By Harry Jaffe February 23, 2019
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.
The most common refrain: Prove it.
With the 2016 election on the horizon, Racine and Rankin aimed to do just that. They decided to target Democratic-held open seats in two major states: North Carolina, a political battleground that had trended red in recent elections, and Pennsylvania, where incumbent AG Kathleen Kane—the first Democrat to hold the seat in more than 35 years—was forced to resign after being convicted of felony perjury.
“We weren’t given much hope of being successful,” said Racine. Both races would be difficult, especially with Trump at the top of the presidential ticket.
In Pennsylvania, while most national Democrats all but ignored the warning signs that the state was not the reliably blue redoubt in the presidential election, DAGA went all-in and spent $500,000 to elect Josh Shapiro, an avowedly progressive county commissioner from the Philadelphia suburbs.
In North Carolina, RAGA formed Carolinians for Freedom, a PAC that portrayed state Senator Josh Stein, the Democratic nominee for AG, as a Harvard-educated liberal who’d worked for disgraced former Sen. John Edwards and would bring extreme progressive politics to the state. While RAGA poured $3.8 million into the race, DAGA made direct contributions and partnered with donors to drop in $3.1 million.
Come November, North Carolina and Pennsylvania both went for Trump while also electing Democratic attorney generals. It “surprised a lot of people,” said Rankin.
But just as Racine and DAGA were beginning to prove their mettle, the politics of running for attorney general were about shift drastically.
By 2017, after years of Republican attorneys general suing the Obama administration over everything from the Affordable Care Act to environmental regulations, it was well established that state AGs would use their posts to fight the White House on matters of political or partisan difference. But among themselves, AGs had a long history of working together in bipartisan fashion across state lines on matters ranging from water protection to consumer advocacy to the Big Tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s.
Underscoring that collegiality, AGs had a handshake agreement that RAGA and DAGA would not challenge seats held by incumbents from the other party.
That changed in March 2017, when RAGA’s members voted to start openly attempting to knock off Democratic incumbents. The move was obvious—“RAGA has a clear mission to win races,” spokesman Zack Roday told Governing Magazine—and when DAGA responded in kind, it uncorked a flow of money and resources that have resulted in more competitive and expensive AG races than ever before.
The first test of the gloves-off approach came in Virginia’s 2017 race, where Republicans poured in nearly $9.6 million—with RAGA directly injecting $6.7 million—to John Adams’ attempt to unseat Mark Herring, the Democratic incumbent. DAGA responded with $3 million, plus $500,000 in in-kind donations, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project—part of more than $10 million Democrats spent to hold the seat.
“No question DAGA provided a counter-balance to the flood of Republican money,” Herring recalled. “Plus, I have a special relationship with Racine.” The two were cross-border comrades in neighboring jurisdictions, which made it easier for DAGA to work closely with Herring’s team from the start.
But there was another reason DAGA was eager to get involved in Virginia. With its election coming a year in advance of the marquee matchups of 2018, it offered the group a chance to test its new texting and social media tools, both of which aimed to increase the number and quality of interactions with potential voters.
Herring said DAGA “stepped up in a lot of different ways, especially on the direct contact with texting and social media connections.” According to information provided by DAGA, its social media efforts increased Herring’s Facebook “likes” from 8,000 to more than 50,000 over six months, and its efforts to organize volunteers allowed the campaign to reach 330,000 Virginia voters via peer-to-peer text messages.
“Consider it door-knocking on an iPhone,” said Elizabeth Haynes of Open Progress, a progressive group that focuses on testing digital tools and that partnered with DAGA in the Herring race. “It replaces face-to-face interaction with screen-to-screen. We found that more and more people would engage with you.”
DAGA went all-in on the digital and social media side. “Karl was spectacular in working with us,” Haynes said. “When we needed Karl’s point of view … we got it. That mattered.”
With Herring’s big win, DAGA’s would-be funders sent the organization a message: OK, now do it again in 2018.
Dana Nessel was an unlikely candidate for Michigan attorney general. “I had never run for library board, let alone statewide office,” she said. She’s stridently progressive. She’s an out lesbian in a state that had never elected an openly LGBT politician to high office. She’s a vocal feminist who released a #MeToo-themed video in late 2017 in which she memorably campaigned by asking, “Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting? Is it the candidate who doesn’t have a penis? I’d say so.”
For all these reasons, Nessel was spurned by much of the state’s Democratic establishment as someone whose liberal politics and outspoken style could prove a liability for candidates up and down the ticket.
And yet, on April 15, 2018, she won the party’s nomination for attorney general—a move that riled many Democratic stalwarts in Detroit’s black political establishment who favored her primary opponent, an African-American.
None of that mattered to Racine’s team: There was an election to win.
Nessel said the first phone call she received after securing the nomination was from Sean Rankin. Three days later, she was on a plane to Washington to meet Racine and the DAGA executive team. “I knew I needed help, and hoped they would be the organization to provide it,” she said. “Karl extended his hand.”
Nessel and Racine bonded over war stories from their days as public defenders. Rankin began to school her on setting up a campaign apparatus. She returned to Detroit with a sense of direction and confidence. The organization followed through time and again with money and voter outreach efforts, and in November, Nessel defeated the well-financed Republican nominee and became the first Democrat in 20 years to win a race for Michigan AG.
