The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C.’s first elected AG leaves behind transformed office, unfinished fights

Karl A. Racine in his D.C. office in December, on his last day as attorney general. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
14 min

The District’s first-ever elected attorney general hurtled toward his last day in office with the relentlessness of a man whose work remains unfinished.

The last-gasp lawsuits and 11th-hour settlements didn’t leave much time for self-reflection. But as Karl A. Racine gazed out his office’s floor-to-ceiling windows at the city beneath him, a rare flood of emotion overtook him.

“I have so many mixed feelings about this,” he said. For 10 seconds, he paused.

Outside the room where he sat, the department’s first-ever restorative justice division conferred. Beyond that, towering silhouettes of construction cranes dotted the horizon. The distant sound of sirens drifted past.

Racine, 60, had spent the previous eight years at war with some of the most intractable forces in D.C., chief among them gun violence and unrelenting gentrification. He remade an agency that for decades was under the mayor’s control; stood up new departments focused on environmental and restorative justice; recouped more than $135 million in penalties, restitution and other payments for consumers; and took on developers, Big Tech, ghost gun manufacturers, abuse in the Catholic church and President Donald Trump.

But Racine’s legacy — and whether it can endure in the face of worsening citywide crises — remains unclear.

The department Racine remade will continue on the path he set, propelled partly by staff he hired, under his endorsed successor, Brian Schwalb — a lawyer from Racine’s former law firm who has vowed not to be “Karl Part Two.” But some of the issues Racine spent two terms trying to subdue have only intensified. His departure comes at a time in the District when concern is growing about carjackings and shootings involving juveniles, when inexorable development is displacing Black and low-income families, and when homeless encampments remain a constant, visible reminder of the area’s affordable housing crunch.

“I know the impact we’ve had — with intensity and ferocity and an unwillingness to ever back down,” Racine said. “I know as a human being it’s time to turn the page and throw all of my energy and passion and intensity into something else. So that’s what I’m going to do.”

Karl Racine says he will not run for mayor nor seek elective office

Racine declined to run for a third term or seek higher office last year, despite months of suggesting he might challenge Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) for the mayorship. Instead, he switched teams — announcing his new job last week at the international law firm Hogan Lovells, representing corporate clients who are being pursued by state attorneys general.

“Nothing I do will be inconsistent with honest disclosure to consumers and standing up for vulnerable residents,” he told The Washington Post.

But the move ends Racine’s time in elected office for good, he said. It also marks a notable shift for a man who spent nearly a decade fighting developers and corporations on behalf of the city’s most vulnerable.

Power struggles

Racine, who immigrated to the District from Haiti as a child, worked as a public defender in the city shortly after graduating law school and later became a managing partner at the high-profile Venable law firm. His successful campaign for attorney general in 2014 meant transforming an agency that for decades was known as the District’s “corporation counsel” — a nod to its primary responsibility of defending the mayor and city government agencies.

But a 2010 ballot referendum that codified the D.C. attorney general’s independence also included a new charge for the office to act in the “public interest” — a mandate that Racine cited repeatedly while testing the limits of his office. In his first term, Racine recruited top lawyers and created new divisions focused on consumer protection and public advocacy; he also launched an effort to rework the city’s justice system for juveniles, whom his office is responsible for prosecuting. (Because D.C. is not a state, adult felony prosecutions are handled by the U.S. attorney’s office.)

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Racine’s early years were marked by struggles over power. In 2015, within four months of their first terms in office, Bowser proposed legislation that would have lessened Racine’s legal authority, leading each to accuse the other of “power grabs.” The quarrel set the tone for their relationship.

“It was an open question about how things would work with an elected attorney general in the city when we had the corporation counsel for 100 years or so,” said Bob Spagnoletti, a former appointed D.C. attorney general who served between 2003 and 2006. “Karl handled it very well: earning the office credibility, defining his scope of responsibility and powers and navigating what everyone knew would be a tricky relationship with the mayor.”

Racine’s office says it saved D.C. taxpayers more than $3 billion by defeating lawsuits brought against the city government. His consumer protection work, meanwhile, included actions against companies such as DoorDash, Grubhub and Instacart.

“As a public defender, [Racine] has that unique perspective on those in society who are considered the ‘have nots’ but are entitled to the same equal protection under the law,” said Randy Zelin, a New York-based trial attorney and professor at Cornell University.

