On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
On Oct. 8, the five Democratic candidates vying to become the District of Columbia’s first elected attorney general meet for a debate hosted by American University’s Washington College of Law (AUWCL) and WAMU’s “The Kojo Nnamdi Show.” The contenders take legal questions from professor Jamie Raskin, director of AUWCL’s Program on Law & Government, and political questions from WAMU’s Michael Martinez, producer of “The Politics Hour” and — of course — Kojo himself. This program was pre-recorded and edited to run in time allotted.
- Paul Zukerberg Democratic Candidate, Attorney General, District of Columbia
- Lateefah Williams Democratic Candidate, Attorney General, District of Columbia
- Karl Racine Democratic Candidate, Attorney General, District of Columbia
- Edward "Smitty" Smith Democratic Candidate, Attorney General, District of Columbia
- Lorie Masters Democratic Candidate, Attorney General, District of Columbia
Featured Video Clips
The five candidates for D.C. attorney general share the subject of their law school application essays.
The candidates discuss Initiative 71, which would legalize marijuana in the District.
Watch The Full Debate
D.C. Attorney General Candidates’ Kojo Show Appearances
A playlist of the five D.C. attorney general candidates’ interviews on “The Politics Hour” and WAMU 88.5 debate.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU's Black Box Theater in Washington, D.C. welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show's," D.C. Attorney General Forum presented in partnership with American University's Washington College of Law. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis year district voters will mark their ballots for attorney general for the first time ever as the position moves from an appointed office to an elected one. All five Democratic candidates vying for the job are with us, Lorie Masters, Karl Racine, Edward "Smitty" Smith, Lateefah Williams and Paul Zukerberg. Please.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd here to put them through their paces are our panelists. Jamie Raskin is the director of the program on law and government at American University's Washington College of Law. Jamie also serves as a state Senator in Maryland representing Silver Spring and Tacoma Park. He is here this evening however as a legal scholar rather than an elected official. Jamie Raskin, welcome.
MR. JAMIE RASKINThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd WAMU 88.5's own Michael Martinez. He's a producer for "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" and the producer of the Politics Hour. Michael Martinez, welcome.
MR. MICHAEL MARTINEZThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDINow, I turn to Jamie Raskin for our first question.
RASKINIn some states the AG's an appointed civil servant who never even runs for office. In others the AG is on a fast track to running for governor, which is why a lot of people call the National Association of Attorneys General the National Association of Aspiring Governors. As the first elected attorney general for the district, you will be in a unique position to define the character of your role and your function in your office. Do you define the attorney general's office as a legal office, political office or something in between? And why don't we start with Lateefah, if we could.
MS. LATEEFAH WILLIAMSWell, first of all, I'm happy to be here. Thank you for the question. I define it as a legal office. I think the office of attorney general, particularly as you noted, this first attorney general is going to have a lot of sway in how the office is defined in the future. So for me I think it's utmost important for this first attorney general to be someone who is community oriented and who is focused on representing the residents of the District of Columbia and representing their legal needs.
MS. LATEEFAH WILLIAMSI mean, yes, there are going to be some political aspects to the position like, of course, I think it would be helpful and, I mean, I think it's actually necessary to have a productive and good working relationship with the mayor and the council and other elected and appointed officials. But at the same time, I'm very clear that this is an independent attorney general elected by the people. So I would not be beholden to any other elected official. And my charge is to represent the interests of the people of the District of Columbia, their legal interests.
NNAMDIBut to the extent that it is an office for which you will be running and the extent to which if one of you wins you will probably want to run for re-election, Karl Racine, does that not make the position in and of itself political?
MR. KARL RACINEWell, Kojo, I think, you know, your question is right in the sense that the office, by definition now is a political office in the sense of how the attorney general gets his job. And I think it's a good thing that the attorney general must be accountable to the citizens of the District of Columbia. I do however want to underscore what Ms. Williams said, and I think said well. And that is that this job is fundamentally a lawyer's job. It's a lawyer's job because the mayor and the council are the ones who are fundamentally concerned about issues of policy. The lawyer's job is to follow the law and to make sure that the citizens' interests are absolutely protected under the law.
MR. KARL RACINEAs attorney general, that's what I'm going to do. I did that when I was a public defender representing people who had no ability to afford a lawyer. I followed the law and represented my clients at the White House Counsel's office when I worked for President Clinton and Hillary Clinton and the White House staff. I followed the law and led and managed a significant law firm, one of the largest law firms in this country, Venable, 600 lawyers, 1350 employees, over $350 million budget.
MR. KARL RACINEThe attorney general is going to be a lawyer, must be a leader and must be a manager. And with respect to my colleagues I must tell you, I am the only candidate running who has real leadership, real management experience running a law firm.
NNAMDIWell, I did say we wouldn't have any opening statements but it did seem like we just heard one. But Michael Martinez, it's your turn.
RACINEI'd like to close in Kojo.
