Washington Lawyer

Karl Racine: New Role, New Goal

From Washington Lawyer, February 2015

By David O’Boyle

Karl Racine. Photo by Patrice GilbertLast fall Karl Racine became the first elected attorney general of the District of Columbia. A native of Haiti who was raised and educated in Washington, D.C., Racine has served as managing partner at Venable LLP and also as associate White House counsel under President Clinton. Washington Lawyer sat down with Racine, who took office in January, to discuss his plans as he settles into his new role in the District of Columbia Office of the Attorney General (OAG).

Tell us about your upbringing and background.
My family is Haitian, and I was born in Haiti. We left Haiti when I was about three-and-a-half years old or so and relocated to the D.C. area. In fact, my mother and father left Haiti when I was about six months old and left my sister and me with our family members as they got settled here.

We joined them, and we did what new immigrants do, which is, as my mother and father were trying to get settled in their work and education in the District of Columbia, we moved around a little bit until we were able to find a great neighborhood with the best public schools. That’s what the mission was.

And so we settled around the area of Nebraska Avenue and Connecticut Avenue NW, and from there I attended Murch Elementary, Deal Junior High, Wilson High School, and graduated from St. John’s College High School.

In the time I grew up in that area, Murch, Deal, Wilson, and St. John’s were very diverse schools. Murch is a great elementary school and it got a lot of interest from folks who lived both in and out of the area, so we grew up in a pretty diverse area, and certainly went to a school with a broad range of people.

I played basketball in high school at St. John’s. I played for a legendary basketball coach named Joe Gallagher. I was fortunate enough to be recruited to play at numerous universities and colleges, but we decided to go with what we thought was the best school, academically, and so I enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania where I majored in economics. Also, of course, I played basketball and did other things on campus.

How did you end up at the University of Virginia School of Law?
You could probably lump me in with many, many of my law school graduate friends who didn’t really plan on attending law school, but became interested as the work world appeared. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I certainly knew that politics and the law were extraordinarily important, and I was familiar with history—civil rights, especially—and so I was attracted to law school and attended the University of Virginia School of Law.

Did you find law school interesting?
Well, in law school one of the activities that the university provided was a whole slew of practical legal clinical courses, which were very interesting. I gravitated to what was called the migrant farmworkers law clinic. There were migrant farmworkers around Albemarle County in Virginia who worked in the apple orchards and did other farming work.

We focused on . . . making sure that farmworkers had their basic rights, were getting paid consistent with Virginia law, had the same rights to lodging and food that the law provided. I got a very clear indication of the power of the law and the impact it could have on real people’s lives.

I was interested in law, I went to law school, and certainly went to law school primarily to use the law to have a positive impact on the lives of real people with real needs.

Professionally, you have worked in both the public and private sectors. Tell us about your experiences in those two areas.
I think it’s just one of the magical opportunities that the District of Columbia provides uniquely—robust opportunities to work in both the public and private sectors. That is highly encouraged. Not only was it highly encouraged in law school, but certainly highly encouraged at the firm that I began my legal career at, Venable LLP.

Many of the people with whom I worked at Venable, including former U.S. Attorney General Ben Civiletti, had worked in both the private sector and public sector. I was regaled with great stories about their extraordinary experiences.

I worked at Venable for the first three years of my professional career. I had a tremendous experience. I tried at least three cases. I had a chance to argue before two federal courts of appeal, and I had other excellent experiences because of lawyers who were selfless.

I was encouraged to apply to be either a prosecutor or a public defender. From my own personal sensibilities, and really focusing on the work of providing legal services to the indigent community, it was an easy decision for me to accept the offer to join the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.

That was my entrée into public service, government service. It was extraordinary. The Public Defender Service has an excellent reputation. It is the preeminent public defender service in the country. Sure enough, the training that all of the lawyers received was beyond my wildest dreams. I made tremendous friends and had great practical experience in the courtroom. That was an important experience in my life and career.

