D.C. attorney general candidates say hello as first campaign starts taking shape

D.C. attorney general candidates say hello as first campaign starts taking shape

By Mike DeBonis, Washington Post, September 8 at 7:56 PM

The first campaign for District attorney general eased into motion Monday morning, with the five candidates taking turns introducing themselves to an influential crowd of lawyers, activists and media.

The event, sponsored by D.C. Vote, was in the Capitol Hill offices of a corporate law firm, Jones Day. But the five Democrats running — Lorie Masters, Karl Racine, Edward “Smitty” Smith, Lateefah Williams and Paul Zukerberg — each sought to highlight their commitment to serving residents through consumer protection litigation and by rooting out corruption in government.

Until now, District voters have been served by attorneys general appointed by the city’s mayors. A charter amendment approved by voters in 2010 converted the office to an elected position, and the D.C. Court of Appeals earlier this year turned back an attempt by the D.C. Council to delay the first election, which will be Nov. 4.

The attorney general’s duties include providing legal advice to city officials and defending the city in litigation. But much about the posture of the elected office will be determined by the first person to hold it. For more than two hours, each candidate took questions from Shelley Broderick, dean of the University of the District of Columbia’s law school, as well as audience members.

Masters, 59, said her background as a high-stakes litigator for insurance beneficiaries put her in good stead to represent the public interest. “Whether I’m representing individuals or companies, I’ve really been fighting for a consumer-oriented result in those cases,” she said, before highlighting her advocacy for D.C. voting rights and autonomy.

If elected, Masters said, she will focus on government transparency issues and greater “self-determination” for the city.

Racine, 51, spent much of his time describing his professional qualifications, including a stint as deputy White House counsel and as managing partner of the Venable firm.

He said he would focus on enforcing lightly enforced laws governing city contracting and affordable housing, and that matters of ethics and accountability would be a high priority. “They want D.C. politicians to be four times better than politicians from other states,” he said of city residents, referring to the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell. “Can you imagine what would happen if our governor and our first lady . . . were convicted on more than two dozen criminal charges?”

Zukerberg, 56, a solo practitioner who waged the court battle that overturned the council’s delay, said he would help young people being ill-served by the criminal justice system. A proponent of marijuana decriminalization, Zukerberg said he would pursue a “restorative justice agenda” that would allow nonviolent criminals to have their records more easily expunged or sealed.

Zukerberg was also critical of previous attorneys general. “I have not seen someone in my 30 years in that office where I can tell you, ‘Gee, I love that person, and I love what that person did,” he said. “They are not representing the public interest.”

Williams, 37, said she would take a more community-based approach and focus on “vulnerable constituencies” — a tack inspired by her career in political and policy jobs rather than in law practice.

“My experience is diversified,” she said, referring to work for the union representing Metro workers and a long record of activism on gay and lesbian issues. “But my bread and butter has been in the community.”

Smith, 34, described going from a childhood in “one of the roughest areas of the city” to Brown University and Harvard Law School, then to President Obama’s campaign and a series of legal jobs in the federal government.

“I want to work on efficiency and helping people build their skill sets,” Smith said of his goals for the office. He also pledged to establish a task force on “autonomy issues” in the District. “My family has lived here since the 1940s; not once have we been able to vote for a voting representative in Congress,” he said. “For me, D.C. voting rights and autonomy are very personal issues.”

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