand alone on my record … and these are not issues that just came along for me during the election season. I don’t think my opponent can say the same thing. He’s a friend of mine, but he’s basically been a corporate defense attorney for his whole career.”

Shots fired! But Schwalb won’t give up this crucial chunk of primary voters that easily.

He counters that he has taken up plenty of progressive causes in his own right—a quick search of court records shows he’s sued the Metropolitan Police Department on behalf of a family alleging excessive force during a 2009 arrest and represented a Howard University caterer who claimed he’d been sexually harassed by his boss, for instance. But he says he’s “not big on labels,” and will seek to appeal to more moderate voters too.

A big part of Schwalb’s argument is that the District’s attorney general needs a background in defense cases. Racine has made headlines with lawsuits on behalf of tenants and consumers, but at the end of the day, the AG’s office also functions as the chief lawyer for the city when its various agencies get sued.

“Everyone in the city deserves an attorney general that’s looking after their tax dollars,” Schwalb says. “Labels may work in retail politics, but as a lawyer, you’re looking at things issue by issue and making judgements.”

He’s also quick to highlight his past in the Department of Justice as part of a broader pitch he’s making on public safety. Schwalb was only trying tax cases in his four years with the feds, but he argues he’ll have better relationships with the federal prosecutors that handle most crimes in D.C. (The local AG generally only handles cases involving certain misdemeanors and juveniles.)

That emphasis on crime probably makes sense when it comes to reaching certain segments of voters, with polls showing many residents are concerned about rising violence (Schwalb focused the entirety of his first TV ad on the issue). But Spiva and Schwalb broadly agree on the solutions: more violence interruption and other pushes to address “root causes.” Hardly law-and-order stuff, and not much to distinguish one from the other.

The AG’s office probably has a bigger role in trying those public interest cases in civil court anyway, and that’s part of why Spiva has proven more attractive to some.

“If you look at the work he’s done in his legal career, he was fighting for everyday people, for the little guy,” says Mark Rodeffer, the Sierra Club’s political chair. “He’s shown experience taking on polluters and has the right background to fight for D.C. residents.”

Rodeffer says Spiva’s credentials on these issues is enough for him to see past his decision to use traditional financing instead of the Fair Elections Program, but other D.C. progressives may not feel the same way. Spiva’s sworn off money from developers and corporate PACs (though he’s loaned himself $300,000 of his own cash and directly contributed another $100,000) but spurning such a beloved program on the D.C. left isn’t a good look.

“I respect Bruce and his motivations, but structurally speaking, I think this is a really important conflict,” says Zach Teutsch, a progressive activist, a past campaign hand for Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George, and a Schwalb backer. “If Karl had sat it out and Bruce had gone for Fair Elections, I would probably be Team Bruce right now. As is, I think highly of both of them and think they would both do a good job.”

Spiva says he made the decision because he assumed he’d need all the cash he could get running as a first-time candidate with a sitting councilmember in the race. He also dinged Schwalb for accepting money from developers, which he sees a clear conflict considering the AG’s role in taking landlords to court. Indeed, Schwalb’s most recent campaign finance report, filed May 10, shows executives from prominent firms like Cafritz Interests, EYA, and Donatelli Development among his contributors.

But even that money comes in much smaller amounts, with donors capped at $200 each. By contrast, Spiva can accept $1,500 checks from his pals in the legal world (and records show he has on plenty of occasions). Schwalb notes that he, too, is a first-time candidate and started the race without much name recognition, yet chose public financing anyway.

“If any candidate should be making sure they’re independent, not beholden to any interest, it should be people running for attorney general,” Schwalb says. “I’m not suggesting that Bruce Spiva is in anybody’s pocket, but even the appearance of conflict is terrible.”

Another potential stumbling block for Spiva: By taking such a leading role in pushing McDuffie off the ballot, he could risk a backlash from voters inclined to support the outgoing councilmember.

“I’ve spoken with a lot of folks who are upset with the person who filed the challenge, because they don’t think it was filed with good intentions,” says Eric Jones, a top lobbyist for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington and a former Council candidate himself. “They might’ve seen Spiva as a good second choice, but they think he did it because he was out of options in the race.”

Spiva is trying to put a positive spin on the ballot challenge, painting it as an example of him standing up for the law of the land “even if it isn’t popular in some quarters.”

This stands in contrast to other candidates who sought to “stick their finger in the wind” and weigh in on McDuffie’s eligibility only after he lost his legal case—Schwalb made some skeptical allusions to McDuffie’s qualifications early in the race, but later tweeted that his removal from the ballot was a “personal disappointment.” Schwalb is reluctant to get too involved in the whole dust-up now, but says he preferred to make a “qualifications argument” to voters instead of challenging McDuffie on the technicalities.

Not every McDuffie backer is ready to spurn Spiva: 32BJ SEIU, the prominent service workers’ union that endorsed McDuffie, announced Wednesday it would be backing Spiva instead (spokespeople for the other three unions to support McDuffie either said they were still making up their minds on a new endorsement or didn’t respond to requests for comment).

Nothing is easy or simple in this race. Loose Lips looks forward to a wild six weeks or so through June 21.

“I’ve seen people really appreciative of the challenge result and it’s led them to support Bruce’s candidacy, and I’ve also seen folks who were very upset by it and turned off,” Teutsch says. “There’s probably more of the first than the second, but it’s really hard to tell without polling.”