A prominent white-collar litigator and a longtime Democratic activist entered the race to become the District’s first elected attorney general Thursday, doubling the field and easing fears that turmoil surrounding the election would repel qualified candidates.
Karl A. Racine, a partner at the Venable law firm, and Lateefah Williams, a political consultant, picked up nominating petitions Thursday morning. Both are Democrats and have roughly a month to collect 3,000 voters’ signatures to qualify for the Nov. 4 general election.
Racine’s entry comes a day after Mark H. Tuohey, also a prominent defense lawyer at a major firm, announced that he was leaving the race — thus avoiding a duel between two lawyers deeply embedded in the city’s legal establishment. Tuohey endorsed Racine as the better candidate to assume the city’s top legal job.
The first-ever election of the attorney general was mandated through a charter amendment voters ratified in 2010. The D.C. Council sought to delay the first election until 2018, but the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled last month that the election must take place this year.
That uncertainty had lawmakers and other political observers wondering if the race would attract candidates from the city’s legal elite with sufficient gravitas to assume the high-stakes job.
Much like Tuohey, Racine brings a considerable legal and political pedigree to his candidacy. He was born to Haitian immigrants in Port-au-Prince and came to the District at age 3. He became a basketball star at public and private schools before attending the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia School of Law.
Racine, 51, is a former managing partner of Venable who also did stints in the District’s Public Defender Service and as an associate White House counsel during President Bill Clinton’s second term.
“I think it’s very important, given that this is the first time that the public will elect an attorney general, that [he or she] have the experience, passion and understanding of the history of the District of Columbia,” Racine said Thursday. “And I’ve got the fire in the belly to participate in public service.”
His most prominent connection to District politics came during the investigation and prosecution of former D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr., a Democrat who pleaded guilty in 2012 to stealing city funds earmarked for children’s sports programs. Racine was on Thomas’s defense team.
At sentencing, Racine argued that Thomas’s good works and acceptance of responsibility should result in a shorter sentence. Thomas was given a 38-month sentence, shorter than the 46-month term prosecutors sought.
On Thursday, Racine made no apologies for his work on Thomas’s behalf, saying he “needed counsel to represent him zealously.” Speaking about possible critics on the campaign trail, he said, “I would represent them if, God forbid, they made significant mistakes, errors and violated the law.”
Racine said that if elected, he would focus on consumer litigation and also try to expand the powers and jurisdiction of the attorney general’s office. Currently, the office has limited subpoena power and prosecutes only misdemeanor crimes by adults. Felonies are handled exclusively by the federal Justice Department.
Williams, a 37-year-old Georgetown Law graduate, announced her candidacy after pondering her eligibility for the office. Under city law, the attorney general must have been “actively engaged . . . in the practice of law” in the District for at least five of the prior 10 years unless employed as a judge, law professor, or federal or D.C. government employee.
After holding policy and legislative jobs in recent years — as legislative and political director for the union representing Metro employees and as counsel to the Prince George’s County delegation to the Maryland Senate — Williams said she was concerned she might not qualify under the statute.
But Williams said Thursday that she was confident of her eligibility, although the D.C. Board of Elections will make a definitive review if she collects sufficient ballot signatures.
A former president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, a prominent gay political group, Williams said she wanted to bring “diverse perspectives” to the campaign. “The race needed somebody with strong community ties,” she said. “I didn’t see anybody who had that sort of perspective.”
Paul Zukerberg, the Adams Morgan lawyer who waged a months-long legal campaign to put the office on the ballot this year, and Edward “Smitty” Smith, a former federal lawyer, are also seeking spots on the ballot. Another lawyer, Lorie S. Masters, an insurance litigator for Perkins Coie, said Tuesday that she is still weighing a run.