I’ve been in DC politics long enough to know that when a candidate goes negative, whether directly or indirectly, it’s usually because that person’s campaign is struggling to gain traction. The goal is to knock the opponent off their game or make voters question their perception of the favorite.
Sometimes these assaults work. More often than not in DC, however, voters are put off by them. In the late 1990s, when Anthony Williams was recruited by a cross section of district residents to run for mayor, others hoisted him by his bow tie and accused him of being a pawn for the rich and near-rich, perceived as enemies of poor blacks.
Adrian Fenty has been cast in a dark light every time he ran for mayor. Initially, this scheme did not work; the second time he did, however. Interestingly, leaders of the “it’s corrupt” strategy or their political allies were quickly caught in their own net. A few board members who were part of this were taken to jail or forced to resign based on plea deals with the US Attorney’s office.
Understanding that the past is prologue, it’s no surprise to see negative political tactics in the race for DC’s attorney general. Four people – Ryan Jones, Brian Schwalb, Bruce Spiva and Kenyan McDuffie – are vying for the Democratic Party nomination. The primary is scheduled for June 21.
Let me make one thing clear: I don’t have a dog in this fight. I am a political independent so I cannot vote in the primaries. However, some Voters in the district are already bristling at what they see as smear tactics.
“We don’t believe smear campaigns are in the best interests of the general public,” said Stuart Anderson, a leader of the First Friday Breakfast group, made up mostly of Ward 8 residents who meet monthly to discuss critical issues in their lives. communities. Before the pandemic, they met at IHOP on Alabama Avenue SE. Often the central focus of their conversations has been public safety, but sometimes they expand to other topics and invite guests.
At last week’s meeting, Schwalb, Jones, Spiva and McDuffie presented their credentials and answered specific questions about public safety. Sandra Seegars, another of the First Friday leaders and keynote speaker at the meeting, urged attendees not to make derogatory comments about other candidates. No one is interested.
“We didn’t want to hear this back and forth,” Seegars told me in a later interview, referring specifically to the challenge to McDuffie’s eligibility submitted by Spiva to the DC Board of Elections. “At this point, we don’t know how it’s going to go, and we didn’t want there to be any speculation.”
Drafting of the memorandum to the Elections CouncilSpiva noted that the law requires that a candidate for the office of attorney general have been “actively engaged, for at least 5 of the 10 years immediately preceding the taking office of the office of attorney general, as: [a]n attorney in the practice of law” in DC or “an attorney employed in the [District] by the United States or the District of Columbia [governments].” He asked election officials to make a decision “quickly and within the 20-day period prescribed by [DC] right.” A closed-door meeting between all parties has been set for April 13.
Spiva has a connection with someone who knows how to kick candidates off the ballot: Ben Wilson is his campaign chairman. In 2002, when Wilson was chairman of the Elections Committee, the panel voted to exclude Williams from the ballot; he was seeking a second term. The move came in response to a challenge from several voters – including Mark Sibley and Shaun Synder – and DC Watch, a government watchdog group. Williams was forced to mount a print campaign, which he easily won.
Spiva’s connection to Wilson could provide him with some advantage in proceedings before the board. But how much?
Over two months ago, when I received calls from people telling me to expect this claim, I thought it was a joke. How can you argue that this candidate – who is a member of the bar of the District of Columbia, who worked in the civil rights division of the United States Department of Justice and who has been engaged for the past 10 years not only in drafting district laws but also overseeing the enactment and enforcement of those laws – is he ineligible to run for attorney general?
Also, I couldn’t imagine that attorneys on the DC Council would vote to approve legislation that would automatically disqualify them from seeking senior office in the city. The law was drafted just years before DC’s first election for attorney general, which took place in 2014 when Karl Racine won the first of his two terms.
In the political arena, fear sometimes leads to illogical thoughts and behaviors.
“The average voter doesn’t even know the city has an attorney general or doesn’t know exactly what that person does. But they heard about McDuffie,” said Seegars, who has been involved in local politics for decades. “I see [Spiva] be afraid just for that.
Spiva never stood for election. He’s not the only candidate to explore the McDuffie-is-not-qualified route, however.
Several knowledgeable sources told me this week that Schwalb conducted what they described as a “push poll” that among other things asked residents if they would vote for an attorney general who had not appeared in court in as a lawyer for several years. Push polls are often used to test the negative messages that frequently appear in the last stage of political campaigns.
Brenna Crombie, spokeswoman for Schwalb’s campaign, denied the allegation.
“To be clear, this campaign has not conducted a ‘push poll’ on any of our opponents, nor will we in the future. This is not how this campaign works,” a- she said in an email response to my question, adding that “Brian’s entire campaign is built around listening to district residents to understand their priorities and how he could best use the law to defend them. as the next Attorney General.
Schwalb’s campaign, however, conducted polls using Democratic pollster Celinda Lake’s well-known firm, Lake Research Partners. When I asked Crombie to confirm this on the record and provide details of the polls, she refused.
“I don’t want to clarify my statement,” she told me in an email.
My Tuesday call to Lake Research Partners was not returned before publication. Lake called me on Thursday after this column was published.
“We never do push polls,” she told me, adding that her company was the first to sign on to the American Association for Public Opinion Research standards that ban push polls.
Additionally, she denied that her company asked “a single negative question” in its survey for Schwalb.
We are in the spectator’s world. It seems that the adage applies not only to beauty, but also to the negativity and legitimacy of certain tactics.
Schwalb is the former partner in charge of the DC office of Venable LLP, one of the city’s top law firms; this is where Racine worked before becoming the city’s first elected independent attorney general. Last month, Racine, walking over — if not across — the ethics line, publicly endorsed Schwalb as his successor, saying he is the only candidate with the qualifications to do the job.
Although there have been episodes in DC of overwhelmingly negative candidates in campaigns, often they or an ally simply dispute an opponent’s qualifying signatures on nomination petitions. Robert White, General Council member and mayoral candidate did this last week, with campaign manager Luz Martínez filing a complaint with the electoral commission against his colleague from Ward 8, Trayon White; both hope to overthrow Muriel Bowser, who is seeking a third term. In fact, the Elections Office this week published a spreadsheet listing 23 pending petition challenges in total.
There have rarely been questions about whether a candidate meets the basic qualifications to run for office, as was raised about McDuffie. Since he is seen as the favorite, residents can expect more negative tactics to surface in the coming weeks.
“Sometimes it’s hard not to say something about the other person,” said Anderson, who once ran for the Ward 8 council seat. voter: ‘I want to know more about you as a candidate and what you bring to the campaign, what you bring to the table.’
Can the choir say amen?
This post has been updated to include comment from Celinda Lake, who responded after this column was originally published.
jonetta rose barras is a freelance writer and journalist, covering national and local issues such as politics, childhood trauma, public education, economic development and urban public policy. She can be reached at [email protected].