Major lawsuits and investigations that Racine pursued against Trump, Amazon, Facebook and the Washington Commanders helped boost his profile. In 2020, he was elected to lead the National Association of Attorneys General, where he led a bipartisan initiative to address rising levels of hate crimes and extremism nationwide.

After taking on Trump, D.C. attorney general turns focus to hate and extremism

“Karl’s greatest accomplishment has been doing more affirmative litigation to improve the lives of citizens, housing cases, consumer protection cases and holding companies accountable, with some success,” Spagnoletti said. “But more importantly, he put big companies on notice that we’re a jurisdiction that has three-quarters of a million people and they have to be responsive to us; you can’t just ignore us.”

A ‘whack-a-mole’ of housing problems

Racine made it hard for landowners to ignore even the poorest residents in the city.

Fighting the creep of luxury development and the displacement of Black families is not traditionally the work of an attorney general’s office. But during his 2014 run, Racine said, families he met at rallies begged him to do something to combat the gentrification facing their neighborhoods. Native Washingtonians who were driven into Maryland volunteered for his campaign.

Gentrification in D.C. means widespread displacement, study finds

These conversations stuck in Racine’s mind — and inspired one of his first campaign mailers. “You live here,” it said. “You should be able to afford to stay here.”

One such ad landed in the mailbox of former D.C. “mayor for life” Marion Barry, who was so struck by it that he called Racine in the middle of the night.

“You just won the election,” Racine said Barry told him. “That’s the best damn mailer I have ever seen. Now, how are you going to achieve that?”

Racine aimed the office’s consumer protection division at negligent landlords and property managers, making the case that tenants are customers, too, and are not being provided services when a building is crumbling or a property isn’t secured. It was a novel argument at the time, experts said, one that had rarely been deployed by state attorneys general.

Racine also dedicated parts of the social justice and civil rights divisions to fighting housing discrimination and pushing for the enforcement of laws around lead paint and mold. He repeatedly asked judges to seize control of properties from bad landlords and managers.

In late 2021, Racine created a new branch of his office focused on land use, to challenge other government agencies’ decisions on how D.C. is zoned and properties are used. To do this, Racine had to end the attorney general’s long-standing role as a confidential adviser to the city’s zoning agencies, a move that Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) fought for five years.

Other cities have sought to replicate some of the public interest arguments the D.C. attorney general’s office has made in housing cases. In 2020, Racine initiated a multistate advisory group of attorneys general to share strategies on affordable housing issues — a group that the D.C. office continues to co-lead. Racine’s lawyers have been invited to law schools across the country to lecture on their work. By the end of his second term, Racine had assigned more than a dozen lawyers to work on housing cases; most of them, he said, will stay on under Schwalb.

Will Merrifield, who runs the nonprofit Center for Social Housing and Public Investment, watched Racine’s work up close in the years-long fight against Sanford Capital, one of the District’s most notorious landlords. It was a “classic case of displacement” in a transforming neighborhood, Merrifield said, and, at first, he did not have high hopes about the attorney general’s office getting involved.

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“I’m usually pretty cynical about the way that government oftentimes fails people,” said Merrifield, who unsuccessfully ran for the D.C. Council in 2020. “Racine’s office understood that there was a broader scope in this case and didn’t try to make a quick fix or get something settled quickly. … His office wanted to get underneath and solve the root issues.”

Racine’s office successfully sued Sanford Capital for violating D.C. consumer protection laws by not maintaining adequate living conditions for tenants, failing to meet housing and fire codes and misrepresenting the property as safe and habitable. A judge ordered the landlord — which had built a sprawling network of more than 1,300 apartments in at least 20 D.C. buildings and collected millions in taxpayer dollars through affordable housing programs — to pay its former tenants $1.1 million in back-rent and to dissolve ownership of all of its D.C. properties.

Some, though, criticized Racine’s office as overzealous.

A historic Black church says D.C.'s attorney general is pushing it out of Shaw. The church's tenants say it's a slumlord.

In February 2021, the attorney general’s office sued New Bethel Baptist Church, a historic Black church, charging it with forcing at-risk, low-income seniors to live in unsafe conditions at the apartment building the church owns. The Rev. Dexter Nutall, the church’s pastor, accused Racine’s office of trying to push New Bethel to sell its property and surrender to the forces that have transformed Shaw from a majority Black neighborhood into an area in which less than 20 percent of residents identified as Black in the 2020 U.S. Census.

