D.C. Council will not resurrect attorney general election


Failure to elect an attorney general in 2014 would represent a setback for Chairman Phil Mendelson. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The chances that D.C. voters will be voting for an attorney general this year are looking increasingly dismal.

A last-ditch attempt to put the city’s first AG election on the November ballot was derailed Tuesday, after D.C. Council members balked at a bill that would mandate an unusual all-comers voting process for the city’s top legal official.

The bill — introduced by Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who had previously voted with the council majority to delay the initial attorney general vote to 2018 — would have allowed candidates of all parties to gain access to the ballot by circulating nominating petitions later this year. The process would be akin to that used for special elections to fill vacant offices.

But several members objected to the plan at a council breakfast meeting Tuesday, including at least one member who previously voted against the delay. Cheh acknowledged after the meeting that the votes were not there.

“It’s dead,” she said. “There’s no way to revive it.”

The only hope now for an election before 2018 is a lawsuit being waged by lawyer and former attorney general candidate Paul Zukerberg that is now before the D.C. Court of Appeals. Lower courts have ruled against Zukerberg, and it is unclear what steps the high court would take to provide relief even if it found in Zukerberg’s favor.

On Tuesday morning, council members lodged several objections, including the timing, the nature of the nominating process and the lack of a runoff. The crucial opinion against the bill came from Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who had previously opposed the 2018 delay and serves as chairman pro tempore: “I think we do a disservice to people to try and force it through in November,” he told his colleagues.

Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) led the effort to put a charter amendment to voters in 2010, which called for the attorney general post to become an elected office after 2014. But the council, over Mendelson’s objections, voted to delay the initial vote to 2018, citing concerns about the office’s responsibilities and a lack of declared candidates. Mendelson did not say how he would handle Cheh’s bill Tuesday, but several members expected him to pull the bill from consideration before a scheduled vote.

Adding to the headwinds was a letter from Mayor Vincent C. Gray delivered to the council Tuesday morning, strongly hinting that he would veto the bill were it to hit his desk. Overriding that veto would require the council to muster two additional votes in favor of the proposal.

Gray’s objections largely echoes those leveled by sitting Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan earlier this year — that the Cheh bill does not comport with the requirement that the AG election be “partisan,” i.e., preceded by a party nomination process, whether through primaries or otherwise. Proceeding with the Cheh bill, Gray wrote, would “place the first elected Attorney General on dubious legal footing and threaten to create serious credibility and legitimacy problems for that Attorney General and the office.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · April 8