The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amid Trump’s legal woes, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine enjoys the limelight

D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, seen in his office Thursday, has been quick to challenge President Trump in the courts. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Three years into his first term as the District’s first elected attorney general, Karl A. Racine was looking for a way out.

Racine’s mother, a D.C. resident in her early 80s, had suffered a debilitating stroke. Doubtful that he could balance life as an elected official with his duties as a caregiver — but wary of leaving before the job of establishing the attorney general’s office was done — Racine went to his chief deputy, Natalie Ludaway, with a request: Run in my place.

“I would have been thrilled had she said that she was interested,” Racine, a 56-year-old Democrat, said in a recent interview of Ludaway, who confirmed the conversation took place. “I would have gotten out of this business to focus on my mom.”

Ludaway said no. Rather than retreating from public life, Racine was set on a course that would land him in a spotlight on the national stage — culminating this past week in a heavily publicized exchange with President Trump at the White House.

Trump’s calling out of Racine by name during an address to the National Association of Attorneys General was a mark of arrival for Racine, who had a low profile even among his own constituents just two years ago. A June 2017 poll by The Washington Post found that more than 7 in 10 District residents had no opinion of him.

Combined with prominent legal actions or investigations involving the Trump administration, Facebook and even the Catholic Church, Racine’s brief verbal volleys with the president illustrated a dynamic taking shape at the outset of his second term.

In addition to receiving more votes than any other elected official — including Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) — in the District’s general election in November, Racine is also increasingly cutting a figure in national politics, especially in an era when Democratic attorneys general are gaining newfound celebrity thanks to ceaseless court battles with the president.

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Racine considered challenging Bowser — who won reelection last year without serious opposition — and still expresses interest in the mayor’s job.

But the D.C. attorney general’s seeming ease with such attention has some wondering whether his ambitions now range beyond the John A. Wilson Building.

Speculation increased Thursday, when Racine endorsed Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D) for the Democratic presidential nomination. (Racine recently told Politico he would consider serving as U.S. Attorney General in a hypothetical Harris administration.)

Racine told The Washington Post that he remains focused on his current job — first and foremost on the office’s work on juvenile justice and consumer protection — and that he continues to care for his mother, who emerged from a coma months after her September 2017 stroke but still struggles.

He said his early experience as a star athlete had accustomed him to the kind of attention he’s now receiving. At the University of Pennsylvania, which he attended in the early 1980s, Racine was captain of the basketball team and was twice named the team’s most valuable player, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian.

“To be honest with you, I was somewhat prepared for recognition,” he said.

But he said his experience in sports had also taught him not to be a glory hog.

“I’m a point guard,” he said. “We definitely like to win games. We pass the ball. That’s how you become popular and the captain — because you’re looking out for the team, not for yourself.”

Racine immigrated to the United States from Haiti at age 3 and rose to the pinnacle of Washington’s high-powered private legal establishment before entering politics full time at age 51. Observers of the District’s political scene say he has always been underrated. His low profile may be attributed in part to the fact that he has almost entirely avoided scandal, no mean feat within his city’s political class.

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“He is the most interesting individual to come out of local D.C. politics since Adrian Fenty,” said D.C. political strategist Chuck Thies. Fenty, a former D.C. mayor, ran as a young reformer and overhauled the city’s troubled public schools, only to be voted out after a single term because of political missteps.

But unlike Fenty — or Fenty’s protege, Bowser — Racine may ultimately prefer not to run a city, Thies said.

“It’s not often you see people take a step back into a smaller spotlight,” he said. “And going from being the attorney general who sues Trump, who sues Facebook, who’s on the morning shows, who’s on MSNBC, to being mayor of the District of Columbia is a step back, in terms of the political spotlight.”

Racine said he will not run for a third term as attorney general and could foresee either a return to the private sector or continued public service at the national or local level.

He said the idea of being mayor still appeals to him, in particular the chance to improve social services in a city whose feverish development boom has amplified long-standing racial and class divides.

“I don’t want to be mayor to further develop the city. That’s not what I’m into,” he said. “I’m all about human services.”

Racine’s entry point into local politics from Venable LLP — a top law firm where he had become the first African American managing partner after earlier stints as a public defender and as associate counsel in the Clinton White House — was less than glamorous.

When he won the first election in the city’s history for attorney general in 2014, he took over an office that had previously been known as “corporation counsel” for the District. For decades, it had been under the mayor’s control and had earned a reputation for sometimes Dickensian inefficiencies.

“There were massive problems of things being not handled in a timely manner and the litigation responsibilities of the office not being adequately handled,” said Paul Zukerberg, a criminal-defense and personal-injury lawyer who ran against Racine in 2014.

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Under Racine, the caliber of the office’s legal work has improved markedly, Zukerberg said, as the attorney general has recruited into top roles power attorneys such as Gary Kohlman, a prominent litigator who left his position as general counsel for the National Basketball Players Association to join Racine’s office last year.

“I’m totally impressed,” Zukerberg said, “and I was an opponent of his.”

Racine said his office’s most important work since it became independent has involved revising the juvenile justice system, specifically the expansion of court diversion program for young offenders, who are prosecuted by the attorney general. (The U.S. attorney’s office in the District handles adult felony prosecutions.)

He has also cracked down on landlords such as Sanford Capital, a company whose extensive network of apartments for low-income tenants drew scrutiny for squalid conditions. The attorney general’s office sued Sanford and last year announced a settlement in which the company agreed to withdraw from the city’s housing market.

But it is Racine’s pursuit of bigger quarry that has upped his national profile.

In 2017, he joined Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh in suing Trump, alleging that foreign payments to the Trump International Hotel violate anti-corruption clauses in the Constitution.

That was followed last year by the opening of an investigation into sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Washington and by a lawsuit against Facebook over alleged breaches in users’ privacy — the first such action by U.S. authorities. And last month, Racine became the third state or federal law enforcement official to subpoena Trump’s inaugural committee in a probe of how it raised and spent money.

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Those actions were the backdrop for the bizarre back-and-forth between Racine and Trump this past week. While speaking to the state attorneys general from both parties at the White House, Trump complimented Racine while discussing the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice bill the president signed in December.

“Karl — I feel like you’re — like I know you,” Trump said.

“I feel like I know you as well, Mr. President,” Racine said from the audience, a line that brought a burst of applause.

Such forays could be seen as distracting from the day-to-day responsibilities of the D.C. Attorney General’s Office.

“When he first filed some of the federal and national suits, there was definitely some questions that got asked about whether or not this would in any way distract from or take resources from all the work he has to do at the local level,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), whose Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety oversees Racine’s office.

But Allen said he has seen no indications that the headline-making lawsuits have come at the expense of more mundane work. And he said Racine’s poise among his peers from other states brings credit to the District and to the cause of D.C. statehood.

“I think we all benefit by having an attorney general who can walk on the national stage,” Allen said.

Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.

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