I must say also the Public Defender Service was and remains extremely diverse. It was an agency at the time that was run by women, and there were all manner of lawyers from all walks of life, not just from the top 10 schools, and certainly there were many lawyers of color. I enjoyed working in that environment.

After that I returned to the private sector. I joined a good friend of mine, Gerry Treanor, who had started a firm with Plato Cacheris, called Cacheris & Treanor. That was an opportunity to continue my work in the criminal area, all the while expanding my work in a complex civil litigation area. We had fabulous cases working with Plato and Gerry—two lawyers of tremendous stature—from spy cases (Aldrich Ames) to other interesting cases. We represented, for example, the owner of the Washington Redskins at the time, Jack Kent Cooke. We had other cases that were of a global variety. I was often on a plane to London or other areas representing clients, so that was quite an experience to have very complex matters and to work with two stellar lawyers like Plato and Gerry.

After that experience, through volunteering in the city I developed personal relationships with lawyers who were at the White House under President Bill Clinton. Sure enough, I got an offer to come and interview for a job as an associate White House counsel. Fortunately, they hired me. That was a return to public practice. Again, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

You might remember, those times were challenging, difficult, uncertain, and even unprecedented with regard to the impeachment of the president. There were numerous independent counsel investigations of the administration. I was part of a group of lawyers who defended the president, the first lady, and the White House staff regarding those investigations. It was an immense learning experience and an opportunity to develop lifelong relationships with friends.

And you returned to private practice at Venable after that.
After the Clinton White House, I was exhausted. I had that job for about three years and left in the summer of 2000. I decided that I would sit out a year, and I traveled. I went to see friends who lived in Europe and South Africa.

Then I embarked on a new career: I became a financial adviser. I studied for and attained several licenses that would allow me to sell securities and help people guide their financial lives. It was very interesting. I enjoyed it, but, frankly, it bored me. I missed the dynamic colleagues that I had had at the White House, at Venable, and at the Public Defender Service. So that brought me back to the law with a greater sense of purpose.

After a year or so, I rejoined Venable and came in as a partner in its complex civil and white collar groups. It wasn’t but 12 months or so until I was asked to take on the task as head of the associate committee at the firm where I was in charge of hiring, training, and developing young associates. I love working with young lawyers. Throughout my life I’ve had the great benefit of having seasoned lawyers take time out to train and mentor me. So I have a passion for giving that back to young lawyers.

Shortly after that, the firm asked me to become its managing partner, and I was elected managing partner in 2005 and served in that role . . . while continuing to practice law. I learned a completely different facet of the job of a lawyer, particularly in a law firm or a law organization, namely, how to run a successful business.

Those years were memorable and I am grateful for the opportunity to learn all that I learned. I’m proud of several things from that tenure. Number one, we were able to successfully recruit more minority partners . . . than other firms in the District of Columbia.

I was also proud that during the Great Recession that hit law firms hard—I mean, great law firms disappeared, they imploded, they dissolved, or went bankrupt—we at Venable were able to come together and not only hunker down and survive, but come out of the recession in a strong position to thrive. That’s a credit to our colleagues there, and I was proud to be part of that.

The other point I will make about Venable is it’s one of the few firms in the country that, in addition to its for-profit business of practicing law, has its own not-for-profit foundation. The Venable Foundation is one that has a budget of about $2.5 million, and [it provides] funding to grassroots organizations that are providing necessary services to adults and children and the communities in which we live. It was always a great privilege to be able to engage with those grassroots organizations that do such great work for people who need it.

What inspired you to run for attorney general for the District of Columbia?
I am a lifelong Washingtonian. As I have just recounted, I’ve had an extraordinary set of circumstances and experiences with great teachers, great coaches, great mentors, and great guides who were lawyers, and I have a passion for public service. The opportunity to serve in the D.C. government in my chosen vocation was what attracted me to the position.

