It was astonishing to learn during a recent forum that two of the five candidates vying to become the District’s first elected attorney general were a tad confused about the job. They seemed unaware of changes taking place in the agency.
Effective Oct. 1, more than 100 lawyers who had been under the attorney general’s control began reporting to agency directors, and their work now is coordinated through the newly created Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel, as mandated by legislation the D.C. Council passed last year. The attorney general’s budget also took a $28 million hit, according to an agency spokesman.
Still, the candidates are not unimpressive. Voters may want to focus primarily on Karl Racine, Lorie Masters and Paul Zukerberg, however. Each brings the kind of muscular experience necessary for the job. Also running are Edward “Smitty” Smith and Lateefah Williams.
Aside from dealing with the challenge of reconstructing an office that the council, in a fit of myopia, stripped of critical resources, the new attorney general must aggressively pursue perpetrators of waste, fraud and abuse. The person who wins must launch not just consumer protection lawsuits but also fight to secure better government services, including higher-quality and more equitable public schools, for District residents. Equally important, in my view, the new attorney general should push the federal government to gain more prosecutorial authority.
On the campaign trail, Racine, Masters and Zukerberg have agreed that the city’s juvenile justice system needs reform; the attorney general’s office should act as a bully pulpit to advocate for D.C. statehood; and, where possible, effort should be made to work collaboratively with other elected officials.
The candidates’ management background may be the factor that separates them.
How much does that matter?
“Voters care whether the person can be the steward of more than 400 lawyers and a $100 million budget,” Racine told me. He boasts of a 25-year career that included a stint in President Bill Clinton’s administration and in the District’s public defender’s office. He is on leave from his duties as managing partner of Venable LLP, a firm with more than 600 lawyers and a $350 million budget. Racine called himself an “excellent lawyer” and an “accomplished leader” with the “vision to achieve the office’s objective.”
Some people with whom I spoke said they worry that Racine’s establishment bona fides portend an attorney general too cozy with elected officials and other influential players. “Neither Venable nor any Venable client would be my client,” he told me, dismissing the criticism. “I [would] have one client, and that’s the public’s interest. I would fight as hard as I possibly could to bring results that benefit the public interest.”
Did anyone expect a different answer? But Masters and Zukerberg aren’t so sure management is as important as Racine would have voters believe.
Masters has 30 years of litigation experience, primarily related to insurance, which she said includes “a multitude of things” — disability rights, securities violations, product liability and environmental protections. She has provided free legal services around predatory lending, construction defects in homes in Anacostia, election law, health insurance, breaches of contract and child custody. She, too, has been a managing partner for a law firm, albeit one smaller than Venable.
“There is a lot more to managing than just how much money is in the budget,” she told me. “I’ve been in all eight wards of the city. People want someone who can call out secret deals, call out corruption. They think it’s really imperative for us to focus on this.
“The office can be used as an independent check on the mayor and council,” added Masters.
Zukerberg, a seasoned private-practice lawyer, echoed those sentiments. He lacks the management background of Masters or Racine. Still, he has a good chance of winning on Nov. 4. A recent poll conducted for Racine showed Zukerberg as the top contender in the race.
He gained residents’ respect when he sued the city after it sought to delay the election. He won that legal battle on appeal. This week, Masters sought to set the record straight noting that she was part of the committee responsible for getting the initial elected attorney general and the more recent budget autonomy charter amendments before voters. She said she also “secured pro bono” lawyers to battle the council when it decided to delay implementation of the attorney general measure. “I was there from day one,” she added in a prepared statement issued Wednesday.
Most residents don’t remember her role, however. They see Zukerberg as the champion. “If I had not done that, who would take the trouble of putting forth a charter amendment again?” asked Zukerberg, adding that citizens’ ability to make laws is a “hugely important right.”
Some residents favor Zukerberg because he helped lead the successful push to decriminalize marijuana possession in the District. He also won what he characterized as one of the “largest judgements” in the city’s history against a private contractor for “willful failure” to pay wages. Those are the kinds of things he said “the AG should have been doing,” instead of leaving it to private citizens.
Still, how does someone go from solo practitioner to leader of an agency with hundreds of lawyers? Zukerberg suggested that he would retain the attorney general’s current operations chief. “What critics are afraid of is that I’m going to manage a little too well,” he said.
“The underlying purpose of the law is to improve people’s lives,” Zukerberg continued. “That’s the heart and soul of the position. It’s not shuffling papers from one pile to the other.”
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