MARTINEZI'd like to build off Senator Raskin's question and amend it with a question about a legal decision that you may have to make in the future. We've seen a lot of different models locally here in the Washington region for how active an elected attorney general can be on a purely political level. The back story to this week's news about same-sex marriage in Virginia involves a decision by the attorney general there not to defend the Commonwealth's constitutional ban on same-sex marriages.
MARTINEZIs there an example of a recent elected attorney general from this region or around the country whose approach you intend to emulate if you're elected here in the district? And are there laws on the books in D.C. that you would feel compelled not to defend? And I'd like Mr. Smith to answer that question.
MR. EDWARD "SMITTY" SMITHSo I -- thank you very much for that question. It's a very good one. We were asked this question before and it's something that I've given significant thought to because I think it's important to look at models for other attorney generals around the country. And I believe that we have some excellent attorney generals to look at as examples. One, for example, is Kamala Harris in California, who I know personally and who I've seen take the position of attorney general and use it as an opportunity to help pursue issues of social justice and to help advance the needs of people in her state, many of whom, I think like in D.C., haven't had the representation and the backing of their chief legal officer in the way that they might need.
MR. EDWARD "SMITTY" SMITHAnd in this capacity here in D.C. I would make that my number one priority is always serving to promote public interest. And I come to this position as somebody who has extensive experience leading in government and managing in government. And it's important to remember that the attorney general's office is a government agency and I'm the only person on this panel that has experience leading and managing in a government agency at the highest levels, taking on some of the toughest issues that this country has faced.
MR. EDWARD "SMITTY" SMITHCountries -- issues involving closing the digital divide and providing access to communities that don't have internet and helping communities that have been adversely impacted by the BP oil spill. And leading a team of lawyers and engineers and economists on a multibillion dollar project at the FCC.
MR. EDWARD "SMITTY" SMITHThese are things that can't be understated because at the end of the day the attorney general's job is to serve as the administrator of a large government agency. It is not a law firm.
NNAMDIAnd I ask the candidates to try to keep their answers to one minute or so. But Michael, is there anyone else you would like to put the same question to?
MARTINEZYes, Lorie Masters.
MS. LORIE MASTERSWell, I've also given this question thought so I have two answers. I have a very good friend who's the attorney general in Oregon, Ellen Rosenblum. And she's done a terrific job in fighting for consumer protection and making sure that she calls out corruption in the Oregon State government. Those are two things that I would want to focus on as attorney general.
MS. LORIE MASTERSI also like to hearken back to perhaps a past example. And I've noted with interest the recent PBS special on FDR who used that job to really promote the best interests of the people in his state and the public interests, which is what I would want to do as attorney general.
NNAMDIAs district residents cast a ballot for attorney general this fall, many might wonder what that person will do to further the possibility of residents having a voting representative in congress or to move the district toward statehood. Practically speaking outside of protecting budget autonomy, Paul Zukerberg, what would you do to pursue voting representation or statehood as attorney general?
MR. PAUL ZUKERBERGWell, as you know, I am the candidate who won the voting rights case that allowed us to all be here tonight. I have a very strong appellate record. I have a great record, winning results for my client. In this particular case the election had been cancelled. The voting rights of all District of Columbia citizens had been denied through the illegal actions of the council, the appointed attorney general and the mayor. And I went to court. I lost a few times but eventually I secured a unanimous decision of the D.C. court of appeals saying that this election must go forward. So I am an advocate, a strong advocate of states' rights and I am a person who gets results.
MARTINEZDo you have a specific strategy for making the attorney general a leader in the fight for either statehood or expanded voting rights?
ZUKERBERGI do have a strategy. It's both incremental and direct. I believe we need to challenge those pending lawsuits which seek to take away our rights such as a budget autonomy charter amendment. It needs to be appealed. The Palmer case, the gun case, I think we need to set our own gun laws. The recent charter school case which seems to take away the council's right to budget for education. So I will vigorously litigate all of those cases in the court of appeals and get us full rights incrementally and also take on the denial of our civil rights, our right to vote directly through the courts.
RASKINNow let me follow up on that because you raise an interesting question about the budget autonomy issue. The current attorney general, as you know, rendered an opinion saying that the Budget Autonomy Act was outside of the law. Are you saying he was wrong to have done that and you would not have done that because of political reasons essentially?
ZUKERBERGI, with all due deference to the wonderful district court judge who's present here today, I believe that the attorney general was wrong, that the budget autonomy charter amendment is a valid charter amendment. And I will defend it in the court of appeals and seek to have our right to spend our own tax dollars affirmed.
RASKINDoes anyone disagree with that position on the panel?
RACINEJamie, I'm on record as...
NNAMDIThis is Karl Racine.
RACINEI'm so -- thank you, Kojo. I'm on record as saying that I think that Attorney General Nathan on that budget autonomy matter made a very difficult decision. And frankly I think his opinion, as I've read it, was right. And I think the federal district courts' opinion on that issue, however difficult it was for that court -- that court of course with the judge who's a native Washingtonian, cares very much about statehood and budget autonomy -- that decision found no basis for the lawsuit.
