Bennett Rushkoff, top deputy to D.C. attorney general, seeks office in Maryland

Bennett Rushkoff is the first city employee taking advantage of a new law permitting workers to seek partisan political office. (Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)
Bennett Rushkoff is the first city employee taking advantage of a new law permitting workers to seek partisan political office. (Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)

Last year, the D.C. Council moved to loosen the restrictions that had long barred most city employees from running for partisan public office. The change put the District in line with most states, which allow their employees to pursue elected positions — with tight rules, of course, against politicking on government time or with government resources.

Now a high-ranking D.C. government attorney has become the first to take advantage of the new law — by running for office in Maryland.

Bennett Rushkoff has spent the past 15 years working for the Office of the Attorney General, directing the city’s public-interest and consumer-protection litigation from his office in the One Judiciary Square building downtown. These days, he’s spending no small amount of time on one-hour breaks from his job, managing his campaign for a House of Delegates seat from the building’s food court.

Rushkoff, 55, is facing incumbents Kathleen M. Dumais, Aruna Miller and David Fraser-Hidalgo in the pick-three delegate race in District 15, which covers a broad swath of western Montgomery County, including parts of Potomac, Germantown and Rockville, as well as much of the Agricultural Reserve area.

It was his experience working in D.C. government that help inspire Rushkoff, a 55-year-old father of two living in North Potomac, to seek public office. Before coming to the D.C. attorney general’s office in 1998, he previously worked for the attorneys general of Missouri and Maryland, handling matters like establishing do-not-call lists for telemarketers. He was recruited to D.C. by John Ferren, the then-Corporation Counsel (as the attorney general was known until 2004), to re-establish a public advocacy department in the city’s legal office.

Rushkoff’s work in D.C. government has regularly made headlines, even if he has typically played a behind-the-scenes role as chief of the public advocacy section. He led the investigation that resulted in serious civil allegations against former D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr., ultimately resulting in his 2012 guilty plea to federal theft charges. He was also part of a major crackdown on used-car dealers initiated by former Attorney General Peter Nickles and efforts to prevent foreclosure abuses. Those episodes are referenced in Rushkoff’s campaign literature; he does not mention other high-profile matters that are still underway, including the Options Public Charter School lawsuit, the investigation into gas mogul Joe Mamo’s competitive practices and the long-running effort to collect back sales taxes from online hotel bookers.

He also worked to curtail “payday lending” — high-interest, short-term loans aimed at desperate borrowers — a crusade that was ultimately resolved with D.C. Council legislation essentially banning the practice. That experience inspired him to look at a political career: “I thought: My goodness, in a short amount of time I was able to bring about more consumer welfare than in bringing dozens of cases,” Rushkoff said in a recent interview, in the food court.

More recently, Rushkoff spent time in Annapolis, lobbying in the State House alongside members of his church on issues such as legalizing same-sex marriage, repealing the death penalty and combating global warming. That, he said, gave him confidence that he could be as effective in the halls of Annapolis power as he could be in legal pleadings. And some political machinations — a statewide redistricting, a state senator’s move to pursue higher office — convinced Rushkoff that his time had come.

But had the District’s old laws been in place, Rushkoff could not have kept his job and pursued public office. Now, with the new law, the blessing of Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, careful attention to ethical strictures and a number of major endorsements, Rushkoff appears to have a good shot at winning a Democratic nomination on June 24.

If he does win the nomination and win again in November, Rushkoff says he plans to take a yearly leave of absence during Maryland’s three-month legislative session. His success might also embolden other city employees to pursue political runs, perhaps next time in the District itself. Rushkoff said he has had to work closely, given the importance and sensitivity of his professional duties, with ethics counselors to work through his campaign.

It should be easier, he said, for the next candidate: “You don’t have a manual to look at. …I feel like I’m blazing a trail for people to follow.”

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 · May 27