When Karl Racine, who became the first independently elected attorney general of the District of Columbia in 2014, delivered the 21st annual Attorney General Robert Abrams Public Service Lecture on January 30, his remarks went further than recounting his own experiences in government and law. Racine, who moved to the DC area from Haiti with his parents when he was three, invoked the promise and contributions of immigrants at a time when immigration is a political flash point nationwide.

Karl RacineFor Racine, recent developments in the ongoing immigration debate have struck particularly close to home. When President Donald Trump reportedly called Haiti and several other nations “shithole countries” in a meeting with lawmakers on January 11, Racine denounced the comment as racist in a CNN interview and also told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “It strikes me to the heart and to my core.” (The president has said his words were “misrepresented.”)

At the January 30 lecture, after being introduced by former New York State attorney general Robert Abrams ‘63, Racine put aside a set of prepared remarks in favor of notes on a single index card. “I’ve always known that I’m an immigrant,” he said, “but I’ve also always known that eventually my father’s dream would be realized, and that is that his two kids would become naturalized citizens of the United States and would become full participants in the democracy that is the United States.”

Racine displayed concern for immigrants’ issues as far back as his days at the University of Virginia School of Law, where he participated in a clinic advocating for migrant farmworkers. After serving as associate White House counsel in the Clinton administration, he joined the partnership at Venable and became one of only a few African American lawyers ever to head an Am Law 100 law firm.

Karl Racine (left) and Robert Abrams '63As DC’s attorney general, Racine has undertaken an ambitious agenda that has included implementing changes to the juvenile justice system that have cut the recidivism rate by more than 20 percent; targeting landlords who attempted to push out economically disadvantaged residents; and creating a consumer protection office that in 2017 helped return $7 million to citizens who called its mediation hotline.

When a student in the audience spoke about the disillusionment that can result from headlines about political inefficacy and rancor, Racine contrasted frequent federal gridlock with the greater nimbleness and bipartisanship that is often possible for those working below the national level.

“Where the rubber meets the road with real people who have real issues and real problems, you don’t have to get mired in congressional wars back and forth,” he said. “You can simply focus on a problem, get smart people on your team to analyze it, and then go about bringing solutions to it.”

Posted February 13, 2017