By Claire Savage

Racine and his work battling Trump offers a source of pride for Diaspora at a time when Haitians are the target of xenophobic attacks

Karl Racine was born to be a changemaker. 

Public service is in his blood: his father was the mayor of Croix-des-Bouquets, his mother is a lifelong educator.

“The source of my motivation and passion derives from my family,” the District’s first-ever elected attorney general said, his smile apparent in his voice.

He’s busy. Very busy. 

Juggling dozens of public improvement initiatives, constituent feedback, office politics, trailblazing for future D.C. attorney generals and, of course, suing President Donald Trump, Racine also runs point recruiting Democratic attorneys general across the country. He’s made a dent, too — the organization has flipped several seats since they first started recruiting. 

“Everything we do sets a precedent,” he said.

Rather than enjoy his lunch during precious spare minutes, Racine instead took my interview, salad in hand. We sat together in his office — Racine, his press officer, Marrisa Geller, and myself — at the Democratic Attorneys General Association, where he is co-chair. 

It’s rare to feel welcome in a stranger’s office, but in Karl Racine’s, you do. He pulled up an extra chair and we sat together, talking about his life, his career and his Haitian heritage.

After the deadly 2010 earthquake, with the help of colleagues at the law firm Venable, Racine raised hundreds of thousands of dollars of relief funds for his countrymen.

Racine was born in Haiti; his parents emigrated so his mother could study at Georgetown. The family had a bicultural life, speaking French and Creole at home in Northwest DC. Racine (far right in both pictures on the left) became a US citizen in 1992, taking his oath at the DC courthouse at the start of his law career. Credit: Washingtonian

“Help was needed,” he said simply.

After emigrating to the United States at 3 years old, Racine says he’s visited nearly every year of his life.

“I love going back,” he said.

What sets Racine apart from other D.C. politicians? His colleague Elizabeth Wilkins, Senior Counsel for Policy, said it’s how genuine his passion for public service is.

“This is not academic for him,” she said.

Wilkins said Racine also stands out for his perspective on race and immigration, which is grounded in personal experiences. “I think it gives him a unique sort of empathy for people who are much less fortunate than he is, and try to figure out how to use his public platform to move the conversation forward.”

Strides in the District

Racine said the concerns the community shared when he first ran for attorney general helped shape his core initiatives today. For example, many District parents he spoke with called for juvenile criminal justice system reforms.

“The criminal justice system was kind of an entryway for their kids to get into the adult system. That caused us to really do some deep thinking,” Racine explained.

He partnered with a government agency, the Department of Human Services, to create a diversion program to reduce recidivism for kids.

“Over 1,750 kids have completed the program,” Racine said. “And right about about 79 to 80 percent of those kids who’ve completed the program, they’ve not been re-arrested. So that’s a milestone.” 

Wilkins said Racine’s biggest strength is “the passion he brings to youth in his division to protect vulnerable populations in the District.”

“I would say he’s the kind of city leader that we need, in the sense that he believes that he has power in his office to do good and he is determined to knock down obstacles and make government work for people,” she said.

Racine and his office also work to advance consumer protection, curb housing issues and battle “slumlords” taking advantage of low-income residents, among many other initiatives.

Wilkins said Racine’s only weakness is “he wants to do it all at once.”

“But you know, that’s what happens when you have someone that has a real sense of urgency around a mission,” she said.

Taking on Trump

Two years ago, Karl Racine, the DC government’s top lawyer, was the little-known head of an obscure and relatively new office. Today he’s battling Facebook and suing Donald Trump. Who is this guy? And is his crusade actually good for the city that employs him? Photograph by Lexey Swall. Credit: Washingtonian

Racine led the charge on a historic “anti-corruption” lawsuit against Trump, which lost on appeal in July. 

“No one has ever had to bring a case like this before,” Geller said.

The way Racine sees it, the Trump Hotel in the District draws visitors from all over the world, who are quite public about why they are staying there: to curry favor from the president.

“We think that that is a violation of the [U.S. Constitution] emoluments clause, that it raises the level of corruption,” Racine said. “It also has put Americans in a position where they’ve got to think about whether the President is making a decision based on America’s best interest or his own financial interest.”

Racine and his team survived two attempts to have the case dismissed, but this summer, a federal appeals court ruled unanimously that D.C. and Maryland do not have legal standing to sue in this case.

“We think that this panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals got it wrong,” said Racine and Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh in a written statement on July 10.

“President Trump is brazenly profiting from the Office of the President in ways that no other President in history ever imagined and that the founders expressly sought—in the Constitution—to prohibit,” the statement continued. “We have not and will not abandon our efforts to hold President Trump accountable for violating the Nation’s original anti-corruption laws.”

Jocelyn McCalla, advocacy coordinator for Haitian-Americans United for Progress, lauded Racine for his willingness to stand up for the interests of Haitians and all Americans.

“I think that he makes every Haitian proud, especially at a time when Haitians are being scapegoated by this administration as people who are poisoning the atmosphere of the United States rather than enhance prospects for a more perfect union in this country,” McCalla said.

It’s “extremely great” to have someone like Racine stand up for the best interests of Haitians, when many past U.S. policies did not, McCalla said.

“I can remember the times when those of us who dare stand up to U.S. policy were few and far between,” McCalla said. 

“Now you have far more people being involved, far more Haitian-Americans being engaged, and some of the Haitian Americans are in positions to influence local and national politics.”

Claire Savage is a freelance journalist who specializes in covering international news. She earned her bachelor's degree in Spanish and International Business at Washington University in St. Louis and her master's degree in journalism at American University in Washington, D.C.

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