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Vague D.C. statute hinders my attorney general run

City must provide guidance on key qualification for the race

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Lateefah Williams, gay news, Washington Blade
Lateefah Williams, gay news, Washington Blade, attorney general

Lateefah Williams (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

This may come as a surprise, but for the past two weeks I have been privately exploring a run for D.C. attorney general. 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.

While some people are salivating over the prospect of several “big law” partners showing interest in the race, I am concerned that underrepresented communities and the average person will not have a voice. The prospect of another attorney general who does not prioritize the pursuit of justice and service to all D.C. residents, particularly our most vulnerable residents, is a frightening scenario to me.

As a 37-year-old woman with more than a decade of experience as a licensed attorney (11 years in Maryland; six years in D.C.), I have a good blend of youth and seasoning. My previous experience includes serving as counsel to the Prince George’s County Maryland State Senate Delegation, political and legislative director for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, and as a law firm associate handling insurance defense, plaintiff-side tort law, and family law matters.

Upon first glance, the qualifications for the attorney general position appear basic enough. They are:

 

§ 1-301.83. Minimum qualifications and requirements for Attorney General.

 

(a)    No person shall hold the position of Attorney General for the District of Columbia unless that person:

 

(1) Is a registered qualified elector as defined in § 1-1001.02(20);

 

(2) Is a bona fide resident of the District of Columbia;

 

(3) Is a member in good standing of the bar of the District of Columbia;

 

(4) Has been a member in good standing of the bar of the District of Columbia for at least 5 years prior to assuming the position of Attorney General; and

 

(5) Has been actively engaged, for at least 5 of the 10 years immediately preceding the assumption of the position of Attorney General, as:

 

 (A) An attorney in the practice of law in the District of Columbia;

 

(B) A judge of a court in the District of Columbia;

 

(C) A professor of law in a law school in the District of Columbia; or

 

(D) An attorney employed in the District of Columbia by the United States or the District of Columbia.

 

So, you have to be a D.C. resident and registered voter, who has been a member in good standing of the D.C. Bar for at least five years. The tricky part is section (a)(5)(A), which requires that you have been “actively engaged” for at least five of the last 10 years as an “attorney in the practice of law in the District of Columbia.” As an attorney who has spent most of my career engaged in legislative and policy work, I decided to seek clarification on this requirement.

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 skillset that we bring to the position. 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.

When I first pondered running for attorney general two weeks ago, I decided to call the D.C. Board of Elections to see if I meet this provision. I called and asked to speak to an attorney, but the person who answered the phone asked my concern, relayed my question to one of the attorneys, and then told me that the attorney said it did not matter what type of law I practiced, so public policy is fine. With this assurance, for the next two weeks, I began the process of reaching out to friends, relatives and community advocates to gain a sense of whether there was interest in my candidacy and the level of support that I would have or could potentially obtain.  After numerous conversations and weighing the pros and cons of running, I made the decision to run. I decided to pick up my petitions on July 3, so I could begin circulating them at events during the July 4 holiday weekend.

When I arrived at the Board of Elections, I convinced the front desk personnel to allow me to speak directly with one of the attorneys.  The attorney that I spoke with said that they had not pondered my specific question and she verified that the term “actively engaged” has not been defined. She suggested that I reach out to the General Counsel of the D.C. Council for more guidance. I called the Council’s General Council while I was still at the BOE and asked him my question about the qualifications. He also said that my specific question had not been considered and that I should reach out to the attorneys at the BOE because they would be tasked with interpreting the statute. I then told him that I was calling from the BOE and an attorney there suggested that I call him. He then said he would reach out directly to the BOE attorney, which he immediately did once we ended our call.

I then spoke to the BOE attorney again and she advised me that the D.C. Council’s general counsel is continuing to research the matter, including the legislative history, and that I should have guidance on the matter well before the deadline to submit petitions.  However, both attorneys seemed to lean toward the interpretation that to have been “actively engaged” as “an attorney in the practice of law” you must hold a position that cannot be held by a non-attorney.  Thus, lawyers who are active bar members and have practiced for decades, but are currently employed as corporate vice presidents or nonprofit executive directors would be excluded if they had done this work continuously for the past 6 years.

I presented them with my exact scenario. During four of the years in question, while an active member of the D.C. Bar, I served as a nonprofit speech rights policy analyst for OMB Watch (now the Center for Effective Government) researching and analyzing how tax laws impact nonprofits. I even mentioned the caveat that the nonprofit speech rights director who hired me was also an attorney and my legal expertise was one of the reasons I was hired.

The second position was as the political and legislative director for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 (Metro’s largest union). This also may not meet their definition, even though at many organizations the legislative counsel reports to the legislative director.

The irony of all of this is that according to provision (a)(5)(D), if I was employed by D.C. government or the federal government, then I would only have to be an attorney, but the provision “in the practice of law” does not apply, so if someone graduates from law school, is admitted to the D.C. Bar, and works for the government in any capacity for five years, then they are eligible, but someone like me who practiced in Maryland for years in positions that would definitively count, then once licensed in D.C., used my legal expertise on public policy matters, is possibly precluded from running.