I also have a healthy respect for the institutions in the District, particularly the Office of the Attorney General and the hard work that it does on behalf of the citizens of the District.

How would you describe the campaign process?
Well, the campaign process was a wild ride. It was like getting on a rollercoaster for the first time: It was exciting, there were people all around, there were ups and downs, there were thrilling moments, and there were moments where I just wanted to get off.

As someone who has never run for office before, it was an experience that, after a few bumps and bruises and stumbles, I took to. I enjoyed the process of campaigning, getting out there and meeting people, and trying as best as I could to explain what OAG does and how it’s relevant to their lives.

What was easily more important than my doing the talking was just listening to the concerns of the citizens of the District: Ward 1, Ward 8, Ward 3, Ward 7. I found that to be extraordinarily meaningful.

It was a privilege to work so hard with so many people. We had young people, folks who were in high school and college and law school, volunteering for our campaign. We had older folks, some were paid and most of whom were not, who volunteered for the campaign. And then we had a group of inspiring seniors who were quite active. Being a part of that broad coalition for the good of the District was one of the most meaningful experiences that I’ve ever had in my life.

Running the campaign was extraordinarily enjoyable. The rollercoaster ride was, at the end of the day, full of joy.

This was the first time the District of Columbia had ever elected an attorney general. Was voter participation in the election what you expected?
I didn’t know what to expect, so I relied on the judgment and the experience of the political people in our campaign. It was pretty much the consensus view that the turnout would be low, and that the interest in particular in this new office and the new attorney general would also be low.

In the first several weeks, there certainly was confusion as to what position [I was] running for. I had a lot of people ask me whether I was running to replace [U.S. Attorney General] Eric Holder or [U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia] Ron Machen. I had a person ask me whether I was running to be the Surgeon General.

But after a few weeks on the campaign trail, it became clear that more and more citizens were coming out to the fora, and we had many, many, many fora, and that there was interest in the office . . . it was growing, it was palpable.

The folks who know politics estimated the turnout would be in a range of 50,000 to 70,000, but the final turnout for our election was about 165,000. So, as it turned out, folks were interested and engaged. They came out to vote in very high numbers. I think that’s a credit to all of the candidates who all ran spirited campaigns. At times it was quite tough out there with such worthy opponents.

Do you have ambitions beyond OAG after your term ends?
No. I am focused solely on being a great first elected attorney general for the District of Columbia.

You fielded a transition team to coordinate your move. How did the transition go?
The transition went well. We were led by two transition cochairs, eminent lawyers and fantastic citizens of the District of Columbia: Pauline Schneider, of counsel at Ballard Spahr LLP and a former D.C. Bar president; and Natalie O. Ludaway, managing member at Leftwich & Ludaway LLC.

In addition to focusing on the priorities of our administration, we had tremendous assistance internally from our colleagues at OAG, the great lawyers and staff who are already here. They brought me up to speed on the work of the office, the challenges of certain areas, and where we might use more resources.

Former attorney general Irvin Nathan has been invested in a smooth transition. Following Irv’s lead, the office has been extraordinarily welcoming.

What are the top three priorities for your term?
We ran on a pretty clear set of several coequal priorities. A priority that we have focused on are the issues around juvenile justice. What we want to do is continue to do what the office has done so well, and that is to keep the community safe. At the same time, we have an obligation to make sure that the office is prosecuting cases in ways that make sure the kids who can benefit from services that can keep them out of the criminal justice system get those services. We’re going to spend a lot of time trying to refocus our energies in the area of restorative justice—get kids out of the system. That’s one priority.

Number two, we want to enhance the work that the office has done in the area of consumer protection. The office has very talented lawyers, some of whom have done extremely good jobs in the area of consumer protection. We think that that section needs to be bolstered because the citizens of the city all too often are victimized by unsavory business practices—debt collection and payday lenders, for example, and other areas that we think are ripe for aggressive enforcement and the initiation of civil lawsuits.

