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Yesterday’s US Attorneys May Be Tomorrow’s Congressional Candidates

Abrupt ouster by Trump administration provides incentive

Dana Boente could be a plausible challenger to Republican Scott Taylor in Virginia’s 2nd District. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images file photo)
Dana Boente could be a plausible challenger to Republican Scott Taylor in Virginia’s 2nd District. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images file photo)

President Donald Trump’s abrupt ouster of almost half the country’s U.S. attorneys has done more than create yet another tempest for his nascent administration. It’s also created a new and potentially potent Democratic political class.

Campaign consultants in both parties have long identified prosecutors — especially those confirmed by the Senate to act as the chief federal law enforcement officers in the nation’s 93 judicial districts — as top-flight congressional recruiting opportunities. But, for reasons that aren’t all that obvious, the Republicans have propelled many more crime busters onto Capitol Hill than the Democrats in recent years.

But, as of this week, almost four dozen U.S. attorneys installed during the Obama administration are suddenly out of work. And they are carrying a very big Trumpian chip on their collective shoulders just as Democratic operatives are shifting their search for 2018 candidates into high gear.

The abruptness of their dismissals has only reinforced the perception of a White House intent on destabilizing normal governmental operations and eager to disregard old political conventions. One evermore clear consequence of Trump’s governance-by-upheaval approach is that the legislative steps toward conservative policymaking, not to mention political life, are becoming steadily more complicated for Trump’s putative GOP allies on Capitol Hill.

(Plucking four Republican congressmen for the Cabinet has only made it more difficult for the leadership to round up votes for Trump’s agenda, starting with the health care bill, for example.)

In this latest instance, Trump and his team of West wing disruptors have created potentially urgent problems for a cadre of House Republicans who might not yet otherwise be looking toward their campaigns with much dread.

While it’s a bit too soon to start making phone calls, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is ready to hear from any ousted federal prosecutors thinking about a new career in electoral office. “The DCCC looks forward to connecting with any U.S. attorney who is interested in continuing their service to our country by running for Congress,” said spokeswoman Meredith Kelly.

Hit the road

For decades, when the Oval Office changed partisan hands, many U.S. attorneys installed by the previous president were permitted (and in some cases, encouraged) to stick around and keep the wheels of justice moving in their corners of the country until successors from the new president’s party were ready to take over.

This time, 42 of the Obama-era prosecutors who hadn’t already moved on were given only a few hours to clear out their offices and turn in their government ID badges last Friday. (The widely cited number, 46, is misleading because prosecutors from Maryland and Virginia are filling senior Justice Department jobs, while a pair from upstate New York and Connecticut have been granted reprieves for a couple of months so they can qualify for pensions.)

Plenty of those given the boot will soon enough get over their anger at being so precipitously dismissed, doing what they’ve expected to do since election night by returning to careers in private practice. But plenty more will be open to entering the partisan electoral fray, concluding it’s their duty to join the active opposition to a president who summarily truncated and maybe tarnished their reputations as independent agents for the rule of law.

A disproportionate share of attention has surrounded Preet Bharara of New York, who went out of his way to detail how he’d been fired just weeks after being explicitly asked to remain in the most prominent prosecuting post in the country. But Bharara has said repeatedly he has no interest in elective office anytime soon, and those close to him say they believe him.

Former U.S. attorneys, from left, Eileen Decker, Kenneth Polite Jr., Richard Hartunian and Carole Rendon could be attractive recruits for House Democrats in 2018. (Screenshots)
Former U.S. attorneys, from left, Eileen Decker, Kenneth Polite Jr., Richard Hartunian and Carole Rendon could be attractive recruits for House Democrats in 2018. (Screenshots)

That’s not so elsewhere in the country. Even this week, Michigan Democrats have already started talking up Barbara McQuade, for seven years the U.S. attorney in Detroit, as a great candidate for governor or attorney general next year, and Louisiana Democrats are looking at Kenneth Polite Jr., forced out after four years as the top federal prosecutor in New Orleans, as an option for mayor or state attorney general.

And at least half a dozen of the suddenly former prosecutors look like they’re geographically positioned for challenging potentially vulnerable Republican House members next fall.

Kevin Techau spent three years as the top Justice Department official in Cedar Rapids, the dominant  city in the decidedly purple Iowa district where Republican Rod Blum struggled to secure a second term last fall.

Eileen Decker was the U.S. attorney for Los Angeles and much of southern California during President Barack Obama’s second term, positioning her to take on any of the state’s seven GOP House members re-elected in districts backing Hillary Clinton for president.

Carole Rendon, having been top federal prosecutor in northern Ohio, could make it a race against someone like Rep. David Joyce, especially if his district encompassing the suburbs of Cleveland and Akron becomes more competitive in light of Trump’s wobbly approval.

Richard Hartunian spent seven years as the U.S. attorney for much of upstate New York, where the Democrats see prime opportunities for taking GOP seats away from first-termer Claudia Tenney, second-termer John Katko (a former assistant U.S. attorney) and Trump champion Chris Collins.

Dana Boente, who’s acting temporarily as deputy attorney general, will eventually be forced out of that job as well as the U.S. attorney post for a swath of Virginia from Alexandria south to Norfolk, making him a plausible challenger to freshman Scott Taylor in a swing district at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

And Ed Tarver was a state senator before Obama made him the U.S. attorney in southern Georgia in 2009, so he has the experience (and the support base in the African-American community) to try to reclaim a House seat centered in Augusta that a Democrat held as recently as three years ago.

Tilting the balance

Not only recruiting candidates, but ushering them to victory, would help the Democrats alter a not-so-easily explained partisan imbalance among the prosecutors in Congress.

Sixty senators and House members, or 11 percent of the membership, have experience filing civil suits or criminal indictments at U.S. attorneys’ offices, working for (or as) state attorneys general, or acting as elected or appointed local district attorneys. That’s eight more than in the previous Congress, but the partisan ratio has not changed appreciably and this year stands at exactly two Republicans for every Democrat.

The only Democrats who have been U.S. attorneys are a pair of senators who launched their public careers by securing those posts more than two decades ago, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

But six Republicans who have arrived in the House this decade made political names for themselves as U.S. attorneys nominated in the 2000s by President George W. Bush: Patrick Meehan and Tom Marino of Pennsylvania, Susan W. Brooks of Indiana, George Holding of North Carolina and John Ratcliffe of Texas were joined this year by David Kustoff of Tennessee.

Prosecutors are eyed as congressional candidates for several easy-to-understand reasons.

Their work demands they be versatile on the issues, attentive to detail, quick on their feet, adaptable in debate and unflappable under public pressure — all highly prized campaigning skills.

Their jobs afford them opportunities to become savvy with their local media and to garner plenty of “good press” with headlines about indictments, convictions or civil settlements with unsympathetic characters.

Their positions demand personal and financial behavior (nominees for U.S. attorney undergo exhaustive background checks before confirmation) that should easily withstand an opponent’s interest in making attack ads.

And, last but surely not least, their purportedly nonpartisan prominence in their communities nonetheless creates an automatic network for fundraising within their chosen party.

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