RACINEAnd I'm with Paul all the way. We need to fight incrementally and fight strategically to bring home statehood. And the attorney general certainly has a role to play there. I just don't think that filing every lawsuit, any lawsuit really enhances our credibility. We have to develop a strategy multifaceted, get stakeholders including the National Association of Attorneys General behind us, get the veterans more behind us and really fight this and take it on. But just throwing out lawsuits, you know, is not the right way to go.
MASTERSIf I may...
NNAMDI...Lorie Masters, in responding to the question Paul Zukerberg indicated what has been widely publicized in Washington that it was his lawsuit that is largely responsible for us being here today, I thought I saw somewhere a press release from you indicating that you think that diminishes your own role in all of this. So even as you respond to the question, you may want to address that. Let's see if we can start some fighting on this panel.
MASTERSWell, I'm not going to duke it out with Paul. I'm not sure I'd win that but on the merits here on that issue, I just wanted to set the record straight. So we've been in a lot of forums and with respect, Paul has said that, you know, he's the one person among the candidates who has fought to bring this election to the fore. And I think that just ignores the facts. There's a long-term strategy that a lot of us in D.C. have developed to try to bring attention to this issue. I've been part of that effort. A lot of other people in this room, I think Jamie, you know that, other people have been involved in this effort. And one part of the strategy was to fight for this elected attorney general position.
MASTERSBut on budget autonomy, I wanted to just address that. I'm the one person on this panel who has really been involved in that litigation. And there are stacks of briefs on both sides. And in that case big law firms are involved, Jenner and Block, Perkins Coie, Latham & Watkins, Covington and Burling. A lot of firms with national reputations have staked their names on this. And it's -- so it's a close question.
MASTERSBut I want to just say this that in the case of a close question, if it's in the interest of the District of Columbia and everyone agrees involved in this case that it is, then it's important in my view for the attorney general to -- in the elected attorney general era, to stand up for the people and what's right for the district. And that's what I would do as attorney general.
NNAMDILaws are often reactive instead of proactive. An issue that has cropped up more and more in this region as the co-called sharing economy grows. Perhaps a problem identified or exemplified in D.C. in the battles between taxis and services like Uber, Michael Martinez, you have a question about this.
MARTINEZCorrect. Taxi drivers today organized a caravan to protest rules the city is moving forward with for companies like Uber. Traditional taxi drivers argue that the playing field's unfair, that Uber's getting away from regulations that everybody else has to abide by. Uber, in turn, argues that old regulations weren't designed with companies like them in mind. And that the reason why they're able to offer consumers a service they want is because they've been given the freedom to innovate.
MARTINEZNow it was the council's job to craft new regulations but from a philosophical standpoint, what do you think is the right balance for the city as far as having a regulatory system in the district that both protects consumers and gives businesses the space to innovate and offer services that consumers say they want? And I would like for Lateefah Williams to answer that question.
WILLIAMSWell, first and foremost I think consumer protection is of the utmost importance, and it's one of the issues that I'm really focusing on in my campaign. So with regards to the laws that the council establishes to ensure that fairness, you know, I think it's important, yes, to take -- to allow businesses to be innovative. It's something that we want to always encourage business innovation. But we want to have a good balance between that and with ensuring the consumers' rights are protected.
WILLIAMSSo it's a difficult issue, especially if you use the taxi Uber issue because it comes down to are these about consumer rights or are these about the rights of say -- of the individual business owners, which are the taxi cab drivers? That being said, I think it's important for district government to be consistent. And I think you can have innovation along with consistent laws, particularly when people are rendering essentially the same services which is what is happening in this instance.
WILLIAMSSo, you know, for me and as an attorney general, I think in enforcing the laws -- and sometimes it can be challenging if the laws on the books are a little murky, but in enforcing the laws I think it's important to be fair. And I think it's important to treat similarly situated businesses in the same way. So that would be my approach here. And of course I will always be looking out to see -- to make sure the rights of individual consumers are protected, but also the rights of small business owners. It's important that they are treated equally with one another.
NNAMDISmitty Smith, I'm assuming that you have used taxis in the District of Columbia and may have used Uber or a similar service in the District of Columbia. Have you and if so, how has that influenced your attitude toward this issue?
SMITHI have used taxis and I have used Uber in some instances because as a black man it's oftentimes hard to get a taxi. And I have used Uber in order to make sure that I am able to get from point A to point B safely because I've had issues getting picked up. And that's something that I've experienced even wearing a suit. But that's -- to this issue, and I think it's an important one, in my time at the FCC we had to deal with these types of issues all the time because, as you'll find, regulations change slowly, laws change slowly but technology changes every day, sometimes within the day.
SMITHAnd so we constantly were confronted with issues involving technologies that had outpaced the development of law. In fact, the Communications Act -- Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the last major update to the rules that govern your internet and your cell phone and satellite television. And many of these things, your cell phone, the internet -- the internet didn't even exist in its current form in 1996.
SMITHAnd so this is a challenge that as a lawyer I have faced, is trying to make sure that we are interpreting our oftentimes old regulations in the context of new situations and new technology and making sure that we are finding an even balance where we're interpreting these regulations fairly without stymieing development and technological growth. And I think that's something that I would bring to the table as the attorney general that's unique on this panel.
