D.C. attorney general election is unlikely this year, as council opposes voting process

The chances that D.C. voters will choose an attorney general this year are increasingly slim.

One more attempt to hold the first election of the city’s top legal official in November was derailed Tuesday after D.C. Council members balked at a bill that would mandate an unusual all-comers voting process.

The measure — introduced by Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who previously had voted with the council majority to delay the initial vote for attorney general to 2018 — would have allowed candidates of all parties to access the ballot by circulating nominating petitions later this year. The process would be akin to the one 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 who previously voted against the delay. Cheh acknowledged after the meeting that the votes are not there.

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

In another council development Tuesday, lawmakers signaled that, in the wake of a vote last month to decriminalize marijuana for personal use, they are ready to greatly expand access to medical marijuana in the nation’s capital.

The council unanimously introduced legislation that would remove the small list of chronic illnesses that qualify residents to legally purchase marijuana at the city’s handful of dispensaries.

The measure would set a new blanket standard for access to anyone in the District with “any condition for which treatment with medical marijuana would be beneficial, as determined by the patient’s physician.”

D.C. is home to one of the strictest medical marijuana laws in the country. At a hearing late last year, advocates said the city’s pioneering dispensaries were losing money, doctors feared writing prescriptions and patients with HIV or cancer who are permitted to obtain the drug had been stymied by lengthy applications and warnings that the purchases remain illegal under federal law.

Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), chairman of the Health Committee, wrote the legislation introduced Tuesday. She said she was moved by the testimony last fall of parents of young children with severe forms of epilepsy who may benefit from the use of a liquid form of the drug not currently produced in the District.

Scott Morgan, a spokesman for Capital City Care, a dispensary with 95 customers approved under the city’s laws, called the expansion exciting. “We’ve heard from many patients with PTSD and epilepsy who are eager to participate,” he said.

The council on Tuesday also gave initial approval to legislation that would create one of only a handful of public breast milk banks on the East Coast. The city would establish a “lactation commission” to promote the use of breast milk, which lags significantly for infants in the city’s poorest wards, east of the Anacostia River. The bank would accept donations and parcel them out to parents in need of milk. Breast milk banks screen donors and treat the milk for safety.

As for the attorney general election, the last hope for one before 2018 may be a lawsuit 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. It is unclear what steps the high court would take to provide relief even if it found in his favor.

Council members lodged several objections Tuesday morning, 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. “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 be elected 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 quietly pulled Cheh’s bill from consideration before a scheduled vote.

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

Gray’s objections largely echo those leveled by Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan earlier this year — that the Cheh bill does not comport with the requirement that the attorney general election be “partisan,” that is, 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.”

A 2016 election would not be permitted under the charter amendment, which prescribes that the attorney general be chosen in the same cycle as the mayor and council chairman.

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.
Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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