Apr 20, 2022 - Politics

Town Talker: What's next for Kenyan McDuffie?

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Conventional wisdom holds to expect the unexpected in D.C. politics.

Yet in a town of improbable comebacks and surprise downfalls, the Board of Elections’ declaration on Monday that leading attorney general candidate Kenyan McDuffie is ineligible for the job still flabbergasted the city’s political set.

“It was jaw-dropping,” said Paul Zukerberg, a lawyer who led the crusade to hold the first-ever election for an independent attorney general in 2014.

Why it matters: The next AG will take over a 600-person law office, inheriting a perch that Karl Racine used to launch suits against Big Tech and other high-profile targets, and to elevate D.C.'s profile nationally.

What I’m hearing: Today, McDuffie's lawyers, led by local bigwig Thorn Pozen and former DNC general counsel Joe Sandler, plan to ask the D.C. Court of Appeals to overturn the ruling that the Ward 5 council member didn't qualify for the ballot because he wasn't an "actively engaged" attorney.

Meanwhile, in a last-ditch effort, Wilson Building sources tell me that some infuriated McDuffie supporters outside of his campaign are lobbying D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson and key lawmakers to clarify the law, ensuring McDuffie can run.

  • Nine votes are needed to pass an emergency bill. At least one council member, Elissa Silverman, tells me she won't support an emergency bill.

There are only four weeks to go until voters begin receiving ballots in the mail, a headache for the Board of Elections.

Go deeper: Kenyan McDuffie ineligible for D.C. AG, Board of Elections rules

Between the lines: Knocking out the most well-known and flush candidate immediately boosts the rest of the pack:

  • Bruce Spiva, a former Perkins Coie law firm partner who filed the challenge against McDuffie;
  • Brian Schwalb, who has been a partner at Venable and carries Racine’s endorsement;
  • and Ryan Jones, who founded his own law firm in 2014.

McDuffie’s supporters are particularly livid that the board didn’t lean toward allowing McDuffie ballot access over a vague law.

  • “The ruling is neither final nor fatal,” says Chuck Thies, a campaign senior adviser.
  • Many think it’s unlikely the D.C. Council would have approved eligibility requirements for a top city position that is virtually impossible for themselves to meet. McDuffie is a former prosecutor and member of the D.C. Bar.

Behind the scenes: Talk of McDuffie's eligibility long simmered before Spiva filed a challenge last month.

  • The question even arose when Racine met with each of the candidates as he deliberated who to endorse in February, two sources tell me.

The intrigue: The chair of the Board of Elections knows the AG’s office well. Gary Thompson represented Zukerberg in fighting tooth-and-nail to hold the first race for attorney general, after the D.C. Council wanted to delay the election.

  • Zukerberg disagrees with his former lawyer’s decision this week. But there’s no doubting Thompson’s bona fides on the topic.

While McDuffie may be an attorney, “we find that more is required to be eligible to serve as the Attorney General,” Thompson wrote in his ruling.

💬 More ballot trouble: We may find out on Friday if Trayon White makes the mayoral ballot, after a board meeting to hear challenges to nominating petitions. Town Talker is a weekly column on local politics. Send me tips: [email protected]


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