NNAMDIYou're listening to WAMU 88.5's D.C. Attorney General Forum hosted at our headquarters in partnership with American University's Washington College of Law. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. The district has worked hard to reduce gun violence. And in doing so has run headfirst into the federal courts including the one down at the corner of 1st and East Capitol Street, the U.S. Supreme Court. And as a result the council has wrestled with regulations, most recently around the right to carry. What is your view on this and how would that view affect the course that you would pursue as attorney general, Paul Zukerberg?
ZUKERBERGWell, that's extremely important. A federal district court judge has struck down the district's gun control laws. We have seen amazing progress in the last decade reducing gun violence. We went from almost 4 or 500 murders per year to less than 100. Our streets are safer. Our gun control laws are fine. They have been struck down and as attorney general I will appeal that decision. I will try to have our laws reinstated as the council has done with some temporary legislation and protect our rights to set our own gun control policy.
ZUKERBERGI don't want people from other states coming into the District of Columbia carrying, wearing or concealed loaded handguns on the streets of the District of Columbia. There's no need for it. Our streets are safe. Our police are fine and I don't want the gun violence here.
RASKINI want to follow up on that. Does everybody agree that the right thing to do in the Palmer decision is to appeal it all the way to the Supreme Court, the same Supreme Court that rendered the Heller decision, striking down the district's handgun control ban? I mean, is it always the case that the right thing to do is to litigate in order to express a policy preference if you think you might end up losing that way?
RACINESure. Yeah, on that issue, Jamie, I think you have to really focus on the importance and significance of a particular issue. And with respect to guns in this case where, as it turned out, a federal district judge, not a D.C. district judge, determined in the case what the ruling should be. I think it is absolutely critical that we appeal that case, and I'm thrilled that we are, to the D.C. circuit. I think it's important that we fight on that case all the way to the Supreme Court.
RACINEIf there is one issue that the citizens of the District of Columbia for decades have been absolutely almost unanimous on is on the importance of gun safety in our community. Absolutely will appeal it and we'll appeal it until we win it.
MASTERSThis is a key autonomy issue. This is -- you know, gun laws are really right in the heart of what district governments should do on health and safety issues. And I think, you know, you raise a good point on Heller but Heller opened the Pandora's Box. So now we need to make sure that we have certainty, more certainty than we have now over what the constitutional limitations are over what Heller said. Heller said we could regulate. The Palmer decision said, in effect, no.
MASTERSAnd I think it's imperative that we get certainty around that issue and create the right record on appeal so that we can get the ruling that respects the fact that we're the District of Columbia, the unique status we have as the nation's capitol with our president and everyone in the line of succession based right here.
RACINEJamie, if I could just add, and I don't think you're going to get much disagreement at all from anyone on this case...
NNAMDIBut that's what we're looking for, but go ahead.
RACINEAsk another question, Kojo. If I could add, what we're going to do is we're going to go out, when I'm attorney general, to the National Association of Attorneys General, we're going to go out to the Democratic Association of Attorneys General and we're going to get support for our positions regarding autonomy, gun laws, etcetera. We need more support. And I think that the organizations out there nationally are ready to jump in and assist the D.C. attorney general's office in achieving those critical objectives for our citizens.
NNAMDIEducation. Oh, Smitty Smith.
SMITHAnd if I may, one point where I can certainly commend our elected officials and our current attorney general in what they are -- in how they are handling this is they're taking an approach that I've been calling for for months, which is they're considering the appeal. And I do believe that moving forward with the appeal is the right decision because D.C. is distinct. There is no such thing as an absolute 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.
SMITHAnd given the unique status of our country as the central international political and business hub that it is with the president and foreign dignitaries and leaders and heads of state here constantly, we have to make sure that we are presenting this difference and this distinction in our legal arguments. And so we're already seeking and moving forward in doing that. However, it's also important that we have a fallback plan just in case the Supreme Court moves forward and does as they did in Heller, you know, make a terrible and egregious error with respect to the interpretation of the 2nd Amendment resurgence on owning weapons and carrying weapons.
SMITHAnd if they do, we want to make sure that our laws are sufficiently restrictive to ensure safety on our streets. And the city council and the mayor and the attorney general work together to do just that in mimicking the approach they used in Maryland and New York and having very restrictive gun laws that are there to protect us.
NNAMDIOkay. We do have to move on. Michael Martinez, you have a question?
MARTINEZYes. This question sort of stays on the general theme of home rule but pivots to an issue that voters across the city care about quite a bit. And that's the state of our schools. And I'd like to first put it to Mr. Zukerberg and then give Lateefah Williams a chance to answer it.
MARTINEZThere's a strong chance that one of the first cases you'll inherit as attorney general will involve a lawsuit against the city by a group of charter schools who claim that D.C. is violating federal law because it spends $2,000 per student more in its traditional public school system than it spends on students in charters. The home rule component to this is that their argument claims the city doesn't have the authority to amend the D.C. school reform passed by congress in the '90s. So Paul Zukerberg, what do you see is at stake in this case both for the city schools and for the city's ability to make decisions about its own school systems for itself?