As I mentioned, the Council’s general counsel is continuing to research this matter and I expect him to give me guidance soon. I appreciate the time that the D.C. Council and Board of Elections attorneys took to immediately answer my questions and begin researching a scenario that does not appear to have been contemplated.  Even when I receive the D.C. Council’s general counsel’s opinion, it will serve as guidance, but it will not be official. Thus, if I decide to run and am challenged, the three-member Board of Elections would decide the matter and it could then be appealed to the D.C. courts.

Some may see this as evidence that the election should be held in 2018 and not 2014, but I believe this situation illustrates the opposite. If the D.C. Council was not so busy trying to push the election back to 2018, it may have paid more attention to important logistical matters surrounding the 2014 election. It is absolutely outrageous that in the midst of an election’s petition period, a potential candidate cannot receive definitive guidance on a key qualification for the race. It should increase the outrage that the result may serve to silence a candidate who is a member of several underrepresented groups that otherwise will not have a voice in this race.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Bruce P. Majors

    July 8, 2014 at 10:19 am

    So the DC government can't even manage to write a coherent, intelligible law?

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Commentary

Sondheim’s art will be with us for the ages

Iconic work explored sadness, rage, irony, and love of humanity

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Stephen Sondheim (Screen capture via CBS)

“The only regret I have in life is giving you birth,” his mother wrote in a letter to Stephen Sondheim.

The only regret so many of us feel now is that Sondheim, the iconic composer and lyricist, died on Nov. 26 at his Roxbury, Conn. home at age 91.

He is survived by Jeffrey Romley, whom he married in 2017, and Walter Sondheim, a half-brother.

F. Richard Pappas, his lawyer and friend, told the New York Times that the cause of death was unknown, and that Sondheim had died suddenly. The day before he passed away, Sondheim celebrated Thanksgiving with friends, Pappas told the Times.

“Every day a little death,” Sondheim wrote in “A Little Night Music.”

This isn’t the case with the passing of Sondheim. Whether you’re a Broadway star or a tone-deaf aficionado like me, you’ll sorely miss Sondheim, who the Times aptly called “one of Broadway history’s songwriting titans.”

Like multitudes of his fans, I don’t remember a time in my life when a song from a Sondheim musical hasn’t been in my head.

When I was a child, my parents repeatedly played the cast album of “Gypsy,” the 1959 musical with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents. My folks loved the story of the show, which was loosely based on the life of the burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Ethel Merman belt out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses!” When I need to jumpstart my creative juices, I remember that “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”

In college, I felt that “Company,” the 1970 musical with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by George Furth, spoke to my generation. 

As was the case with Sondheim’s musicals, “Company” didn’t have a conventional plot, happy ending, or tidy resolution. It takes place during Bobby’s 35th birthday party. Bobby, who is single, is celebrating with his friends (straight, married couples). Bobby likes having friends but doesn’t want to get married.

Sondheim didn’t come out as gay until he was 40. Yet, even in the 1970s, it was hard not to think that Bobby in “Company” wasn’t gay.

Once you’ve heard Elaine Stritch sing “The Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company,” it becomes indelibly etched in your brain.

Who else but Sondheim could have written, “And here’s to the girls who play/smart-/Aren’t they a gas/Rushing to their classes in optical art,/Wishing it would pass/Another long exhausting day/Another thousand dollars/A matinee, a Pinter play/Perhaps a piece of Mahler’s/I’ll drink to that/And one for Mahler!”

In September, I, along with legions of other theater lovers, were thrilled when Sondheim told Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show,” that he was working with David Ives on a new musical called “Square One.”

In his musicals from “Follies” to “Sweeney Todd” to “Sunday in the Park with George,” Sondheim, through his lyrics and music, revealed the internal depths of his characters and the sadness, tenderness, bitterness, rage, irony, wit, and love of humanity. Sondheim’s wordplay was so brilliant that he did crossword puzzles for New York magazine.

Over his decades-long career, Sondheim won every award imaginable from the Pulitzer Prize for “Sunday in the Park with George” to the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded to him by President Barack Obama in 2015). He received more than a dozen Tony Awards for his Broadway musicals and revivals as well as a Tony Award for lifetime achievement in 2008.

Thankfully, Sondheim’s art will be with us for the ages.

A remake of “West Side Story,” directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, premieres this month.

Sondheim is a character in the Netflix film “tick, tick BOOM!,” directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The movie is based on an autobiographical posthumous Jonathan Larson (the composer of “Rent”) musical. Sondheim is supportive of Larson’s work.

Thank you Stephen, for your art! R.I.P.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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Opinions

Publish trans employment stats

Not enough corporations that march in Pride are hiring non-binary staff

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On Nov. 10, the top-tier consulting firm McKinsey published a report on discrimination toward trans people in the workplace. The report came out with numbers that we have all known true for a long time and lead to one conclusion: Trans people have a harder time finding jobs, holding them down, and advancing in their careers. 

