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Brian Schwalb wins D.C. attorney general primary, AP projects

Schwalb was endorsed by outgoing attorney general Karl Racine; he said in an interview that he is not ‘Karl part two’

Brian Schwalb. (Schwalb campaign)
5 min

Brian Schwalb, who was endorsed by the outgoing D.C. attorney general, won a three-way race for the Democratic nomination for the office late Tuesday, according to an Associated Press projection.

Schwalb, a partner in charge of Venable’s D.C. office, beat out lawyers Bruce V. Spiva and Ryan Jones.

“I think the people of Washington were responding to the fact that I was spending most of my time listening to them, out there in all of the wards, listening to what people want from their government,” Schwalb said in an interview. “They saw me as a politicians who is not really a politician.”

Spiva said in an interview with The Washington Post that he had conceded, seeing no “realistic path.”

Said Jones: “We took a big swing, and the people spoke for what they wanted the most. They voted for Brian Schwalb.”

One of the biggest challenges for the candidates was distinguishing themselves from the others, particularly because of the standard, narrow responsibilities of the office.

Schwalb, 54, often spoke of his legal experience and his desire to reduce crime with the limited tools of the office. Spiva, a former Perkins Coie managing partner, spoke of his years as a civil rights attorney and working as an advocate for criminal justice reform. In addition to touting his experience in civil and criminal cases, Jones, a solo practitioner, tried to appeal to native Washingtonians by describing how he grew up in the city and witnessed firsthand how the criminal justice system often unfairly affected residents, particularly Black residents.

The D.C. attorney general, whose office includes more than 700 attorneys and staffers, is responsible for enforcing the District’s laws through civil and criminal work and providing legal advice to city agencies. The attorney general’s office prosecutes juvenile offenses and adult misdemeanor cases. The more serious crimes committed by adults — or juveniles 16 or over who are charged as adults — are handled by federal prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office in the District.

The office is being vacated by Karl A. Racine, the District’s first elected attorney general, who announced in October he would not be seeking a third term. Racine (D), who was first elected in 2015, sought to transform the scope and personality of a job that for decades was considered an important yet low-profile position appointed by the city’s mayor.

Racine had endorsed Schwalb, a Harvard Law-trained attorney from his former firm. In announcing his endorsement, he had cited Schwalb’s experience defending a diverse portfolio of clients, his legal judgment, and his interest in wage theft issues and uplifting city youth.

Schwalb’s win comes after an unusual turn of events that shifted the course of the race: In April, one of the leading candidates was ruled ineligible to run.

Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), a former prosecutor and one of the longest-serving members of the D.C. Council, initially emerged as a front-runner when he launched his attorney general campaign last fall. But in March, Spiva challenged McDuffie’s qualifications with the D.C. Board of Elections, arguing that District law required a person in the attorney general’s job to have been “actively engaged” in the city as a practicing attorney, judge or law school professor for at least five of the 10 years before taking office.

He asserted McDuffie ceased practicing law when he was elected to the council in 2012. The Board of Elections sided with Spiva and determined McDuffie — who had been the top fundraiser in the race — was ineligible to run.

Although Spiva’s challenge eliminated one of his top opponents, it also ignited some criticism from voters. After McDuffie chose not to endorse anyone, some said they planned on writing his name in as their vote in protest. Spiva, though, said he doesn’t believe alerting the Board of Elections about McDuffie played a role in his apparent loss.

“I want to work with councilman McDuffie, and I have gotten a lot of support from people who are former supporters of him; I don’t think it played a role at all,” Spiva said. “I think what played a role was that Racine endorsed his former law partner.”

Schwalb disputed that. “I’m not Karl part two. Karl has set a foundation that we have to build on, but we still have a lot of work that he hadn’t gotten to do yet,” he said.

McDuffie had chosen not to seek reelection for his Ward 5 seat when he began running for attorney general, and his political future is now in question.

Racine, too, seems to have uncertain political prospects.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and police officials had at times criticized what they deemed Racine’s softer approach in dealing with juvenile crime, especially youths involved in car jackings and armed robberies. His prosecutors often routed such youths to diversion programs, where they received treatment for behavior issues, stress and unrecognized trauma. A spokesman for Racine, though, insisted that diversion is not offered if police provide enough evidence that the offense was violent.

“There has to be some balance. For youth where this is their first time they are involved in crime, yes, diversion programs are warranted,” D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III said in an interview. “But some juveniles are using theses crimes to graduate into more violent crime. Juveniles are showing up and committing crimes like never before and they need to be held accountable. The residents of the District should be getting the accountability they expect.”

Joe Heim and Nazmul Ahasan contributed to this report.

This story has been updated with D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine’s response to criticism that he had taken a softer approach in dealing with juvenile crime, particularly in the use of diversion programs