The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In reshaped D.C. attorney general’s race, candidates vie to stand out

From left, Democratic D.C. attorney general candidates Bruce V. Spiva, Ryan Jones and Brian Schwalb. (, Ryan Jones, Brian Schwalb campaign)
10 min

When Eric Jones sees neighbors who still have signs in their yards supporting Kenyan R. McDuffie for the District’s next attorney general — even though the former candidate was disqualified from running weeks ago — he stops to talk.

“We’re having these same conversations: What do you do now?” Jones said. “Because folks really don’t know.”

Jones, who advocates for the interests of landlords and property owners as a vice president of the Apartment and Office Building Association, thought McDuffie would be the best choice to replace outgoing Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D).

But that was before McDuffie, a Ward 5 council member who had been the top fundraiser in the attorney general’s race, was deemed ineligible to run by the D.C. Board of Elections after another candidate filed a challenge against him.

Yet McDuffie’s presence has loomed over the contest despite his absence, and with just weeks to go until the June 21 Democratic primary, his supporters have struggled to discern which of the remaining candidates — Brian Schwalb, Ryan Jones or Bruce V. Spiva — should be their second choice.

Some voters say the three men’s platforms and policies are so similar that it’s hard to decide among them; others, such as Christopher Macchiaroli, say they are simply refusing to vote after McDuffie’s exit.

“I am not going to be forced to consider candidates who I ultimately did not support,” said Macchiaroli, a law firm partner and former D.C. prosecutor. “I backed one horse and I’m staying with that horse.”

Longtime Brookland activist Verna Clayborne said some of McDuffie’s supporters may be waiting for him to endorse; in mid-May, when he endorsed Faith Gibson Hubbard as his successor in Ward 5, McDuffie did not rule out backing a candidate in another race.

D.C. elections: Where the Democratic attorney general candidates stand

In an interview Wednesday, McDuffie said each of the remaining attorney general candidates asked for his endorsement in the past few weeks, although he hasn’t decided whether he’ll endorse in the race or whom to back. Jones says he’s sought out McDuffie’s endorsement for more than a year and tried to do so again recently; spokespeople for Schwalb and Spiva said they have also had recent conversations with McDuffie, seeking both his support and to tap into his knowledge of the community.

“A lot of people who wanted to vote for me, their emotions are ranging from being upset, to disappointed, to really unsure about how to move forward,” McDuffie said. “People should certainly vote in this election, and they should vote for the candidate who uses the law as a tool to open the doors of justice and opportunity for residents, particularly those with unmet needs.”

But some of McDuffie’s ardent backers, including Clayborne, are sure of one thing: They are unlikely to vote for Spiva, a former managing partner at the Perkins Coie law firm who successfully argued that McDuffie did not meet the minimum qualifications to run for the office.

That point was echoed by Anacostia attorney Donovan Anderson, who has found it challenging to pick between Schwalb and Spiva, the two candidates he now views as the front-runners. He said he might write in McDuffie’s name instead.

“I don’t believe I’m going to vote for the individual that had [McDuffie] disqualified,” Anderson said. But he also says Schwalb, partner-in-charge of the Venable law firm’s D.C. office, is overpromising in his six-point plan to address crime. “I have no idea what I’m going to do.”

Heated moments

Last month, at a debate hosted by the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, the most contentious moment arose when Schwalb claimed he was not supportive of Spiva’s effort to remove McDuffie from the ballot. In April, after a panel of D.C. Court of Appeals judges upheld the election board’s decision that McDuffie was ineligible to run, Schwalb tweeted that the result was disappointing and asserted his campaign “had no part in trying to prevent him from being on the ballot.”

“We don’t necessarily want or need an attorney general that makes every argument just because he or she thinks it can be won,” Schwalb said of the challenge at the debate. “I think we want somebody who exercises judgment.”

Spiva shot back: “To wait until the argument was over and then to make that [Twitter] statement? Mr. Schwalb is my friend, but again, that’s not leadership.” He maintained that he did the right thing in scuttling McDuffie’s campaign and he has said frequently that the challenge wasn’t personal. “I don’t think it’s divisive to raise an issue of qualifications that the council put in place and that the people put in place for a reason,” Spiva added.

Political observers say Spiva and Schwalb have an edge over Jones, who started his own legal practice in 2014 and has comparatively lagged in fundraising. But after that, they say, meaningful differences in policy are less clear between the two, who were in the same Harvard Law School graduating class.

A guide to the 2022 D.C. Democratic primaries

Schwalb and Spiva both have spoken highly of Racine — who endorsed Schwalb and overlapped with him at Venable before he became the District’s first elected attorney general — and have referenced community-oriented approaches to advancing Racine’s initiatives regarding consumer protection, tenant rights and addressing what they both describe as the “root causes” of crime.