Specifically, McKinsey cited the fact that cisgender people are twice as likely to be employed as trans people, and that more than half of trans employees are uncomfortable being out at work. Meanwhile, cisgender employees make 32% more than trans employees in the workplace, even if those trans employees hold the same positions or higher positions. 

On top of this, trans people are 2.4 times more likely to be working in the food and retail industries, which pay entry level wages that are much less than decent pay. 

These statistics are true based on a number of factors. For one, many trans people have a harder time passing at work, and people who don’t pass well face worse job prospects. (As a side note, on top of that, the study pointed to the fact that many trans people exert undue emotional and psychological energy into trying to pass really well and not be discriminated against, which takes a toll on their mental health.) 

So what is a concrete step that corporations can take to make the trans experience in the workplace better? It’s time that corporations step up their game by publishing and making transparent the number of trans employees that they actually hire. Such numbers can be published in any kind of company document: a pamphlet, online report, or even annual shareholder’s report. As it is, most corporations do not publish numbers on LGBT employees. 

“Rainbow capitalism” is a term we know all too well: major corporations and multinationals flaunting a rainbow and trans pride flag during the month of June, but seemingly doing little to hire more trans people or give back to the community during other months. 

Every corporation surely has the time and company-wide infrastructure to get statistics on their trans employees. All they need to do is implement a company-wide survey to new hires. This takes extremely little effort and time in the grand scheme of company workings. 

If major corporations like McKinsey, Bain, Deloitte, defense contractors, and hundreds of other huge companies published statistics on trans employees, they would be held accountable for their actions and words.

If these statistics were to be published today, we would probably find out that not enough corporations that march in Pride parades are hiring trans and gender nonconforming employees. 

Turning the numbers against corporations will ensure that these same corporations finally live up to their words about workplace inclusion and diversity. It won’t cure everything about the issue of being trans in the workplace, but it’s a step in the right direction. 

Isaac Amend (he/him/his) is a trans man and young professional in the D.C. area. He was featured on National Geographic’s ‘Gender Revolution’ in 2017 as a student at Yale University. Isaac is also on the board of the LGBT Democrats of Virginia. Find him on Instagram @isaacamend.

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Opinions

Should we be scared of Omicron?

A reminder to stay vigilant against latest mutation

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It’s Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend when I sit down to write this column. The craziness in the world continues but other than the scare of the new COVID mutation, which has been named Omicron, there isn’t one headline to grab attention. Instead, there are many, including some manufactured by the news media to gain viewers or sell papers. Some like the car rampaging through the Christmas parade is frightening but incidents like this seem to be happening all too often.  

The stock market went down 1,000 points on Friday because market players freaked out about the new COVID mutation coming out of South Africa. However that didn’t seem to stop people from spending their money on Black Friday. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) was again on the attack this time against fellow Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) accusing her of being a Muslim terrorist. She apologized, or pretended to, but again the Republican leadership wouldn’t condemn her statements. These things seemed to be grist for the news media with no one else unfortunately really voicing concern. 

Boebert’s comments were taken as old hat. They are disgusting, offensive, and dangerous, but as long as her constituents reelect her we will have to live with them. She is joined by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.),  Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), and Paul Gosar  (R-Wyo.) who represent the worst in Congress and the worst of the American people. Yet again until their constituents throw them out we have to live with their stupidity and the absurdity of their being where they are. 

The new COVID mutation out of South Africa is potentially a game changer. But it will be important for scientists to look at this carefully to determine how quickly it spreads and whether or not the current vaccines will offer any protection against it. Countries around the world, including the United States, have quickly instituted travel bans for South Africans and those in countries surrounding it. The World Health Organization at this time has suggested this should not be done as it will have limited impact on its spreading and could have severe and detrimental economic impact on countries whose people are being banned. One thing we must learn from this is how important it is to ensure everyone all over the world has access to vaccines as we know the more people who are inoculated the harder it is for the virus to mutate. It is not time to panic yet and by Sunday there was some reporting this new mutation may not be any more difficult to deal with than the current ones and not lead to any more severe illness. The takeaway from all this is we need to keep vigilant, get vaccinated and get booster shots, and make sure we vaccinate our children. Continue to wear masks indoors and wash our hands. 

Now the other interesting stories last weekend were about what will happen in the Senate in the weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays. Remember the House of Representatives passed President Biden’s Build Back Better bill as a reconciliation measure, which means it can pass the Senate with a simple majority. That would mean every Democratic senator and the vice president. The focus is on two senators: Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sinema (D-Ariz.). In reality we need to look at a number of others who will fight to either take out or put something into the bill the House passed. It is clear it will not pass in the current form and then it has to go back to the House again. 

Another issue that will be taken up is the debt ceiling. It may be a little easier than thought because as recently reported, “After taking a hard line and refusing to negotiate with Democrats during the last standoff over the debt limit, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is quietly looking for a way to get the issue resolved without another high-profile battle.” Then there is the budget and since none is passed Congress will have to pass another continuing resolution since the one they passed in September expires on Dec. 3. 

So for the next few weeks there will be a focus on the Senate to see what they do and how obstructionist Republicans want to be. Seems while things change, they somehow remain the same.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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