ZUKERBERGWell, I think that last point is the dispositive one. The council and the citizens of the District of Columbia have the right to make their own budget decisions with regard to allocation of funds for schools. And congress does not have the final word. Home rule gives us the final word on that so I believe that lawsuit needs to be dismissed. And as attorney general I will fight to have it dismissed.
ZUKERBERGI am a strong supporter of all schools including charter schools. I've done a lot of work for the charter school that my children attended, E. L. Haynes, one of the best schools in the city. But on this point I believe the charter schools are wrong and our council is the one that has to set the budget for all schools.
WILLIAMSI agree as far as it being an issue of basic autonomy. And anything that weakens our elected officials' ability to set the laws in the District of Columbia is something that I'm going to be against. Now, if charter schools want equitable funding with traditional public schools, I have no problem with them going, advocating before the council and achieving it by those means. But I don't believe that anything that will lessen our arguments for statehood and autonomy is the way to go. So I also disagree with the lawsuit.
NNAMDIWhat would you say to the charter school representatives who filed the lawsuit who said, well, we've tried the council. We've gotten no satisfaction there. Should we simply accept the state of being as it is?
WILLIAMSFirst of all, I think a lot of people aren't aware of the decision or of the case. And, I mean, first of all, there are a lot of parents who have children in charter schools. And I'm saying this as someone who, I admit, I am a strong proponent of the public schools and my father's a retired...
NNAMDI...the traditional public schools.
WILLIAMS...he's a public school teacher -- the traditional public schools. So I am a proponent of the traditional public schools but that being said, I'm not anti-charter school by any means. And I think, you know, the parents, I know they choose the best options for their children. So -- but I think one of the things they can do -- that the parents of charter school parents can do first of all is really make this an issue in the immediate -- until the case came about, a lot of people didn't hear about the issue. So a lot of things -- a lot of issues need to start as a grassroots movement.
WILLIAMSAnd as someone who has worked in the grassroots movement here in D.C. in addition to my, you know, background across the spectrum, in public service in the legal field, you know, I've also been in leadership roles in a number of civic organizations. So I know the importance of grassroots organizations and what can happen when grassroots organizations lobby before the council or before public opinion and on various issues. You know, I've seen it done with LGBT issues.
NNAMDIGot to move on.
WILLIAMSI've seen it done with many issues.
NNAMDIThere's been more litigation over the issue of special education in the District of Columbia than I think has -- over any other issue having to do with education. And I think, Jamie Raskin, you have a question about that.
RASKINI do actually. But first I wanted to get to a somewhat broader question and I'll come back to that. A lot of D.C. government is under judicial consent decrees including juvenile justice, child and family services, disability. Do you think that the large number of judicial consent decrees in D.C. has been a positive or a negative force in improving the delivery of public service? And would you plan to leave them in place until the court sees reason to end them or would you seek to terminate those still in force and which ones might you want to terminate? And I...
NNAMDIWho do you want to ask?
RASKINLorie Masters, I'll start with then I see several others want to get into it.
MASTERSRight. I wanted to address the previous question too briefly. I think that with regard to the education issue that the funding formulas for charter and public schools are very complex. And I think there are ways in which they're unfair to both public schools and charter schools. And I would suggest that as someone who's been involved in complex cases, mediating and settling them, I would want to use that expertise to see if there's a way for us to resolve these issues internally in the government without having some judge decide this issue that's not appointed or elected, I should say, by the citizens.
MASTERSBut to address your issue with regard to the consent decrees, again, I think it's a key autonomy issue. And there are some injustices, some social justice issues that were involved in these situations that led to the consent decrees. But I think it's very important for us to look at the consent decrees and to continue the effort that we've had under the past two attorneys general to try to resolve those and bring those core functions back into the district government.
MASTERSOne of them is a 40-year-old lawsuit. It's going to be very hard, as I understand it, to meet the qualifications that the judge set. But I would commit to you as your attorney general to try to do that because I think it's important for us to have those services in district agencies that have some accountability to the people.
NNAMDII think that was everybody's voice on that one. Karl Racine, you go first.
RACINESure, if I may.
NNAMDIPlease try to limit your remarks.
RACINEI will. So there are five outstanding consent decrees wherein, in fact, as you mentioned, Jamie, outsiders be it receivers or others pursuant to consent decrees, are running D.C. agencies. That's costing the city a lot of money. I think it's time for an attorney general with credibility and stature before the court to go first to his or her client, those are the agencies, and tell the client this. Now's the time for you to do exactly what you have sworn you would do. And that is to provide the services to the D.C. citizens that you're obligated to provide.
RACINEIn order for us to get out of these consent decrees, I need full agency cooperation. We need to turn over documents. We need to be clear with the court and honest with the court so that when this attorney general -- and I will litigate this matter personally in the federal court in the District of Columbia -- go into court and tell the judge the truth. We have consent decrees, quiet as it's kept out there, partly because judges don't trust our agencies and sometimes don't trust what a lawyer is going to say one day and a lawyer from an agency is going to say the next day.
