Brian Schwalb AG
Brian Schwalb is hoping to ride Karl Racine's endorsement to a win in the attorney general race. Credit: Schwalb for AG

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Mail-in voting has started, and D.C.’s all-important Democratic primary is just weeks away on June 21. (Early voting begins June 10 at more than 30 locations across the District.) In a perfect world, you’d have read each and every one of City Paper’s riveting stories on the top races on the ballot throughout this election season, but in case you haven’t, we’ve tried to sum up everything you need to know about each one, as well as the wildest and weirdest tales from the campaign trail. Today, we’re looking at the 2022 attorney general race. Check back each day this week for a story on another race.

The race to become D.C.’s second elected attorney general looked pretty quiet as recently as a few months ago. Then a legal challenge knocked the leading contender off the ballot and all hell broke loose.

There is no denying that Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie looked like a shoo-in for this post when he launched his campaign last October. He was the only candidate with a long history in local politics and that established name recognition gave him an instant leg up. He quickly amassed a sizable campaign cash advantage that looked sure to keep him ahead of his competitors in the long run.

Sure, outgoing AG Karl Racine didn’t endorse him (he picked fellow Venable alum Brian Schwalb instead) but McDuffie could rely on plenty of support among D.C.’s political establishment. All seemed to be going well until Bruce Spiva, a former Perkins Coie partner, challenged McDuffie’s eligibility for the ballot.

For weeks, rumors circulated that McDuffie might not technically qualify for the AG role under city law, which requires anyone running for the post to be “actively engaged” as an attorney in the District, but few thought elections officials would actually toss him off the ballot. McDuffie argued that he’d done his homework, and his time writing laws on the Council qualified him to become AG and survive the challenge.

But the Board of Elections (and, subsequently, the Court of Appeals) disagreed, ensuring that Spiva’s gambit paid off and forcing McDuffie out of the primary race. That leaves the contest pretty much wide open, considering Schwalb, Spiva, and the final contender, solo practitioner Ryan Jones, are still generally unknown across D.C. It’s all the more challenging to suss out because the candidates agree on so many of the major issues, with each one arguing that they’d broadly continue Racine’s work in the office.

Schwalb would seem to have the advantage by virtue of Racine’s backing and his strong fundraising, helping him buy plenty of ads and mailers highlighting his connection to Racine, who, by all accounts, remains a generally popular and well-known figure in D.C. politics. He has struck out plenty of progressive positions to keep those on the left side of the spectrum happy (his desire to use the office to cut down on traffic deaths is a big plus for some) but his focus on public safety in his messaging is clearly meant to reach more moderate voters too.

Spiva seems to be gunning for the more purely progressive lane. He’s quickly consolidated support from a variety of unions and other left-leaning organizations, largely based on his background trying tenants’ rights and consumer protection cases. Both Schwalb and Spiva have plenty of corporate experience from their Big Law days, but Spiva looks to have a longer resume of litigating on behalf of regular people to give progressives confidence. Schwalb has plenty of pro bono work in his past, but it doesn’t seem to have resonated in the same way.

Yet Schwalb has one very powerful talking point to hold over Spiva: He’s embraced the city’s public financing program, while Spiva is raising money the traditional way (and generally self-funding his campaign). For some on the fence, that distinction makes a difference.

Spiva must also contend with potential backlash from voters who’d planned to back McDuffie and resent him for pushing their favorite out of the race (and Schwalb has generally tried to remain above the fray so as not to get tied too closely to that mess). Of course, Spiva’s also picked up support from lefties eager to see McDuffie, long cozy with business interests, pushed aside, so maybe that’s a non-factor. Some politicos suggest McDuffie’s backers could just avoid picking a candidate entirely and leave that section of the ballot blank, always a concern for candidates struggling for name recognition.

McDuffie has hinted that he’s considering endorsing in the race, but he’d probably have to do so soon to make an impact. Jones, in particular, says he’s been making a pitch for the councilmember’s support, but even that endorsement doesn’t seem likely to elevate him from his current status as a distant third in the race.

The upside to all the courtroom drama is that it’s driven attention to an extremely consequential race. There aren’t that many officials elected citywide in D.C., and the new AG will have a big role to play in deciding what the office even looks like moving forward.

Should it continue with Racine’s more headline-seeking cases against tech companies, for instance, or focus on more local matters? Should it carry out Racine’s new policy of becoming involved in zoning cases to advocate for more affordable housing, even though it’s a novel approach for the city? Soon enough, we’ll find out.

Other stories you might have missed

Kenyan McDuffie Suspends AG Bid, Promises to Keep Fighting. But How?

Bruce Spiva is the First D.C. Candidate to Hit the Airwaves. Will It Be Enough to Juice His AG Bid?

Candidate fast facts

Ryan Jones

Title: Founder, RLJ Law

Age: 36

Neighborhood: Brightwood

Key endorsements: Former councilmember (and current Ward 5 candidate) Vincent Orange

Most interesting questionnaire answer: Jones told the Post he wants to reduce “violence by juveniles 100 percent,” though it’s unclear how he’ll define that metric or what timeframe he’ll use.

Brian Schwalb

Title: Partner in charge of Venable’s D.C. office

Age: 54

Neighborhood: Chevy Chase

Key endorsements: Attorney General Karl Racine, former Attorney General Irv Nathan, Washington Post editorial board, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen

Most interesting questionnaire answer: Schwalb told the Ward 7 Democrats that “experience and qualifications matter,” citing language from D.C.’s attorney general statute that ultimately sank McDuffie’s candidacy, though he later said he believes McDuffie should’ve been allowed to stay on the ballot.

Bruce Spiva

Title: Former managing partner, Perkins Coie

Age: 56

Neighborhood: Crestwood

Key endorsements: Activist and former Council chair candidate Ed Lazere, Sierra Club, Jews United for Justice campaign fund, Laborers’ International Union of North America, Baltimore Washington Laborers’ District Council, 32BJ SEIU

Most interesting questionnaire answer: Spiva told Axios he would seek to avoid adding to the school-to-prison pipeline and “decline to prosecute disciplinary issues that should be dealt with by administrators and teachers.”