Meet the first Democrat seeking to wrest Bowser from office next year
At 26, James Butler found himself over his head. The Ohio transplant was running a law firm specializing in criminal and civil litigation with 25 staff members. It had long been a dream of his to work in civil rights and help people. But, despite his youthful ambition, he fell short in fulfilling the sudden surge of responsibilities, he says now. Within a few years, Butler would no longer run the firm. And he would be forced to give up his license to practice law.
A disciplinary hearing committee report from the D.C. Bar details what happened in 2009. The findings, which Butler did not dispute, were severe. He led a team of lawyers and staff that regularly failed to represent the interests of their clients, many of whom were incarcerated. The hearing committee report describes the details of complaints that spanned from fraud and malpractice to a persistent lack of follow-through for clients:
“In a typical case, Respondent would take many of the following actions: obtain a retainer from a client and then fail to speak with them about their case when they called; hand the matter over to an associate and provide the associate with little or no guidance on how to run the case; file improper documents on behalf of clients; fail to file documents on behalf of clients … .”
Butler — the first and only Democrat to register as a mayoral candidate in the June 2022 primary — would eventually consent to disbarment and give up his license. In a recent interview with Street Sense Media and The DC Line, he described his young self as “cavalier.” He said that led to oversights in his role as a partner supervising other lawyers at his firm, which in turn caused him to inadvertently harm a number of clients. In 2017, the D.C. Bar rejected Butler’s request to reinstate his license, saying that he “failed to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that he is entitled to reinstatement.”
The experience prompted Butler to reflect on how he would approach the work he has been doing in civil rights advocacy and to alter the way he approaches problems. It also shaped his approach to complex political issues and formulating his platform as he prepares to run his second citywide campaign.
“I think it has made me a stronger person, a more introspective person, a person with greater foresight,” he said.
The lessons came with a hefty burden that Butler said he still carries 20 years later.
“I’m very deeply sorry about my clients that were hurt in the process. Even after all of these years, I’m very sad about those claims that were heard,” he explained.
After forfeiting his legal license, Butler said he continued to help community members navigate administrative hearings held by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the D.C. Commission on Human Rights. Butler said he has been able to appear before both boards over the years, even without an active law license.
A practicing D.C. attorney who spoke on background for this article confirmed that a person could work in administrative litigation without a license but said the ethics and legality of doing so would likely depend on how they portrayed themselves to clients — as a practicing lawyer, or just as someone knowledgeable about administrative practices. They also said it would depend on the nature of the work involved in front of such boards. A spokesperson for the D.C. Bar also confirmed that a person could generally work in this capacity without a license unless specifically prohibited by the court’s disbarment order.
Several years after Butler lost his law practice, he moved from Columbia Heights into the Trinidad neighborhood. Once there, he soon found himself knocking on doors and running for advisory neighborhood commissioner. He eventually won the seat, ANC5D. And in 2018, Butler entered another political race — this time as one of two challengers in the Democratic mayoral primary running against incumbent Muriel Bowser.
A long shot candidate, Butler finished second with 7,905 votes, or just over 10% — trailing Bowser by about 54,000 votes. His campaign raised approximately $20,000, according to financial disclosures, two digits short of the over $2 million raised by the winning campaign. Bowser — who has hinted that she will seek a third term in 2022 but has not formally announced her candidacy — went on to win the 2018 general election with 76% of the vote, just shy of her 80% finish in the primary.
In this year’s race, Butler is not using public financing under the Fair Elections Act, which became law in May 2018 and was first implemented in the 2020 elections. The law prohibits him from participating in the program since he formed an exploratory committee. The Office of Campaign Finance said in a statement to Street Sense Media and The DC Line that the “act does not provide a period for testing the waters of a possible candidacy, which is the stated purpose for establishing an exploratory committee. Therefore, one cannot have an exploratory committee and then become a candidate in the Fair Elections Program.” Butler estimates he has already raised as much as he did last time — between $15,000 and $20,000.
