‘Smitty’ Vying to Become D.C. Attorney General
Through the drizzling rain on a gray October morning, blue signs emblazoned with “Smitty” are visible in the windows of a three-story red brick building in Shaw. In a small office upstairs, campaign staffers are working to make sure the signs’ namesake becomes D.C.’s first elected attorney general.
Edward “Smitty” Smith, a Democrat and D.C. native, is hoping his government experience and Washington roots will resonate with voters and set him apart from the four other Democrats vying for the position.
“I’m the only person in this race who’s managed government attorneys,” Smith told CQ Roll Call in a recent interview at his campaign headquarters. “This is a government office; it’s not a law firm.”
The posters bearing his nickname can be spotted all over the city. He’s been called “Smitty” his entire life — his Aunt Barbara came up with the nickname when he was born. Smith said he was called “Smitty” so often, he did not learn his real name until he was 3 years old.
Before entering the AG race, Smith held a number of positions in the Obama administration, including chief of staff and prosecutor at the Federal Communications Commission, program director at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and adviser at the Department of Commerce. Smith’s first job with the Obama administration was as deputy general counsel for the 2009 Presidential Inaugural Committee.
But he’s not the only candidate with experience in a presidential administration. Karl Racine worked for the Clinton administration as an associate White House counsel and President Bill Clinton endorsed him Monday. Racine is a partner at Venable in D.C. and was also endorsed by The Washington Post.
The Post’s editorial board cited Racine’s extensive experience in their endorsement. Smith countered that though he is young and has less quantifiable experience, his government work is more relevant to the AG office.
The AG is in charge of 10 divisions, amounting to hundreds of lawyers and employees, who represent the District government in court and develop legal opinions.
In 2010, D.C. residents voted to make the AG an elected position, but the D.C. Council, with support from current Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, voted to delay the election until 2018. But in June, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the council overstepped its bounds, placing the AG office back on the ballot.
“For all of the experience that The Washington Post cites, I think it’s important to focus on experience doing what the AG does,” Smith said. “The AG is not a litigator or trial attorney. . . . The AG is an administrator of a large government agency.”
Smith has fewer years working as a professional under his belt and, at 34, he is the youngest candidate in the race (though another candidate, Lateefah Williams, a public policy attorney and community advocate, is not much older at 38).
A “desire to effect some greater social change” steered Smith to Harvard Law School after graduating from Brown University in 2002. Three years later, Smith graduated from Harvard with $140,000 in debt.
So he went into corporate law and joined Hogan Lovells. As an associate, Smith also traveled to law schools to recruit aspiring lawyers to the firm.
“When you’re the young, black associate from Harvard, you get sent out to recruit a lot because everyone wants to say, ‘This is the face of the firm,’” said Smith. “And so I was sort of having this internal debate about how do I convince people to come to this firm, . . . when I myself need to be out doing something better, something in public service?”
While on a recruiting trip in California, Smith called up a friend to meet for a drink, only to find that his friend was in Waterloo, Iowa, working for the Obama campaign. Smith’s friend told him, “You really need to get here, this is important. This is going to be historic.”
“So I slept on it,” said Smith, “and I woke up the next day and something inside said, ‘Do this, this is important, it’s more important than anything you’re doing.’” So he called up the firm and told his bosses he had to leave to work on the campaign.
Over the course of the 2008 primary and general election, Smith contributed to the grass-roots effort, assisted policy committees and worked as a scheduler. Smith’s campaign contacts are proving useful as he makes his own run for office, because several former Obama campaign staffers are currently volunteering for the AG candidate.
Smith’s work on the campaign and in the administration also helped him develop relationships on Capitol Hill, which he said he would utilize as AG, especially to lobby Congress for more authority. However, he admitted expanding the office’s powers would be difficult in a gridlocked Congress.
“I know how slowly Congress works, . . . so I’m not going to hold my breath for that,” Smith said. “But we need to have somebody who’s going to make it a priority and somebody who’s going to be pushing for it.”
Another issue Smith plans to push for is D.C. statehood. He was recently involved with DC Vote and the We the People Project, which works for equal rights in the territories.
Beneath the rolled up sleeves on his crisp, white button-down, Smith sports a red rubber bracelet with the phrase, “Taxation Without Representation.”
“[W]hat we need is an AG for whom this is going to be a top priority and who’s going to be vocal about it, and who will work with other AG’s around the country to elevate attention toward this issue,” said Smith.
If elected, Smith plans to develop a small task force of lawyers focused on developing legal arguments in support of statehood.
As an advocate for greater independence in D.C., Smith also said he would enforce the Budget Autonomy Act. Nathan, the current AG, has refused to enforce it, which ignited an ongoing legal battle.
Racine was the only AG candidate who said at an October WAMU forum that Nathan made the right choice. Paul Zukerberg, another AG candidate, said Nathan was wrong and, if elected, he would defend the act in court.
Zukerberg brought the fight to put the AG on the ballot this year to court, though some of his fellow candidates say he shouldn’t get all of the credit for the election.
Lorie Masters, an attorney and a longtime voting rights advocate who is also running for AG, has said she was also involved in the effort. Smith said he, too, advocated for an elected AG position.
“When Mary Cheh presented the bill proposing to place the election back on the ballot, I moved to go over to the city council and lobby the councilmembers and their staff to vote in favor of this bill,” said Smith.
A few weeks after the court’s decision to allow the AG on the ballot, Smith quit his job at the FCC and jumped into the race.
From the start, Smith focused on reforming the juvenile justice system, an issue he said hits close to home, since he saw kids he grew up with in Anacostia become part of that system. Though Smith grew up in the tough area, his mother and father, a federal worker and public school teacher, eventually moved Smith and his four siblings out of Anacostia to a safer neighborhood.
Placing more attention on such issues is part of Smith’s plan to develop the AG’s office as it shifts from an appointed to elected position.
”Most of the functions of the AG’s office are going to remain static,” Smith noted. “But there is the opportunity to focus more on certain issues that I think haven’t received adequate attention.”
One issue that is sure to capture attention this November is marijuana legalization in D.C., which is expected to pass through a ballot initiative. Smith did not commit to whether or not he would defend legalization should Congress move to block the initiative.
Smith said the issue is “a tough one” and he would need to examine whether Congress could legally intervene. He declined to share his own view on legalization, instead emphasizing his support for more resident control over D.C. laws.
But Smith is sure that, if elected, his nickname will stay.
When asked at the WAMU forum if the nickname would persist in office, Smith replied, “I would ask that everyone continue to call me ‘Smitty,’ because it’s who I am.”