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Is Kenyan McDuffie DC’s next top lawyer?

Ward 5 DC Council member Kenyan McDuffie is in the proverbial political catbird seat. He is the legislature’s chair pro tempore; chair of the powerful Committee on Business and Economic Development, holding sway over significant financial issues; and owner of a somewhat impressive legislative record, including enactment of proposals over which some progressives swoon — campaign finance measures, criminal justice reform, and economic and racial equity initiatives.


So, why choose not to run for reelection? Why go all-in to become DC’s second elected attorney general?



McDuffie says he didn’t enter public office to be “a career politician.” Rather he aspires to be a public servant: “The highest honor and privilege anyone could ever have [is] when people entrust their vote and confidence in you to lead.


“I don’t think by pursuing a different office that I am in any way giving up on my desire to continue to serve [DC] residents,” he continues. “It’s just doing it wearing a different hat, if I’m fortunate to be elected.”


That’s no ordinary five-dollar baseball cap, however. The AG leads a massive public law firm with well over 500 employees, including 275 lawyers and 300 other professional staffers. As currently structured, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) has 10 divisions, including Public Advocacy, Public Safety, Civil Litigation and Family Services. It flaunts a nearly $147 million budget. It also has a settlement fund from which it draws for various programs and projects.

Understanding the size and reach of the agency, some of McDuffie’s critics have already declared he lacks the gravitas for such a post. They argue that either Natalie Ludaway or Elizabeth Wilkins — two OAG veterans mentioned as possible candidates — would be a more suitable replacement for DC AG Karl Racine.

After seemingly auditioning over the past year for an appointment in President Joe Biden’s administration without any luck, Racine decided not to run for a third term. Ludaway was Racine’s deputy attorney general from 2015 until last year when she joined Crowell & Moring LLP. Wilkins served as Racine’s chief of staff before being plucked for the role of senior adviser to the White House chief of staff. It’s unlikely that either Ludaway or Wilkins will choose to retread their career even for the big boss seat.


McDuffie smiled when I repeated the criticism of his skill set during our Sunday morning Zoom interview. He praised Racine for establishing “a very solid foundation [that] we can build upon,” and commended his leadership in the Democratic Attorneys General Association and the National Association of Attorneys General. “Ultimately, however, residents want to know that the attorney general has their best interests at heart and that they have a community-facing agency that works on behalf of the nearly 700,000 residents in the District,” McDuffie said.


Then, for the naysayers, McDuffie unloaded his resume and bona fides as a native Washingtonian who, among other things, saw the city through the prism of the difficult decades of the 1980s and 1990s. He talks about struggling to get through college but graduating summa cum laude from Howard University.


“I know what opportunity looks like. So, when people are working in the Public Safety Division in the attorney general’s office and prosecuting juveniles, and having to make these determinations around restorative justice, I bring direct practical experience to bear in my leadership as a council member, as I would do similarly as the attorney general of the District of Columbia.


“When somebody like little Nyiah Courtney gets shot and killed at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE and Malcolm X Avenue SE, I don’t have to use a navigation system to get to that intersection; I know it. I played basketball and football at No. 11 Boys and Girls Club, competing when I played at a rival club across town,” McDuffie said, noting that he also played at the Boys and Girls Club in Columbia Heights near the notorious Clifton Terrace Apartments.


“I bring that personal experience, but also professional experience as a former prosecutor, as a former civil rights attorney at the Department of Justice, where I traveled the country with teams of professionals, investigating nursing homes, jails, prisons, juvenile justice facilities,” continued McDuffie.


At the Justice Department, he also probed the practices at various police departments ”to determine whether they were engaging in unconstitutional misconduct and whether there’s a pattern or practice of unconstitutional activity within those departments.”


“I think it’s going to be difficult to see another candidate who brings my unique experience, qualifications, perspective, and my intimate understanding of the [District] and its people,” he added.


Interestingly, McDuffie may bring more DC-specific knowledge than did Racine when he first ran. Then, he was a managing partner at Venable LLP, one of the top DC law firms. He had been an associate White House counsel during President Bill Clinton’s administration and a public defender. Racine spent $250,000 of his own money in that first campaign to overcome the challenge of limited name recognition, charges that he was an elitist, and questions about his community connections.


McDuffie’s council tenure began in 2012; he’s pioneered diverse legislative proposals including use of police body cameras as well as campaign finance reform affecting contributions from limited liability corporations (LLCs), “You’ll recall the days where people who owned multiple LLCs would donate from every single one of those LLCs to campaigns and really had an outsized influence on our politics. That’s one of the things, amongst many other things, that I addressed in my comprehensive campaign finance reform legislation back then,” he reminded me.


In 2016, he persuaded his colleagues to approve the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act, which aggressively advances the concept of community violence as a public health issue using prevention teams and enhancing the involvement of mental health specialists. That legislation authorized the Office of Violence Prevention and Health Equity, which has never been established as envisioned — which is part of the problem with implementation of that law, McDuffie asserted. More recently, he pushed through passage of the Racial Equity Achieves Results Act (REACH) Act, which created legislative and executive offices with racial equity missions; as of last year, both branches of government are required to assess all public policies and programs through a racial equity lens.


Those remain controversial laws. I am no fan of the racial equity act, and I have raised concerns about the expansion of the violence prevention programs without objective evaluation of their effectiveness. I expect McDuffie as AG would present proposals to which I would object.


McDuffie — who announced his candidacy last week and filed Office of Campaign Finance paperwork on Tuesday — declined to discuss any specific changes he might champion; he wants to complete and distribute a series of white papers first. He did offer, however, that he may expand the agency’s work around environmental justice. “I have prioritized environmental justice within my office at the council and will do so if elected attorney general.


“It isn’t that the government is intentionally discriminating against certain communities in order to try to do harm. I think it is the government doing the same thing over and over again, and not really being sensitive to the impact on certain communities.


“The result has been to have trash transfer stations and asphalt plants, salt domes, heavy equipment associated with garbage trucks, all concentrated in certain communities,” said McDuffie. “That kind of environmental injustice has gone on for too long. It’s up to people in elected office to stop doing things over and over again that disproportionately negatively impact certain communities, particularly Black and brown communities.”


I was surprised by the confidence he exuded during our conversation and his command of issues key to the OAG. Is he likely to win?


Initially, he had only one opponent, Ryan Jones. That changed over the past month with several others jumping into the race including Bruce Spiva and Brian Schwalb . Depending on who else enters the race, McDuffie’s biggest obstacle may be name recognition. Attempting to move from ward council member to citywide official isn’t an easy wingspan to perfect. Do folks in Ward 3 know him, for example?


He reminds me that as a young man he was a mail carrier, working out of the Friendship Heights Station on Wisconsin Avenue NW. “I know the neighborhoods around Spring Valley and Tenleytown and Forest Hills because I delivered mail in those communities. I went to Woodrow Wilson High School. I still have friends who live in parts of Ward 3 and Ward 2 and Ward 4.”


He smiles: “I’m going to be the people’s attorney general.”




A version of this article was originally published at TheDCLine.org

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