Suing landlords for violating the Consumer Protection Act gave Racine’s office the ability to hold them to the promises they made tenants — and try to get restitution for residents if services and adequate living conditions were not being provided. But soon, Racine said, it “became abundantly clear that we were playing, in a way, a game of whack-a-mole.”

Yet Racine kept playing it. In his final days on the job, Racine entered into a first-of-its-kind settlement with a property owner that guarantees that a derelict Ward 5 apartment complex will be fixed up and preserved as affordable housing for the next 25 years, regardless of who owns the building.

Still, the District’s affordable housing crisis accelerated throughout Racine’s term. Prices — both for renters and for buyers — increased over the course of Racine’s term by roughly 30 percent, according to real estate groups. As Racine fought landlords and fought to ensure Black residents could remain in their homes, the District’s Black population fell by almost 10,000.

Today, D.C. is no longer majority Black.

Clashes over crime

On his way home from the office, an errand, anywhere, Racine makes a point of stopping at a gas station to fill up the car. He does this often, he says, never allowing the gauge to dip far enough that his partner might have to stop with their kids strapped into the back seat. The stories of violent carjackings in the District — a crime that has spiked more than 200 percent since 2019 — haunt him.

“I don’t want [my partner] or anyone I know to be at the wrong gas station at the wrong time,” Racine said. “We’re afraid like everyone else.”

Congressional Republicans, who frequently decry public safety in the District, called Racine “soft” on crime during his tenure, criticizing his approach that focused on crime’s root causes and juvenile rehabilitation. In 2022, D.C. police said, nearly 70 percent of carjacking arrests involved juvenile offenders — though Racine and some criminal justice advocates have argued that’s in part because juveniles are more likely to be caught.

After violence, D.C. officials demand ‘accountability.’ Defining it is harder.

During his first term, Racine established an office of restorative justice, as well as separate programs to lower truancy and keep kids off the streets. The office aims to bring together the victims and perpetrators of an alleged offense, with the hope the offender can make amends and all parties can grow from the incident.

“I’ve seen kids, literally at the decision point — that fork in the road: ‘When I die at 20, I’ll have this kind of casket’ or ‘I’m going to the Boys and Girls Club again,’” Racine said. “That’s where kids need direction, recognition, support and continuity. Our juvenile system didn’t do that before.”

Zelin, the Cornell law professor, said the restorative justice program stands out among Racine’s initiatives because many attorneys general have been reluctant to embrace such an approach, for fear of being labeled as weak.

D.C. leaders discuss keeping teens out of crime, and victimhood

Racine’s office said it completed 215 restorative justice conferences over seven years, involving 155 crime victims. Though violent crime overall dropped 7 percent in D.C. in 2022, the number of juveniles arrested for committing violent crimes rose through October compared with the previous year, as did the number of juveniles killed by gunfire, according to police data obtained by The Post.

Concerns around youth violence and deterring repeat offenders reached a fever pitch ahead of last year’s election, despite the fact that juveniles only make up about 7.5 percent of arrests in the city. It’s an issue that has continued to vex the city and its leaders, including Racine.

As Bowser campaigned for a third term as mayor, she and Racine publicly battled again, this time over public safety.

Racine frustrated the mayor by announcing in late 2021 that his office would no longer represent the city’s corrections department in matters related to a federal probe regarding conditions at the D.C. jail. In a letter to residents about violent crime a month later, Bowser urged them to hold local prosecutors, including Racine, accountable; Racine defended his office’s record of prosecuting juveniles and accused Bowser of “finger pointing.”

D.C. Council overrides mayor’s veto of controversial new criminal code

It’s not yet clear whether Schwalb’s relationship with Bowser will be any smoother. In one of his first public statements as attorney general — hours after Bowser revealed her plans to veto the D.C. Council’s overhaul of the city’s criminal code — Schwalb made clear that he thought it was the wrong move.

“The bill will improve public safety and provide long overdue clarity and fairness in our justice system,” Schwalb tweeted. What had been passed by the council, he said, “should be the law of the District.”

It seemed, almost, like something Racine would have said.

Emily Davies contributed to this report.