“I never would be sitting here as the attorney general for Michigan without DAGA and Karl,” Nessel said. The election “was a team effort, but Karl was at the heart of it.”
It’s a similar story in Nevada.
Early on, Racine had helped recruit Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford to run for Nevada attorney general. His candidacy, like Nessel’s, was historic: Nevada had never elected an African-American attorney general.
In midsummer 2018, RAGA built an attack ad around Ford’s record of minor arrests when he was a college student in Texas in the early 1990s. “Aaron Ford Runnin’ from the Law,” the ads and a websiteblared. Critics in local media suggested that the ad smacked of “dog-whistle politics.”
Whatever subtlety there was to that line of questioning was absent in what came next.
In November 2017, Aaron Ford’s preteen son was among a group of children who had the police called on them for a minor incident on private property in a Las Vegas neighborhood. When law enforcement arrived, they decided the issue was best handled by the parents, and called them to come and retrieve their kids. Ford was among those parents.
RAGA sued to get the police to release body-camera footage taken by officers. “This is very simple,” then-RAGA spokesman Zack Roday said at the time. “The public deserves to know what Aaron Ford said that day.”
“They went after Aaron Ford and his family on raw racial terms,” Racine said. The mild-mannered attorney allows he was “outraged.” He immediately called Ford and offered support. He listened. He commiserated. Then he attacked back.
DAGA publicly called the tactics “not only racist, but out of bounds and unacceptable,” poured more money into Ford’s campaign and countered RAGA with a batch of fresh ads. “Karl and DAGA were the cavalry that came in to provide crucial support,” said Ford. “It came across the board: moral, financial and tactical. It proved essential.”
In November, Ford won by less than 5,000 votes, flipping the seat and becoming the first black AG in the state’s history.
Under Racine, DAGA has become a nimble and well-funded political strike force in Washington—one that in 2018, raised and spent record-breaking sums of money, embarked on a “digital doorknock” outreach campaign that contacted 12 million voters in more than a dozen targeted states via peer-to-peer text messages and played a major role in flipping AG seats in Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin and Colorado.
There are practical implications to those elections: On Monday, three of those states’ AGs were among the 16 who sued to block Trump’s border wall emergency declaration—just one of what will inevitably be many legal battles between new Democratic AGs and the Trump administration.
Now, with the lawsuits filed, elections won and Racine returning as co-chair of DAGA—his would-be successor, Mark Herring, stepped down from the post after revealing he’d once worn blackface at a college party—both Democrats and Republicans are wondering what comes next.
“Karl is a super-talented attorney—well-liked across the board,” said RAGA executive director Adam Piper. “He’s a competitor, but easy to get along with.”
For his part, Piper is “very bullish about the map in 2019,” and sees shining opportunities for Republicans in North Carolina, Kentucky and Mississippi. “We’re gonna win back the majority in 2019.”
On the Democratic side, predictably, others think that the blue wave has not yet crested.
“We defended our incumbents, like [Virginia Attorney General Mark] Herring, and they lost [Brad] Schimel in Wisconsin,” said George Jepsen, the former Connecticut AG and ex-chair of DAGA. “It’s a very different world if Republicans have to spend money to defend seats in high-cost states like Kentucky, Florida and Texas.”
Jepsen allows himself to ponder the possibilities: “Imagine if Texas flips to a Democratic AG.”
Of course, something else has captured the imagination of most Democrats, Racine among them: an end to the Trump administration. But who should be the nominee?
“I love Kamala Harris,” Racine said. Her husband, Douglas Emhoff, a Los Angeles-based attorney, was a former law partner of Racine’s at Venable, and the two men are close friends. “The opportunity to help someone like Kamala is intriguing,” Racine added.
In 2015, when Racine showed up at his first DAGA conference, Harris, then California’s attorney general, spotted him across the room and corralled him. “Hey, Karl,” she said, “now we have two African-American AGs. Let’s start an association!” (Racine notes that there are now five.)
But before a President Kamala Harris can take office, Racine will have to continue dealing with President Donald Trump.
With Frosh, Maryland’s AG, Racine has sued Trump for violating the Emoluments Clause—the Constitution’s prohibition against federal officials receiving benefits from business ventures while in office. Racine and Frosh allege that through his ownership of the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington, the president has illegally profited and opened himself up to corrupt influence.
The case is winding its way through federal courts in Maryland, with most of the rulings going Racine’s way. There’s a hearing scheduled for March 19, and pending its outcome, the discovery process could begin soon after.
In the meantime, he’s managing 300 attorneys as the D.C. AG, focusing on work that is less publicized and more tangible in the lives of Washingtonians. His lawyers have forced landlords to repair substandard buildings, moved 1,723 children out of foster care, and gotten more than $10 million in relief to D.C. consumers. He’s also joined the leadership of the bipartisan National Association of Attorneys General, in line to be president in two years.
Racine says his heart is in reforming juvenile justice and creating pathways to keep kids out of the criminal justice system.
But is his heart interested in moving up to serve in federal office? After all, Racine did a stint in the White House counsel’s office during the Clinton impeachment hearings. Would he consider serving as Kamala Harris’ attorney general?
“Of course I would,” he said.
It seems Karl Racine is becoming less quiet about his ambitions.