Number three, we live in an era where the citizens want and deserve to have honest government. Questions have been raised in the District of Columbia where public officials have been indicted or accused of violations. We want to work hard to make sure that all the agencies in the District are well trained, and where we see lapses and breaches in the provision of honest services, we want to be very aggressive in cleaning that up. The District should have a procurement business that is transparent and accountable, and that’s what we intend to do.

How will the elected OAG differ from the mayor-appointed office?
I think the emphasis for an independent office is to be just that—independent. That is, to make clear in everything that we do that we’re acting without regard to politics. Our governor is the law, and all of our actions will be founded in law and in ethics. Politics—who’s in charge in one particular agency or who the mayor is—that stuff doesn’t impact the way we do our job.

The citizens wanted to have an independent attorney general as a check on the other branches of government. That’s what we pledge to deliver.

Do you foresee any tension between OAG and the mayor’s office?
I don’t foresee any tension in that regard. I’m very happy with the way that Mayor Muriel Bowser and I have gotten on prior to the election and during the transition [Bowser took office on January 2, 2015]. We have been in communication on a regular basis, where appropriate, and OAG has given her the legal advice that she has sought with respect to important issues concerning the District of Columbia. I’m sure that she, like me, wants to have our OAG and the executive office of the mayor focused on making sure that D.C. agencies are following the law of the District.

How do you plan to improve engagement with D.C. citizens?
That’s another outgrowth of the office being independent. Whereas before when the office was not independent, I think the office did a good job of communicating what it was doing and how it impacted the lives of the citizens of the District of Columbia, but the office kind of reported through the mayor.

It was clear to us in the campaign that the citizens want to hear directly from the attorney general’s office as to its work and how [it] might have a positive impact on their lives.

Another initiative that we have is to ramp up our efforts in regards to community outreach. We’re going to establish an office of community outreach where we fulfill our very important function of not only serving as counsel to the agencies, but also serving the people’s needs. That’s going to be a major change of emphasis in this new world of the independent, elected attorney general.

The D.C. Council has voted to shift agency general counsel away from OAG and under the mayor’s office. Do you foresee any challenges under the new arrangement?
It’s a dramatic change because you had lawyers who clearly reported to the attorney general. Hire, fire, and promotion authority rested in the attorney general. Those attorneys are now working directly for the agencies and they will report up through the agency directly to the mayor’s office.

We spent a lot of time in the transition on coming up with the appropriate framework to ensure that the lawyers, whether they’re in OAG or at an agency, are following the law of the District of Columbia. As you know, the law of the District is set forth by opinion of the attorney general, so we want to make sure that the D.C. government is following the law as outlined by our office.

Again, I don’t anticipate any major problems, but it is a challenge for us to come up with the right framework to maintain constant communications.

Do you have plans to work with the private bar and the wider legal community during your term?
I very much look forward to remaining actively engaged in the D.C. Bar community. With respect to the private bar, many law firms have business with OAG representing clients who the office may be prosecuting, investigating, or otherwise working with. I look forward to relationships with opposing counsel.

I imagine there will be opportunities to look creatively to the private bar to do what it has always done, and that is helping the city. For years, the private bar has provided pro bono assistance to OAG in various ways, and I will reach out to the community and private sector lawyers to make sure the office has all of the talent that it needs. So, yes, I look forward to working with the private bar.

Also, we’re focused not only on the private bar here in the District of Columbia, but in developing strong relationships with an organization called NAAG—the National Association of Attorneys General. In that regard, we look forward to really joining forces on more multistate investigations and bringing lawsuits where appropriate with other states.

Former Attorney General of the District of Columbia Irv Nathan wrote about his experiences for the D.C. Bar as the last mayor-appointed attorney general in the District of Columbia. Read his article now. Reach D.C. Bar staff writer David O’Boyle at doboyle@dcbar.org.