RACINEThis is about autonomy. It's also about credibility and stature in the law. Needless to say, I believe I've earned a great reputation of credibility. And I'm going to use that reputation, 25 years, to help this city get out of the consent decrees, all the while delivering the services that the citizens of the District of Columbia deserve.
NNAMDIWas there another member of that chorus, Smitty Smith?
SMITHI think certainly credibility and stature is important but the most important thing, and the reason why these consent decrees were put in place, was because of a failure on the part of these agencies to provide the services to, in many cases, very vulnerable populations. Some of these consent decrees are many decades old and they involve egregious violations with respect to children or individuals that are psychologically impaired or elderly and -- or the indigent.
SMITHAnd I think that it's important -- more important than credibility is performance. And that's where I come into play. And that's what I think is -- in order to actually credibly make the case to the judge you have to demonstrate that performance is being met. And that certain standards that are imposed by the consent decree are being met. And that's something that I've done in my time in federal government where I have both been on the side of imposing consent decrees, in some cases on government entities around the country and also I've work with those agencies to get out from underneath their consent decrees.
SMITHAnd the only way that it happens is if they're actually performing and they can demonstrate that. And you need somebody who's got the experience shepherding them through that process, which I have done.
NNAMDIYou're listening to WAMU 88.5's D.C. Attorney General Forum, hosted at our headquarters in partnership with American University's Washington College of Law. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. In addition to casting a vote for one of you, D.C. residents would be casting a vote either for or against the legalization of marijuana next month. Let's assume that the citizens of the District will vote in favor of the legislation. Let's further assume that once they do, Congress, perhaps spurred by a certain lawmaker from Maryland, who we will not name, will say, "Not so fast." What, then, would your next move be as attorney general? Paul Zukerberg.
ZUKERBERGIs this a trick question?
ZUKERBERGI'm going to defend Initiative 71. That's the initiative which is going to legalize small amounts of marijuana -- up to two ounces of marijuana -- no longer make it either a criminal or a civil offense. As you know, I was one of the moving forces behind decriminalization, which passed in July. And we went to Congress. And when we explained to them why and we presented all of our evidence about the discriminatory enforcement, the number of young African-American men who were being arrested in the District of Columbia -- almost 6,000 per year -- Congress backed down. Because we had the evidence, we had the coalition, and we were right.
ZUKERBERGThe marijuana laws -- criminal marijuana laws are wrong. They're a wrong-headed war on marijuana users that have been going on since Richard Nixon. It needs to change. We did it with decriminalization, with my help. And I'll do it with Initiative 71 when it passes.
WILLIAMSWell, if Initiative 71 passes, then I'm going to defend it vigorously. First of all, it's the role of the attorney general -- particularly the elected attorney general -- to vigorously defend the laws that the public wants. And I mean this is a public initiative that the public wants. So I think it's vitally important to defend it. With regards to Congress, I think that's an issue of basic autonomy. To me, that's even an additional reason to defend it. Congress should have no say in D.C.'s laws. They should have no say in how we operate. And sometimes the fear of congressional action stops -- prevents us from doing laws that we may not otherwise do.
WILLIAMSPersonally, I think the fear of congressional action was a cause of the Mayor and the Attorney General challenging the Council in the budget-autonomy suit. I mean Congress has become this boogeyman that we're so afraid that they're going to act, that we end up policing ourselves. So it's absolutely important to defend the law. And at the same time, I think it's important for the District government to create a mechanism of how it's going to be legalized, so that people can have, I guess, a central location or certain locations that they can go to legally purchase marijuana without burdening some of our communities that are already struggling. That's a concern of mine, about how it's implemented after legalization.
NNAMDIOkay. Newly released Urban Institute data on the shrinking number of affordable apartments in Washington, D.C., highlights concerns about gentrification and who can afford to live in the city. To that end, Michael Martinez has a question related to jobs.
MARTINEZYeah. There's a law on the books in D.C. called First Source. It requires that contractors who receive funds for public projects -- that they hire a minimum amount of D.C. residents to work on them. A federal judge is considering a lawsuit right now that claims First Source is unconstitutional. What's your source for whether First Source -- what's your sense, rather, for whether First Source is, in fact, in the public interest? And what do you think would be the consequences if First Source were to be wiped out? Karl Racine.
RACINESure. I'm a strong supporter of the First Source legislation. And I will defend that First Source principle in court to the highest level. First Source is important and certainly it's constitutional, because the city clearly has an interest in where its tax dollars are going, in terms of its paying for services and, frankly, how those tax dollars are being used by contractors. Here are the facts. Small and local business hire locally. It's just common sense and it's backed up by data. When we don't have small and local businesses with government contracts, we have unemployment -- particularly in Wards 7 and 8, where the unemployment rate is 17 and 19 percent, respectively.
RACINEWe need to support our small and local businesses because they hire people who live here, people who others do not, by and large, give an opportunity to for a job. So I will absolutely defend the First Source principle.
RACINECan I go further?
