- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Halfway through his first term, Karl Racine has set out to make his mark as the District’s first elected attorney general, but critics charge that he has done little to define the office — or himself — since stepping into the spotlight.

Now mulling a run for D.C. mayor, Mr. Racine has touted his two years of fighting for juvenile justice reform, affordable housing and consumer rights.

“There is much we can do to make the District a more just and equitable place,” Mr. Racine said in an interview. “I want residents to have faith in their public officials, to know that we’re here to fight for them.”

But that hasn’t impressed everyone.

“I like Karl Racine. He’s a good guy. But he hasn’t done anything significant,” said Chuck Thies, a longtime political consultant who most recently has worked for D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray, Ward 7 Democrat.

The consensus among city government watchers is that Mr. Racine has aimed to do good by the city but his efforts haven’t necessarily increased his name recognition or amounted to political victories.

Dorothy Brizill, a government watchdog who has been tangled with City Hall officials since the 1980s, said Mr. Racine has not defined a role for his office, which is important for an inaugural leader.

“It’s not that I’m supercritical; I just haven’t drank the Kool-Aid when it comes to Karl Racine,” Ms. Brizill said. “I’ve followed him from the day he announced his candidacy. I don’t think he ever really developed a clear idea of what he would do if he got the position.”

Mr. Racine, 54, made history in 2015 when he took office as the city’s first elected attorney general. Since 1905, the city had employed a corporation counsel or chief legal officer who was appointed by the mayor. City voters in 2010 approved amending the D.C. Charter to establish an elected attorney general and enumerate its powers beyond those of the mayor’s counsel.

Unlike other attorneys general, the District’s AG mostly tends to juvenile justice, civil litigation and consumer protection cases. The U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia handles adult criminal cases.

Mr. Thies and Ms. Brizill said Mr. Racine has focused too much on national issues such as class-action lawsuits with other states and fighting President Trump’s immigration travel ban.

“He’s not really grown into the position as our first attorney general,” Mr. Thies said. “Instead, he’s being cautious and joining other attorneys general against Trump. Instead, he should go sue someone, become an advocate for the people.”

Said Mr. Racine: “It’s important for an AG to stand by his colleagues across the country.”

Meg Maguire, vice chairwoman of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, said Mr. Racine has taken up the cause of residents in several big cases, including two against Sanford Capital — a landlord that has racked up 200 warnings for housing code violations at apartment complexes for low-income residents.

“This is particularly important in terms of preserving affordable housing in the city,” Ms. Maguire said. “You have rogue bad-actor landlords like Sanford Capital taking voucher money from the city and creating intolerable living conditions for people who have no other choice.”

Rob Marus, Mr. Racine’s spokesman, said the attorney general “has defined the office’s client as not only the D.C. government but also the broader public. Everything has flowed out of that dual commitment.”

In his midterm report, Mr. Racine has claimed several victories:

More than 12,000 criminal and juvenile convictions.

750 placements for children in the foster care system.

Millions of dollars in restitution paid to D.C. residents through consumer protection cases.

He also has trumped juvenile justice reform and affordable housing as top priorities and has twice sued Sanford Capital for forcing renters to live in deplorable conditions in four Congress Heights apartment buildings.

In an effort to increase affordable housing options, the attorney general said he persuaded the District’s Department of Housing and Community Development to start using its authority to acquire blighted properties for renewal. In the past two fiscal years, the District has initiated or closed 14 land acquisition cases.

Mr. Racine has called for reforming the way courts deal with minors. That includes banning the practice of shackling juveniles in court proceedings, which he said “unnecessarily humiliates and stigmatizes youth and can undermine the rehabilitative purpose of juvenile court.”

He also has increased the rate at which we the city provides intervention to low-level, nonviolent juvenile offenders.

“You can’t be blindly soft or tough on crime,” Mr. Racine said. “You have to be smart on crime. Make distinctions as to the kids who benefit from a different kind of involvement than the criminal justice system.”

The attorney general is one of two top figures whose names have been floated as challengers to Mayor Muriel Bowser in next year’s Democratic primary. Mr. Gray, a former mayor, is the other.

“I am having conversations with folks around town to get a sense as to what it would take to run for another position. I’m nowhere near making a decision on that. Period,” Mr. Racine told WAMU’s “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” in March.

Though Miss Bowser and Mr. Gray may have more name recognition than Mr. Racine, they also have more political baggage:

Mr. Gray served his entire mayoral term under the cloud of a federal investigation of $650,000 in illegal donations to his 2010 campaign. The five-year probe ended without any charges against Mr. Gray but with the convictions of a dozen of his associates.

Miss Bowser was put on the spot on ethics early in her tenure when FreshPAC, a political action committee set up by her supporters and disbanded in 2015, came under fire after revelations that many of its donors either did business with the city or had sought to.

From Haiti to the District

Mr. Racine’s interest in public service was shaped at an early age. He was born in Haiti in 1963, just six years after Franois “Papa Doc” Duvalier — the rural doctor turned dictator who proclaimed himself president for life — took over the island nation.

The unrest and oppression of the Duvalier regime forced the family to leave Haiti. They moved to the District and settled near the intersection of Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues in the Friendship Heights neighborhood when Mr. Racine was a child.

Visitors to the Racine household educated the future attorney general as much as his schooling. The city’s Haitian population was small, and the Racines opened their home to people from all the cultures that made up the District.

“He was reared in a Haitian home and a multicultural society,” said Marie Racine, his mother and a professor of French and linguistics at the University of the District of Columbia. “We valued diversity. When you look at people, they are individuals that come with a background, the solid background of a culture. You realize what it means to come from one place and another place.”

Mr. Racine said that was invaluable to his work as a lawyer and civic leader.

“To understand another point of view, it makes for better human relationships,” he said. “We were always about diversity.”

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