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To say that Attorney General Karl Racine and developer Geoff Griffis don’t much care for each other is an understatement.
The pair spent years tangling in court, in a case that ultimately cost Griffis the chance to redevelop a prime property above the Congress Heights Metro station. But this litigation got a bit uglier than your average real estate dispute, as Racine argued that Griffis was moving to buy the property only after its former owner, notorious slumlord Sanford Capital, had allowed conditions there to deteriorate in a bid to force out residents.
“I naively thought Karl Racine would be happy” once Sanford turned over control of the property, Griffis sniped in an interview with DCist earlier this year. “I never saw any reason that [he] should have continued any sort of litigation against me,” he added, yet Racine was able to use legal action as leverage to bring in new developers and force out Griffis’ CityPartners.
Racine framed this fight as a bid to slow down displacement in the city, but it probably didn’t hurt that Griffis is close to Mayor Muriel Bowser (he’s donated plenty of money to her campaigns and she rewarded him with a 2015 appointment to an influential planning commission). The rivalry between Bowser and Racine is legendary in D.C. politics circles.
With all that history in mind, Loose Lips couldn’t help but cock an eyebrow upon noticing Griffis getting prime placement on a flyer advertising a recent fundraiser for Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie’s at-large bid (which was passed along by a helpful tipster). Griffis and fellow CityPartners executive Greg Faron are listed among the Sept. 8 gathering’s “hosts,” who chipped in $1,000 each, along with a crop of other familiar names in D.C. development circles. McDuffie also benefited from big checks from lobbyist David Wilmot and other Bowser favorites in the building world including Monty Hoffman, Thomas Penny, Austin Flajser, and Ben Soto. Developer (and twice-failed Council candidate) Marcus Goodwin was also listed as one of the fundraiser’s hosts, though he told LL after this article was published that he did not give any money to McDuffie.
It’s par for the course to see generally pro-business candidates like McDuffie taking money from folks like this, but Griffis’ history makes him a more notable association than most, especially because McDuffie had hoped to step into Racine’s shoes as AG, only to see those hopes dashed by Bruce Spiva’s ballot challenge.
So LL called up Racine to see what he thought of Griffis’ continued involvement in city politics on McDuffie’s behalf. His sharp response is about what you might expect for a man who doesn’t figure to be running for office again anytime soon. Racine says Griffis has been “at the center of displacement” of “brown, Black, senior, and lower income residents in the District of Columbia.”
“If I were a candidate, I would not take a dime from him,” Racine tells LL. “Because that risks telling the public that you’ll take any money and that you’re actually supportive of his displacement efforts. So I’m surprised that candidates willingly embrace him. I think it says less about Griffis than it does about the candidates.”
Racine can only claim a bit of the high ground here, as he accepted a $1,000 campaign donation from CityPartners in his 2014 race (several years before the Congress Heights court battle). And it’s worth mentioning that Griffis, who did not respond to a request for comment, also cut a $200 check to Racine’s preferred candidate in the attorney general primary race (and eventual Democratic nominee) Brian Schwalb back in August. Griffis’ other contributions this cycle, however, cut against Racine preferences and the rest of the city’s left flank. He gave $2,000 to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, $50 to Eric Goulet in Ward 3, and $50 to Faith Gibson Hubbard in Ward 5. He threw in a $50 check to Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who was running unopposed, just for good measure.
Still, a subtle dig at McDuffie, who also did not respond to requests for comment, makes sense for Racine, given his preferences in the at-large race. He backed At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman in her tough re-election bid four years ago, and Racine says he plans to endorse in the race yet again. He’s not willing to spill the beans on who he’s supporting just yet, but it’s not exactly a mystery how he’s leaning.
“I’m going to endorse a candidate who’s actually worked really hard for regular people and has passed legislation that protects regular people,” Racine says. “And that’s passed legislation and otherwise supported workers, including workers who are oftentimes disadvantaged, taken advantage of by their bosses. A candidate who is about workers is a candidate that’s going to get my endorsement.”
You can remove one at-large candidate from the running for Racine’s support: Democratic nominee and At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds.
“I agree with most people who say Anita Bonds is a wonderful human being,” Racine says. “I think it’s time for a change.”
Racine declined to elaborate on that anti-endorsement, though he’s probably a bit late to make much of a difference. With a big “D” next to her name, Bonds is probably a sure thing to win one of the two at-large spots up for grabs this fall, even after a less-than-impressive win in the primary. Silverman, McDuffie and the other independents in the race are likely fighting over one seat, unless D.C. voters surprise everyone by not rotely backing the Democrat on the ballot.
But it is still notable to see Racine taking a whack at Bonds, another Bowser ally, when he doesn’t necessarily need to.
He’ll be leaving the political scene in a few short months (a return to private practice seems most likely for a guy who will surely be in high demand among the city’s white-shoe law firms), but he won’t be going out quietly. Racine wasn’t able to take down Bowser this year, but he’ll likely add two more of his endorsees to the Council and get his preferred successor in his old chair. Why not throw your weight around and try and win a few more chits in this messy at-large race?
Correction: A previous version of this article stated Racine has not taken any donations from Griffis. It’s been updated to reflect that he received a 2014 donation from CityPartners.