RACINEI'm going to also focus very strongly on corruption. Because, as we know, there are criminal investigations that are ongoing now in town related to our procurement practices. Litigation, wherein companies are claiming that they are actually doing business with minority business, when in fact they're not. That is fraud, abuse and theft of D.C. dollars. I think what we need to do is have transparency in our government contract process. And you need to have an attorney general who's going to throw the flag and enforce the law, when a foul has been committed.
MASTERSWell, this is a question that's also related to other government laws on the books here in D.C. that really are intended to support the creation of jobs and to make sure that our citizens have jobs throughout the city. So we know that there are about 750,000 jobs in the District of Columbia. And yet we have this 18 percent unemployment rate east of the river. So it's not just First Source. It's also the small-business set-aside dollars. We need to make sure that those dollars are going to people in the District, so that we can have maximum employment here. It's going to make our families stronger. And it's going to make all of us feel better about the city. So as attorney general, I would make sure that these laws are fairly and effectively enforced.
MASTERSIt's not just a question of good governance -- and it is that -- but it's also a question, as you point out, of jobs. Because if people feel that there's a level playing field, they're more likely to come in and compete for our government dollars. We're more likely to have more small businesses here. And we're more likely to have jobs and reduce that 18 percent unemployment rate.
RASKINWell, a couple of the candidates have talked about fighting corruption. And I'm curious about whether you think the office currently has the tools it needs to fight corruption or whether there are any additional powers that you would seek if you were attorney general? And I cede Edward "Smitty" Smith.
SMITHOh, I think the first and most important power that the Attorney General's Office would need in order to more effectively fight corruption would be the authority to prosecute adult felonies in the city. Unfortunately -- and this is again, we keep coming back to these issues of D.C. autonomy -- this is one of the unfortunate cases where the Attorney General's Office does not have the authority to enforce all of the laws. And...
RASKINSo -- what, are you saying you would go to Congress to lobby for that?
SMITHWell, I think it's important that we have it because I understand and I know that it is not within the power of the attorney general to independently expand that role. I think it's going to involve working with the U.S. Attorney's Office. I certainly would advocate for expanded prosecutorial jurisdiction for the AG's office, because it's very important that we have an attorney general who can, indeed, enforce all of our laws and not just with respect to juvenile offenses or misdemeanors.
RACINEJamie, if I could. I think it's really important that the Attorney General's Office be granted broader subpoena power. That is our problem with respect to corruption cases. You know, we're filing civil matters. We're asking for documents. But we do not yet have the power to compel production of documents.
RASKINWould you go to Congress, sir, to request that power?
RACINEI would -- first, I'd go to the Council to get that subpoena power. And I'd go to whatever other source there might be. But I think that the Council has the authority to grant the Subpoena power. And it should do so immediately.
MASTERSSo, I want to weigh in on that, too, if I might. I totally agree, that's something that needs to be done here. And I think that the Council has the authority to do that. But I think the Attorney General's Office can also be a bully pulpit to call for open and transparent government. The Attorney General's Office currently does do investigations of these kinds of issues, making sure that we have open and transparent government. I think we need to have more of a focus on that. We need to make sure also that our other aspects of the government, the inspector general and the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability are also fulfilling that function.
MASTERSBut as attorney general, I would commit to work with all of the levers of government to make sure that we're fighting corruption and we are bringing to the District what I think people around this District, the city want -- and that is, an open and transparent government that's free of corruption.
NNAMDIWell, if you...
ZUKERBERGWell, if I...
NNAMDIPlease go ahead.
ZUKERBERGCan I just jump in? Because I do disagree with my colleagues on this. And I know you want some -- a little action up here on the stage.
NNAMDII didn't say that.
ZUKERBERGThis is the -- this is the Council that tried to completely kill this office. They are not going to give us broader power. They're not going to give the new attorney general broader power. The inspector general, they've tried to kill the authority of the inspector general and he has not been effective. And Congress is not going to give us anything as well. We have to work with what we have. And as attorney general, that's what I will do. I don't need any more power. I have enough power to stop the corruption with the tools that I have now, because I don't expect any more tools from either the Council or Congress.
MARTINEZLet me follow up.
MARTINEZYeah, I have a question that fits this general theme, since voters are trying to figure out what this job's going to be, but they're also trying to figure out who you are. And maybe if you all can remember it, we'll just go down the line from Paul Zukerberg. What did you write your essay about when you were applying to law school?
ZUKERBERGI was in sales in New York. And I had my dream. I graduated college and I was making a lot of money, living in New York. But it was -- I was selling a product. And whether you bought my product or someone else's, it didn't really matter. And I went to law school because I wanted to do more. I wanted to change the world. And that's what I think I wrote about.
WILLIAMSI wrote about my commitment to public service. At the time when I was in college, I was one of the leaders in an organization -- a mentoring organization with the local elementary school. So I saw the impact that my mentoring of a local elementary school student had. And then I was very active on the campus with a variety of issues. So that's what I wrote my essay about. But then it became ironic that, later on, I found out the impact of my own grandmother in the law in the Williams vs. Walker-Thomas case. I ended up finding out that she was the plaintiff in that case, about two weeks before I started law school, right when she passed away.
