M. Scott Mahaskey for Politico Magazine

He’s a pioneering attorney and Haitian immigrant who’s leading the emoluments lawsuit. He engineered some of Dems’ biggest wins in 2018. So why haven’t you heard of Karl Racine?

M. Scott Mahaskey for Politico Magazine
A few hours before President Donald Trump went into the Rose Garden last Friday to announce his intent to declare a national emergency so he could build his long-promised border wall, Karl Racine sent a shot across the bow: If Trump was serious about this, he was in for a fight.“We will not hesitate to use our legal authority to defend the rule of law,” the 56-year-old attorney general of Washington, D.C., said in a terse statement.

It’s a posture that has become almost routine for Racine, who as co-chair of the national Democratic Attorneys General Association is playing a little-noticed but hugely influential role in fighting the Trump administration at the polls, in the courts and in the news media.

The past few years have been uncommonly high profile for the American legal system. The president finds himself in both personal and professional legal jeopardy. Several of his former aides and advisers have been criminally indicted. The administration’s every move is subject to major lawsuits.

But while the public has been mesmerized by Trump’s legal troubles, Racine has been quietly building out Democrats’ ability to check his administration at the state level. Without much notice, he’s quietly emerged as perhaps the single most important player in restoring Democratic clout in America’s legal system.

As D.C. attorney general, Racine is leading the ongoing emoluments suit against the president over foreign governments’ allegedly corrupt patronage of the Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington, along with Maryland AG Brian Frosh. As co-chair of DAGA, he has helped coordinate the legal and political strategies behind the lawsuits suing the Trump administration over issues including the separation of children and parents at the Mexican border, upholding the Affordable Care Act and protecting DACA recipients. And more substantial yet, Racine was the architect of one of the least-discussed but most far-reaching results of November’s elections: Democrats winning a majority of the nation’s attorney general positions—an electoral success with far-reaching implications for workers’ rights, immigration, civil rights, consumer protections and the ability to erect a judicial wall against the Trump administration.

All of that has put Racine on a trajectory for … well, what exactly? Washington, D.C., doesn’t have senators or a voting member of Congress. He could return to private practice, but his passion for public service and ambition to effect lasting change makes the public arena more enticing, which has led some friends and colleagues to speculate that he could be putting himself in line to take a senior post at the Department of Justice if a Democrat retakes the White House in 2020—perhaps solicitor general or deputy AG, or even, as he suggested to POLITICO, attorney general.

To a large extent, though, such speculation is beside the point: Without having any of those positions, Racine has already helped reshape the American legal system. Three days after he threatened legal action against Trump’s declaration of a national emergency, 16 states sued the president in federal court. Three of those states—Colorado, Michigan and Nevada—flipped from Republican to Democratic AGs under Racine’s watch.

But you won’t hear any bragging from Racine: “I was raised, educated and coached to not highlight my role in team efforts.”

The most salient fact to know about Karl Racine is that he’s competitive as hell. A former college athlete, he has an imposing build—his shoulders and biceps fill out his pinstripe suit jackets—without being threatening. He’s kind. Warm. Likable. Charming.

But he likes—no, needs—to win.

“I’ve been juiced by the competitive spirit I’ve had all my life,” he said in an interview with POLITICO. “Nothing’s come easily to me. I’ve always had to prove myself.”

Racine emigrated from Haiti at age 3, grew up in Northwest D.C., and attended St. Johns College High, then an all-male military prep school. After graduating, he went to the University of Pennsylvania, where he captained the basketball team, led it to a pair of Ivy League championships and made the second team all-Ivy squad twice. (He also played a key role in one chapter of the storied Penn-Princeton rivalry, when, in the closing seconds of a tight game, he was fouled by Craig Robinson, the brother of future first lady Michelle Obama, and sank two free throws to clinch the win for Penn.) He’s still known to play hoops, sometimes against his friend and constituent, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

After college, Racine earned his law degree at the University of Virginia and returned to the District to work for a short time as a public defender before turning to private practice. He eventually landed at Venable, one of D.C.’s top white-shoe firms. There, in 2006, his colleagues elected him managing partner—which made him the first African-American at any top 100 American law firm to hold the title of managing partner.

It was from that perch that he first ran for D.C. attorney general in 2014. He won ugly.

“Karl Racine is not a natural politician,” said Tom Lindenfeld, a political operative and former adviser to Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Racine rival. “He doesn’t … devote time to building his brand. He’s not as good at working the press as he is at working the substance.”

Racine admits that he personally found running for office “awkward” the first time—he was unaccustomed to talking to individual voters face to face, dealing with reporters, etc.—but that didn’t stop Mayor Bowser from seeing him as a threat after they were both elected in 2014. She immediately attempted to control his budget, curtail his jurisdiction and bring the district’s newly independent AG under mayoral control. That touched off what Racine calls “a battle royale” on the District Council.

“It was very uncomfortable,” he said, “but we learned how important it is to forge alliances with constituents and other interests.” Racine beat back Bowser, maintained and expanded his jurisdiction, then built a solid record reforming D.C.’s juvenile justice system, winning suits against slumlords and bringing successful consumer protection cases.

Months into his first term in 2015, he asked Connecticut’s then-attorney general, George Jepsen, at the time the co-chair of DAGA, to meet him for dinner at Marcel’s, a French restaurant in D.C.’s West End. He had something on his mind: “We were getting our butts kicked,” remembered Racine.

At the time, DAGA was a sleepy organization headquartered in Denver with a part-time staff and a paltry annual operating budget. It did little more than organize annual meetings. Meanwhile, its GOP counterpart, RAGA, had already muscled its way into statewide campaigns. During the Obama years, RAGA ramped up its political and fundraising capacity, built a full-time staff, coordinated with other GOP committees and created its own super PAC.

“Why do we still have an organization with part-time staff and a $3 million budget, when the Republicans have a full-time staff that’s raised nearly $20 million?” Racine asked Jepsen. “How can we compete?”

He recited the list of states where Democrats had lost AG seats in recent elections. “Unless we are willing to change,” he told Jepsen, “we will continue to lose seats.” He suggested they move the organization to Washington, D.C., hire a full-time staff and get serious about raising money.

Racine, a rookie both locally and nationally, realized he was taking a risk. But Jepsen agreed with his assessment. “It was time for DAGA 2.0,” recalled Jepsen. “We couldn’t reinvent the organization overnight, but we wanted to compete in 2016.”

The rookie became DAGA co-chair with Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.

The first order of business was hiring the group’s first full-time executive director. After a nationwide search, Sean Rankin, who had been Racine’s political consultant in 2014, won the bake-off. In spring 2015, while Rankin rented office space in Washington and began to hire staff, Racine and Rosenblum went on the road to court benefactors and raise money.

“It was hard,” Racine said. “We met with potential donors—unions, advocacy groups, law firms—to make the case for funding DAGA and making it relevant. It was not easy.” Some donors suggested that the organization had proved useless, and that instead of increasing their contributions, they were considering not donating at all. “We [were] met with honest dissent about whether our mission was worthwhile,” said Racine. Continue reading

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *