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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. 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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Opinion | Why LGBTQ people should fear new Texas abortion law

Slippery slope measure turns private citizens into enforcers

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Texas State Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

I worry about everything from climate change to violence against transgender people to racism to reproductive freedom for women. But, until recently, I didn’t have to worry that a “$10,000 bounty” could be collected from me if I helped a woman to have an abortion.

Yet, this is now a terrifying concern for abortion providers, advocates of women’s reproductive rights and those who value civil liberties. Especially, for people in Texas.

If you value the right to privacy and are LGBTQ or a queer ally, you should be terrified.

Here’s why everyone with a sense of decency should feel the hair standing up on the back of their necks: It’s no secret, that the Supreme Court, more conservative since the court of the 1930s, is likely eyeing the chance to overthrow or gut Roe V. Wade.

In May, the Supreme Court said that, in its next term (beginning in October 2021), it would consider an abortion case involving a Mississippi law that would prohibit most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy (about two months earlier than permitted by Roe v. Wade).

The Court’s decision to consider this case gives hope to anti-abortion activists seeking the overthrow of Roe v. Wade.   

States with Republican-controlled legislatures, aware of the make-up of the Supreme Court (with its conservative 6 to 3 majority), have acted quickly to severely weaken abortion rights. This has been especially true this year.

“More abortion restrictions — 90 — have already been enacted in 2021 than in any year since the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down in 1973,” according to a Guttmacher Institute report.

On May 19, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas signed a draconian abortion bill into law. This measure, known as a “heartbeat law,” bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.

Many women, at the six-week point, have no idea that they’re pregnant.

This is bad enough. Other states, including Ohio, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Alabama, Kentucky and South Carolina have passed “heartbeat” laws banning abortion (when a fetal heartbeat can be detected).

But the legislation signed into law this spring by Gov. Abbott is even more insidious.

The legislation, scheduled to take effect in September 2021, gives private citizens the right to sue doctors and abortion clinic employees.

It doesn’t stop there. The new law permits a private citizen (from a pastor to an Uber driver to a friend, family member or perfect stranger) to sue anyone who performs or helps anyone to get an abortion. Even private citizens not living in Texas could sue people performing or helping someone to get an abortion.

Each private citizen could potentially be awarded $10,000 for every illegal abortion.

The law doesn’t allow for abortion in the case of rape or incest. Though it would permit abortions in rare medical instances. Thankfully, on July 13, a coalition of abortion rights and civil liberties advocates, including abortion clinics, doctors, clergy, filed a federal lawsuit to challenge this new law.

Six-week abortion bans passed by other states have been successfully challenged because abortion rights advocates sued government officials.

But Texas’s new law prohibits state officials from enforcing it. It’s set up to be enforced by private citizens.

“We had to devise a unique strategy to fight this subversive law,” Nancy Northup, president and chief executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. “We will pursue every legal avenue we can to block this pernicious law.”

This new law sets up a dangerous slippery slope for LGBTQ folk.

If a private citizen is allowed to sue anyone assisting a woman having an abortion, what, for example, would prevent anyone (from a minister to a friend to a cab driver) who helps a queer couple to adopt a child? Or suing anyone helping a transgender person to get health care.

Let’s do all we can to support the effort to block this dangerous law.

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

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Opinion | LGBTQ victories are largely legal, not legislative

Leading lobbying groups ineffective as we face hostile Supreme Court

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anti-discrimination laws, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The recent conclusion of last month’s Pride month celebrations marked an annual milestone in both the history and advancements of rights for the LGBTQ community. The progress for LGBTQ rights over the last two decades has been groundbreaking – oftentimes described as an exemplary movement obtaining rights for a marginalized community. It was less than 20 years ago the United States Supreme Court struck down the country’s first real gay rights test in Lawrence v. Texas, decriminalizing “homosexual conduct” among consenting adults. 

Even in the most recent years, we all recognize how major achievements like marriage equality to the protection of gay adoption – to the recent action ensuring a fully inclusive military with transgender service – have benefited the community. But with new attacks arising daily in state capitals around the nation, like transgender sports becoming the new “bathroom bill,” LGBTQ future generations are counting on the leading LGBTQ rights and legal organizations to secure more equality.

Almost unanimously, these groundbreaking rights – while being achieved at almost lightning speed (although not fast enough for the millions of LGBTQ Americans whose lives have been, and still being impacted) – have been won in American courtrooms, not the halls of Congress. 

While the first federal LGBTQ rights bill was introduced in Congress in 1975 by former Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.) making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, it was simply referred to the Judiciary Committee and died. Forty-six years later barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, part of today’s Equality Act, has still not been passed into law by the LGBTQ lobbying organizations – and faces a similar fate this year in the U.S. Senate. 

The Equality Act, the chief legislative target for Washington, D.C.’s LGBTQ lobbying organizations is dead in Congress despite the ripest political environment with a Democratic House, Senate and White House. The Senate’s filibuster and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are major structural problems for the legislation, but there is not even serious discussion or demands from the LGBTQ lobbying community to insist on passage through filibuster reform.  

Must we automatically presume the LGBTQ community is so low a priority we are essentially beholden to prejudice of the minority in the Senate? When, therefore, can we ever expect any action? If not now, then when will gay lobbying succeed?

As an LGBTQ researcher at the University of Sydney in preparation for a new academic piece, I wanted to find out how groundbreaking LGBTQ rights could be won in courtrooms while lingering in Congress for half a century. The central question this research tried to answer was, “what factors contribute to LGBTQ lobbyist and advocate perceptions of movement success by LGBTQ organizations?”  The answer became pretty clear when surveying the top LGBTQ lobbying and government affairs professionals, the ones with the most intimate, front-line view of congressional outreach. 

Overwhelmingly, the research concludes the leading mainstream legal organizations have been primarily responsible for the community’s progress – not the LGBTQ organization’s lobbying efforts. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the wealthiest LGBTQ organization with a $48 million a year budget based in Washington, D.C. and founded 41 years ago, was ranked 10th most effective out of 17 organizations ranked. Since 2018, HRC has fallen six additional positions since the original research was published. In contrast, Lambda Legal, the LGBTQ community’s foremost legal rights organization, followed by the legal powerhouse, the ACLU, have moved ahead of them ranking as the most effective LGBTQ organizations.

The research clearly demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the LGBTQ lobby, which has largely focused on gaining access to power structures instead of winning legislative victories.  Fundraising models of these organizations, built largely around monetizing their access to power, has left little evidence of their effectiveness and in turn, has strengthened systems of oppression against an overwhelming number of LGBTQ people of color, transgender individuals and lower-income members of the community. The “access to power” model of LGBTQ lobbying has essentially commercialized gayness (white, cisgender, English-speaking, middle and upper class gayness) as a consumable product that most often benefits those in power. It’s a “scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” system of lobbying that shuts the door on the most marginalized LGBTQ people – those most in need of legislative victories to protect their lives.

Today, regardless of all of the progress in LGBTQ legal victories over the last two decades, the community is in the most dangerous place it has been in 25 years. LGBTQ lobbying does not work, and LGBTQ legal avenues have catastrophically changed. The 6-3 Supreme Court is poised to undermine Roe, which some say undermines Lawrence, which undermines Obergefell (the groundbreaking 2015 marriage equality decision). A house of very successful, but delicate legal cards, may begin to fall. The LGBTQ community is holding its collective breath against an anti-LGBTQ Supreme Court majority, and the spotlight is now shining brightly on the LGBTQ lobby and their ability to produce legislative success. 

Unfortunately, the organizations responsible for shaping the community’s relationship with states and the federal government are largely seen as ineffective and oftentimes harmful to progress. This ineffectiveness leaves the LGBTQ community in a dangerous and perilous moment in the movement’s history.  

To be successful, a radical transformation of the movement’s lobbying must happen immediately by shifting to a much more state-based movement, where anti-LGBTQ opponents are already attacking the identity and existence of transgender people with the introduction of more than 100 bills aimed to curb the rights of transgender people nationwide. Secondly, the danger to the lives of LGBTQ people from these legislative harms must be amplified and ready to be fought against. And lastly, a new model of investment is required that prioritizes the lives of transgender individuals and people of color and embraces an intersectional approach to lobbying. 

The LGBTQ movement is about to face darker days ahead. Leaders in Washington’s premier gay rights groups, including their lobbyists, must figure out how to protect our children, protect the poor, and lift up the marginalized or face disastrous consequences in the next few years in legislative bodies from city halls to the U.S. Capitol. Otherwise our hopes to tackle issues like transgender sports and equality will rest solely on the LGBTQ legal apparatus.

Christopher Pepin-Neff, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in Public Policy in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, is the author of ‘LGBTQ Lobbying in the United States.’

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Opinion | Macha, Byrne for Rehoboth Beach Commission

Aug. 14 election critical after reckless vote on Clear Space permits

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Double L, Diego's Hideaway, Fourth, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, gay news, Washington Blade

On Saturday, Aug. 14, voters in Rehoboth Beach, Del., have an opportunity to make a strong statement on what they want their city to be in the future. During last year’s election for mayor and Commission, I suggested a vote for Stan Mills, Susan Gay and Patrick Gossett would take Rehoboth back to the Sam Cooper years and put anti-business candidates in control of the City Commission. My prediction has sadly proven accurate. The latest fiasco is the vote to turn down the city’s Planning Commission recommendation for the second time and potentially force the iconic Clear Space Theatre out of Rehoboth.

While voters of Rehoboth Beach can’t turn around the Commission with one election their votes can make a huge difference. That is why I urge support for Rachel Macha and Richard Byrne who have both shown an in-depth understanding of what Rehoboth Beach needs to flourish and promise a fair and balanced look at the future of the city. They understand to be successful for years to come Rehoboth must fairly balance the needs of its residents, businesses, and visitors.

Rachel Macha and her husband Rich have owned property in Rehoboth Beach for more than 21 years. They have a great loving family, 23-year-old triplets and 21-year-old twins. Macha is proud of the fact that since her kids were 14, they have held summer jobs in Rehoboth at Funland, Royal Treat, Jungle Jim’s, Bin 66 and Big Fish Restaurant Group.

She understands Rehoboth’s Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP) and that within the next year the updated CDP will set forth a strategic vision for Rehoboth Beach. Macha said “It will be the Commissioner’s guide to navigating the way to a sound future to achieve its key strategic objectives, including preserving our sense of place, infrastructure, arts and culture, strategic projects, and safety. As a member of the Planning Commission, I focused intensely to carefully analyze and understand the concerns, desires, and suggestions of residents, businesses, and tourists before, during and after COVID.”

Her professional experience is in the area of improving customer service and customer experience in the technology, software, and service industries. She has spent years serving on various school, church, company, and non-profit boards and committees. For the past three years, she leveraged her experience serving Rehoboth on the Parks, Shade Tree Commission, and Planning Commission.

Macha also understands the future of the city depends on fiscal responsibility and enhancing the sense of community that Rehoboth Beach was developing before the current mayor’s efforts, intentional or not, destroyed it. To foster that sense of community Macha has proposed launching a Customer Experience Committee comprised of residents, organizations such as RBHA and CAMP, and local businesses to generate and openly discuss ways to move Rehoboth forward positively with a unified sense of purpose.

Richard Byrne and his wife Sherri have been coming to Rehoboth for more than 25 years. They bought their home in 2002 and have lived in Rehoboth full-time since 2009. Byrne has more than 30 years of experience in education, running university extension programs in Maryland and Minnesota. Those programs required collaboration among citizens, volunteers, youth, community organizations and working with county and state agencies. He has served in many ways including being a member of the Rehoboth Beach Commission for the past three years and is proud of his many accomplishments during that time.

He authored legislation creating Steve Elkins Way; created the environment committee; and promoted endeavors to take care of the city’s natural environment. He led the review of the city’s wireless communications facilities ordinance; has been involved with bringing back recycling to the boardwalk; brought forward several measures to improve pedestrian safety; and secured a grant to support the beautification of the public triangle on State Road.

He said, “If I am re-elected I will continue to preserve residential neighborhoods, protect the city’s natural environment and promote ethical, open, fair, and transparent government. I will continue listening to concerns of residents and business owners and look for new ideas for improving our city.” So on Aug. 14, vote Rachel Macha and Richard Byrne for a better Rehoboth Beach.

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

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