FRANK FRITZ, EQUAL JUSTICE DIRECTOR
Note: The comments expressed here are solely the opinions and observations of the author and do not reflect any position of, nor constitute an endorsement from, the George Washington University Roosevelt Institute.
Less than a week after GW Roosevelt Institute and GW Students for Sensible Drug Policy’s student Forum on Initiative 71 with representatives from the Yes and No Campaigns, the GW College Democrats hosted a candidate forum for the new elected office of DC Attorney General.
In a 2010 city charter amendment, DC voters opted to directly elect their Attorney General, the city’s top lawyer. The Attorney General is currently appointed by the Mayor, and many voters felt a more independent office was needed to tackle issues such as corruption. While the council delayed the first Attorney General election for 2018, a court overrode this decision, finding that it the city was capable of holding elections this fall and therefore must do so.
The race for Attorney General could hardly be more undecided, with an October 16 poll showing 57% of likely voters undecided (see chart 1). The panel was an excellent opportunity to hear firsthand why each campaign thought their candidate should be elected.
Karl Racine’s campaign was the first to speak. His literature touted his endorsement from the Washington Post, which stressed his 25 years of experience practicing law, management of a large firm (comparable in size to the DC Office of Attorney General), and record of community service. In addition to his service as legal counsel in the highly litigated second term of Bill Clinton, Racine was the first African American managing partner of a Top 100 law firm. His representative eagerly discussed his background, being born to Haitian immigrants and living in the District since the age of two. His representatives also noted that Mr. Racine has been financially successful in his career, being able to lend his own campaign $225,000, and would not apologize for that fact regardless of the accusations of his opponents.
Mr. Racine holds two major advantages beyond his Washington Post endorsement: a campaign war chest about double that of his closest opponent and the top spot on the ballot. Mr. Racine did not seem to have much popular support, being tied for last at 5% of likely voters, however due to his other major advantages and 57% of the electorate undecided, many observers and the other campaigns treat him as the frontrunner.
“Smitty” - Edward Smith
The campaign of Edward Smith, running as “Smitty,” was quick to compliment all but one of the other campaigns for Attorney General. The Smitty team hit a populist note, playing to the base of the GW College Democrats and Democrats of the District of Columbia, and spent most of its time attacking Karl Racine and trying to pose himself as the only alternative choice. They discussed how Smitty was born and raised on the other side of the Anacostia, in a low income family and worked his way to get a degree from Harvard law. Smitty’s campaign notes that Racine, a Democrat like all five candidates, does not mention the Democratic party a single time in his literature, while Smitty worked early on in the 2008 campaign to elect the first African American president. The Smith campaign blasted Racine’s massive fundraising for the election and his donations to Political Actions Committees that have supported Republicans, including Ted Cruz. Smitty’s campaign is trying to present him as the Democratic alternative to the big money, corporate financed, status quo candidate they see in Karl Racine. His platform was more briefly discussed, but it centered around juvenile justice and consumer advocacy and protection.
In his favor, Smitty has several standard Democratic endorsements, such as the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club of DC and the AFL-CIO, and is the best financed opposition to Racine, just beating out Lori Masters. Factors working against him include his young age and relative lack of experience, especially with specifically relating to DC.
Ms. Williams was the first candidate to represent herself at the forum. While she was running second in the crowded fielding according a Washington Post poll, she notes that she is an underdog due to a fundraising disadvantage. Ms. Williams posed herself as the most grassroots candidate, noting her work after graduating from Georgetown Law in union organizing with the ATU Local 689 (Metro’s largest union), serving as President of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club (which endorsed Smitty), and many positions in the Democratic Party. She has raised less than $20,000, which is one-fifth of the money of her nearest opponent, Mr. Zukerberg, and acknowledges that her largest contribution to the race might be simply shifting the overall discussion towards more community based issues.
Ms. Williams is by far the most idealistic of the candidates in the race, running on a social justice themed platform, that seeks to promote worker’s rights, gender and LGBTQ equality, Juvenile Justice, and DC Statehood. She does have the benefit of being listed second on the ballot for Attorney General, and many of the College Democrats at GW expressed interest in volunteering for her campaign, ever after she had left the forum early.
The Masters’ campaign sent two representatives, both of whom spoke highly of her progressive record as a lawyer and her work ethic that made her a leader in her office and in her community. Her 30 years of experience as a lawyer and manager are only rivaled by Mr. Racine’s, and The Washington Post placed her in the top tier of candidates to fill the position. Her campaign stressed the wide spectrum of legal issues that Ms. Masters has tackled during her time as an attorney, ranging from insurance issues, discrimination, voter disenfranchisement, and international human trafficking. The representatives noted that Ms. Masters, unlike Mr. Smith and Mr. Racine, has worked and volunteered her time with issues that are specific to the District of Columbia.
The campaign acknowledged that Masters, a white woman, is unlikely to win the African American vote over Misters Racine and Smith (both African American), but a strong third place showing in the predominately Black Wards 7 and 8, which have low turnout, could allow her to win if she can win in the predominately white, high turnout Ward 3. Her experience and fundraising do seem to indicate that she is a serious contender with so many voters undecided.
Mr. Zukerberg, arriving late, hit very populist notes discussing his many past efforts to improve the District of Columbia. The Washington Post found that the Adams Morgan lawyer was one of the most qualified in the field, alongside Ms. Masters and Mr. Racine. Mr. Zukerberg ran for the Council’s At-Large Seat, but is now running to be the first elected Attorney General. He discussed his leadership in suing the City Council for delaying the Attorney General election until 2018; after three appeals a court ruled in favor of Mr. Zukerberg, moving the election to this fall.
Mr. Zukerberg also discussed his long time efforts to decriminalize marijuana and his advocacy for students in DC public schools. He stressed that while he did not have the fundraising advantage of “K Street money,” he was the most independent candidate, which would allow him to tackle government corruption head on. The Washington Post poll found that as of early October, he was the only candidate with double digit support, but it is difficult to know how undecided voters will break this fall.
For more information:
The DCist- Interview with all five Candidates
If you would like to volunteer for a campaign, you can find their information below.
More Candidate Information:
Karl Racine: Website - Financial Report
Edward “Smitty” Smith: Website - Financial Report
Lateefah Williams: Website - Financial Report
Lorie Masters: Website - Financial Report
Paul Zukerberg: Website - Financial Report
How to register to vote in the District of Columbia, including through same day registration.
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