WILLIAMSSo I didn't have the opportunity to talk to her about it. But just to know her role in such a landmark case and it's, you know -- for those who don't know, it's a case where she, you know, was a single mother of seven children. And she bought a lot of furniture on an installment plan. And she owned the furniture, she paid -- well, she didn't own it. She had the furniture. She paid for it for years. And then, you know, she missed one payment and they came and repossessed all the furniture.
MARTINEZIt was an unconscionable contract.
WILLIAMSRight, it was an unconscionable contract. And that's the legal principle that was set. So, you know. And then, after that, that just really stoked my interest in public service. And I've dedicated -- for the 13 years since I've graduated from Georgetown Law, I've dedicated my career to public service.
NNAMDI"Smitty" Smith, what did you write?
SMITHOh, so actually I -- not, maybe not surprising -- similarly, the power of the law to effect positive social change. I grew up in a part of town that was pretty rough. And not many kids got first chances, let along second ones. And I saw the impact of laws that were disproportionately enforced against some and not against others. And when I was an undergrad -- I went from Anacostia to Brown and then Harvard Law -- I was something of a fiery activist. And I went to law school because I saw the opportunity for me to use the power of the education that I had obtained and the power of the law degree that I would gain to effective positive social change and help communities like the one I came from.
SMITHAnd so I thought that, indeed, it would be an appropriate subject for my essay to write about exactly that and what I would do with a law degree and what I've been doing in my time in public service.
NNAMDIKarl Racine, what did you write?
RACINESure. I certainly wrote about the importance and criticality of public service. But I wrote about that with a strong emphasis on leadership. You see, I come from a family where my mother was a leader -- is a leader in her community, both with respect to education and certainly for any issue related to empowerment of women. My father was the mayor of his town, a small town in Haiti. And all my father wanted to do was to be able to provide for the basics -- that was electricity, clean water, and food and some decent employment for the folks who elected him. I wrote about leadership because I understand that leadership matters.
RACINEI understand it matters because you need a real leader who can deliver all of the promises that folks might say about when they're running for office. I think leadership matters, frankly and most importantly, because leadership allows for young kids to be able to dream about what it is that they can achieve. I'm running for attorney general because I want the citizens of the District of Columbia and kids who live here to know that they can have an elected leader who knows what he's doing, who's honest about what he's doing and who has achieve that which he said he was going to do.
NNAMDILorie Masters, what did you write?
MASTERSWell, you're testing the memory banks here.
MASTERSBut I grew up in the women's rights era. And my dad told me at the time that, you know, I couldn't be a lawyer. I could be a secretary. I could be a nurse, but I couldn't be a doctor. And I had my mom say, "No. You can be what you want." And I really wrote about that and, you know, why I wanted to go to college. Why I wanted to really have a career and do something where I thought I could be an active participant in changing women's roles so that women could be whatever they wanted to be. So it's part of why I've fought for women and girls in trafficking cases.
MASTERSAnd it's part of why I've done all the work I have on diversity and inclusion issues to try to make sure that everybody, in the law firms I've worked in and generally in my profession and I think throughout society, really has an equal opportunity to succeed. So I want to bring that vision to the Attorney General's Office. I think the Attorney General's Office is about more than simply legal experience. It's about having a vision and communicating that to the lawyers in the office to say, we need to be not just about dollars and cents but about what's right and about social justice.
NNAMDIMichael Martinez, do you have your final follow-up question for Mr. Edward Smith?
MARTINEZSure. If you are elected to this job, will you still insist that people call you "Smitty"?
SMITHIt's what everyone calls me. It's what my family calls me. It's what I -- it's what's on my signs and on all of my literature. And so, yes, I would ask that everyone continue to call me "Smitty," because it's who I am.
NNAMDIThis question has been burning Michael up for weeks. Ladies and gentlemen, Paul Zukerberg, Lateefah Williams, Edward "Smitty" Smith, Karl Racine and Lorie Masters, all candidates for Attorney General of the District of Columbia.
NNAMDIOur panelists, Jamie Raskin and Michael Martinez.
NNAMDIThank you to the Washington College of Law at American University for partnering with us on this debate. Special thanks to Amy Tenney, Megan Crawford, Frank Federer, (sp?) Bryan Rapp and Russell Confroy. And here at WAMU 88.5, we'd like to thank Aaron Lavine, Douglas Bell, Andrew Chadwick, Paulo Dominic Belarmino, Benae Mosby, Kara Merrigan, Joe Warminsky, Sam Duran (sp?) and Paul Mazulchy (sp?) and Patrice Jackson. Thanks as well to our panelists, the candidates and their campaign staffs. And thanks to you all for joining us. Good luck to you. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo talks with author Briana Thomas about her book “Black Broadway In Washington D.C.,” and the District’s rich Black history.
Poet, essayist and editor Kevin Young is the second director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He joins Kojo to talk about his vision for the museum and how it can help us make sense of this moment in history.
Ms. Woodruff joins us to talk about her successful career in broadcasting, how the field of journalism has changed over the decades and why she chose to make D.C. home.