Spiva has repeatedly called the attorney general’s office the city’s “largest public interest law firm,” citing his background as a civil rights attorney and his time spent advocating D.C. statehood. He’s earned endorsements from several left-leaning groups, including the Sierra Club and Jews United for Justice Campaign Fund, and from liberal leader Ed Lazere. 32BJ SEIU, a property services union with more than 20,000 workers in the D.C. area, said in May that it would back Spiva after originally endorsing McDuffie.

Schwalb, meanwhile, has touted his work recruiting, training and mentoring a large team of lawyers at Venable and often mentions his breadth of experience, which ranges from prosecuting civil tax matters as a trial attorney for the Justice Department to handling pro bono cases involving police misconduct. In addition to Racine, he has been endorsed by The Washington Post’s editorial board (which is separate from the news operation), several labor unions and Irvin B. Nathan, the District’s last appointed attorney general.

Whether the candidates are using the city’s public financing, which prohibits large donations and matches contributions from D.C. residents, has also emerged as a rare point of contention. Schwalb and Jones opted in to the program; Spiva did not. At last month’s debate, Spiva defended his choice, explaining that it allowed him to loan his campaign money and noting that he pledged not to take contributions from developers.

But Schwalb said that wasn’t good enough. “Part of judging who brings judgment and discretion to this is to look at the decision we’ve made as candidates,” he said. “One of us chose to participate in the program and one didn’t.” Spiva, in turn, criticized Schwalb for accepting small-dollar donations from people who work for him at Venable and from business owners.

Spiva’s decision to reject public financing left a negative impression on Lorenzo Sanchez, a self-described progressive voter from Petworth who said he also closely examined each candidate’s stances on transportation and traffic safety. Sanchez liked that Schwalb has talked about aggressively enforcing traffic laws in a way that Spiva has not emphasized. Jones, meanwhile, has argued that speeding cameras are too sensitive and has said the city should focus more on rewarding good drivers.

“Schwalb has been more at the forefront on transportation,” Sanchez said. “On crime and housing, I didn’t see a lot of differences in their platforms on those issues.”

‘They basically sound the same’

Edward Ungvarsky, a criminal defense attorney who plans to vote for Spiva, said he thinks the policy differences between Spiva and Schwalb are more acute now than earlier in their campaigns, especially in the realm of crime. While both candidates have advocated more spending on violence intervention, Ungvarsky said Schwalb’s emphasis on holding repeat offenders accountable is more akin to a “law and order” approach to the job than Spiva, who he has heard talk more about keeping young people out of the criminal justice system altogether.

“That language especially matters because their primary involvement in the legal system is juveniles,” Ungvarsky said. (Because D.C. is not a state, the attorney general primarily prosecutes juvenile offenses while the U.S. attorney for D.C. handles most serious crimes by adults).

Those supporting Jones, meanwhile, say they’ve appreciated his focus on residents in underserved communities and those who have had negative experiences with the city’s judicial system. Jacque Patterson, the at-large representative on the D.C. State Board of Education, is supporting Jones in part because of his local connections — he earned his master of laws degree from George Washington University Law School before starting his own firm in the District.

But Patterson also liked that Jones has been less enthusiastic than other candidates when asked if he would continue to pursue the high-profile lawsuits Racine has brought against companies such as Amazon.

“It’s nice to do things that take on a federal profile, but how will you make an impact on D.C. residents? That’s what I was looking for,” Patterson said. “With the attorney general, it can be hard to wrap one’s mind around what they do and how exactly they serve D.C., so when they try and separate themselves, they basically sound the same.”

D.C. attorney general hopefuls debate; McDuffie off ballot, offstage

Efforts to pull disagreements out of the candidates have even been a flash point in forums and debates. More than an hour into a debate hosted by the D.C. Bar last month, an exasperated moderator asked: “What is the difference between you and your opponents?”

A week later, at the debate hosted by the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, the candidates offered limited insight into their differences.

The men put forth a few unique ideas, such as Spiva’s plan to focus on increasing compliance with child support obligations — including offering job counseling to parents so they can get work that lets them pay what they owe — and Schwalb’s vow to boost the office’s focus on reckless driving. Jones and Spiva said they support having police officers in schools in some cases, while Schwalb said he supports the council’s recent decision to remove police from schools.

But the candidates’ answers to many other questions, such as how they would balance the jobs of defending city agencies versus looking out for malfeasance, or how they would improve conditions at the troubled D.C. jail, were nearly identical.

When offered the chance to ask one another a question at the debate, for example — a chance to highlight policy differences — only Schwalb opted to do so, eventually settling on this question for his opponents: “Where are we going for beers?”