Former Gertrude Stein Democratic Club President Lateefah Williams, an attorney and longtime LGBT rights advocate, said she plans to run for the newly created position of elected D.C. attorney general if she determines her legal background meets the specific criteria established by law to hold the position.
Williams, 37, has a law degree from Georgetown University School of Law, is a member of the D.C. Bar and has practiced law in various capacities for more than 10 years.
But she said an attorney with the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics told her that her legal experience may not meet the definition of a requirement that attorney general candidates must have been “actively engaged… as an attorney in the practice of law” for at least five of the past 10 years.
The requirement is part of a law passed by the City Council to establish qualifications for someone to become D.C. attorney general.
Over most of the past five years Williams has served as political and legislative director for the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents Metro workers; and as a nonprofit speech rights policy analyst for the advocacy group OMB Watch. Prior to that she worked as a law firm associate for several years handling insurance cases, plaintiff related tort law and family law matters, according to a biography she released to the Blade.
“As an attorney who has spent most of my career engaged in legislative and policy work, I decided to seek clarification of this requirement,” Williams said in her regularly published biweekly column in the Blade.
“It is a well-known and accepted practice that many organizations hire attorneys to work in public policy positions because of the additional legal analysis skill set that we bring to the position,” she said.
“The D.C. Code does not define the term ‘actively engaged,’ so it is not immediately evident how this provision applies to attorneys with the requisite years of bar membership, who are practicing law in less traditional ways,” she said.
“I think I have a strong case for meeting these criteria,” she told the Blade.
Kenneth McGhie, general counsel for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, told the Blade on Monday that the board will not make an official determination on whether candidates meet the legal criteria for the position until after they submit a required 3,000 valid petition signatures needed to be placed on the ballot.
Once that hurdle is met, McGhie said, the board will look at the legal background of each of the candidates and make a determination on whether they meet the criteria for the job as specified in the law that created the elected attorney general post.
He said a candidate can appeal a decision by the board that he or she doesn’t meet the legal criteria and, should the candidate lose their appeal, they may take the matter to the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Williams said she told various community leaders and activists that she was considering running for the attorney general position and received widespread encouragement to run. She said she decided to hold off on filing papers officially declaring her candidacy until she obtains additional guidance on whether her legal background meets the statutory criteria.
“I didn’t want to begin raising money and collecting signatures and recruiting volunteers until this matter is at least reasonably addressed,” Williams told the Blade.
She noted that one of the board’s attorneys said a possible option for her would be to become a candidate, submit her ballot petitions and wait to see if a rival candidate files a challenge to her candidacy on the “qualification” question. The board would then make a formal ruling on the challenge following a hearing.
McGhie, however, said the board on its own will determine whether the candidates meet the legal criteria regardless of whether a rival candidate files a challenge.
The issue of an elected D.C. attorney general has been mired in controversy since voters in 2010 approved an amendment to the D.C. City Charter calling for an elected city attorney general rather than the current system that authorizes the mayor to appoint the attorney general.
Last year, the City Council voted to postpone the election for the position from 2014, as specified in the ballot measure approving an elected attorney general, to 2018, saying the city wasn’t ready to elect an attorney general.
Earlier this year, the D.C. Court of Appeals overturned the Council’s action in response to a lawsuit filed against the city by attorney Paul Zuckerberg, who has announced his candidacy for the attorney general position. The appeals court ruling held that the Council didn’t have legal authority to change the year in which the election was to take place.
The Board of Elections has tentatively scheduled a special election for the position. The special election is set to take place on the same day as the city’s regularly scheduled general election in November. It will allow candidates from any party or independent candidates to run for the attorney general position.
In addition to Zuckerberg, D.C. attorneys Mark Tuohey and Edward “Smitty” Smith have filed papers to run for the position.
“I decided to consider running after reading about the declared and potential candidates and feeling that there is no one in the race with an extensive background in public service or community advocacy,” Williams wrote in her column in the Blade.
As the only woman and only LGBT candidate in the race so far, she said she would bring to the attorney general’s position a perspective that other candidates don’t have.