In Butler’s view, the District has to make some drastic changes to stymie what he says is a disturbing trend of displacement that disproportionately impacts Black people and other people of color. A 2019 study conducted by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that D.C. had the highest rate of gentrification and cultural displacement among comparable cities across the country from 2000 to 2013. In a 2020 follow-up, which examined the years between 2013 and 2017, D.C. ranked 13th overall among all cities in the country.
If elected, Butler said he would implement two major changes to reverse housing inequality, a phenomenon he believes is the direct result of current policies.
First, he would overhaul the way the District implements rent control. Rent control only applies to buildings constructed before 1976, something Butler believes needs to change to include newer housing. “We know that most of the desirable buildings that people want to actually live in were built after 1979,” he said.
Second, Butler would seek to adjust the way the city calculates median family income (MFI), a metric that is used to assess housing affordability. Currently, the District uses the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) formula, which is a regionwide metric. Thus, the income levels of four of the most affluent counties in the U.S. factor into the calculation of MFI (also known as AMI, or area median income).
“What that does is artificially inflates what becomes affordable in D.C.,” Butler said, pointing out that there’s a wide disparity even within the District, particularly between neighborhoods on either side of the Anacostia River.
Butler proposes adopting a local formula for calculating MFI so that developers who promise to provide affordable housing will have to ensure units are really affordable for low-income District residents.
“Nothing in the law prohibits us right now, literally right now, from creating a localized formula, abandoning HUD’s formula,” Butler said.
New developments have often marketed “affordable housing” at properties targeted for people with wide-ranging incomes from 30% to 80% of MFI, or $27,100 to $72,250 for an individual in 2021. This has been the subject of heated discussion within the Zoning Commission and at the D.C. Council, where legislators and housing advocates alike have criticized it as being too wide a range. By adopting a localized version of this formula, Butler said he believes the city can hold developers more accountable for providing housing that is realistically affordable.
In addition to tackling the soaring cost of housing in the city, Butler also aims to change how the District handles crime.
Since the onset of the pandemic, homicides have been on the rise in the city. As of Sept. 14, 20 more violent crimes had been committed in the District this year than at the same point last year, with a 12% rise in homicides, according to MPD data.
Butler advocates a two-pronged approach to eradicating crime. The strategy involves first reintroducing strict anti-loitering laws that would prevent large groups from gathering in one place at a time without a particular reason. Courts struck down many such laws decades ago as overly broad and unconstitutional.
While he acknowledges that anti-loitering laws have in the past had an outsize impact on Black men who were wrongfully arrested for loitering, he says getting rid of these laws has hampered anti-crime efforts.
“The logic was, we’ll get rid of the no loitering law — period — and then you won’t have anyone’s civil rights being violated,” Butler said.
He contends that if the city were to reimplement its past anti-loitering laws, it would immediately reduce crime. But he added that enforcement of any future anti-loitering laws would require vigorous oversight to ensure the law is applied equally, though critics say it would be impossible to avoid discriminatory practices while authorizing police officers to use discretion.
The second part of Butler’s strategy involves close partnerships between the police and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) to aggressively remove illegal guns from District streets. As part of this proposal, Butler advocates creating an additional interdiction unit of about 20 to 40 officers with some independent oversight that would work specifically to intercept guns. The team would work in tandem with the District’s gun recovery unit based within the Metropolitan Police Department and closely partner with the ATF.
Looking at the campaign ahead, Butler acknowledges that the race for mayor in 2022 will be a challenge — one that he believes he can win. While it’s widely expected that Bowser will seek reelection, it’s less clear whether any well-known D.C. politicians would seek to unseat her if she does. But Butler is running either way.
“I lost a tough race in 2018. But I didn’t go away. I lost my law practice. But I didn’t go away. I got staying power,” he said. “I’m committed to this thing.”
This article was co-published with The DC Line.
Will Schick covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. Year one of this joint position was made possible by the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, The Nash Foundation, and individual contributors.