Since President Donald Trump abruptly fired him last March, former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has been wary of getting involved directly in politics. But his Twitter feed and podcast “Stay Tuned with Preet” have made him a minor celebrity in Democratic circles. Last weekend he made his first post-firing campaign appearances at Grandpa’s Cheesbarn in Ashland, Ohio, and a pair of fundraisers in Cleveland and Columbus.
Despite his star power among Democrats, these weren’t fundraisers for a House member, senator, or governor but an Ohio state attorney general candidate: fellow former U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach.
State attorneys general races usually get only a fraction of the coverage and attention that even a single congressional seat does (remember Jon Ossoff?). But there’s a bruising, money-soaked fight taking place nationwide for the 35 state attorneys general seats potentially up for grabs in the 2018 midterm elections, including one in Washington, D.C.
“They're not glamorous, but they really matter in people's lives,” Dettelbach said along with Bharara in an interview. “And in a kitchen table way, these are races that affect people's futures.”
“There are things that an attorney general's office can do that federal prosecutors can't, and the local DAs can't,” Bharara said.
The Trump administration’s approach to law enforcement, with attacks on the FBI and the Justice Department, have made jobs like state attorney general particularly important at this moment, Bharara argues.
“It's easy and commonplace and somewhat fashionable to attack the credibility of the people who are involved in these issues,” Bharara said of the recent criticisms of those involved in law enforcement. “What is worrisome is that there are a lot of people who maybe don't have faith in the outcome because they don't have faith in the players.”
With Democrats out of power in Congress and the White House, the party’s 22 state attorneys general — down from 32 in 2010 — have become their own check on the Trump administration. That began the first week of Trump’s presidency, when Democratic state attorneys general successfully brought lawsuits against his travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries.
"They're not glamorous, but they really matter in people's lives."
Since then, nineteen Democratic state attorneys general have sued the administration to protect Obamacare subsidies. Sixteen have gone to court to prevent a rollback of environmental regulations. And 20 have filed lawsuits to protect undocumented immigrants brought here as children who were previously protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
National Democrats want to expand that legal pushback by winning as many state attorneys general seats in 2018. The Democratic Attorneys General Association has gone from a sleepy organization based in Colorado last election to a D.C. professional political operation.
The Ohio attorney general seat is one of the group’s top targets this year, with a likely matchup between Dettelbach and Republican Dave Yost. Both have been stockpiling campaign donations for what’s expect to be a serious fight. Yost has over $2 million on hand, and Dettelbach has more than $1.5 million, according to the last finance report.
In some way, Democrats are playing catch up to their Republican counterparts who began funnelling resources to state attorneys general during the Obama era. With lawsuit after lawsuit opposing Democrats on everything from Obamacare to environmental regulations, Republican state attorneys general became national stars for the party — like now EPA administrator Scott Pruitt who was Oklahoma’s attorney general.
There is a risk, however, that the Republican and Democratic efforts in 2018 and beyond could end up further politicizing and undermining public trust in these law enforcement positions.
Bharara said that’s one reason he supports Dettelbach. The former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio and a former federal prosecutor, Dettelbach doesn’t want to throw red meat to the crowd. “It's not my job to get involved in all sorts of partisan fights,” Dettelbach said. “It’s just noise.”
But in the Trump era, partisan fights often seem unavoidable for state attorneys general. For instance, Dettelbach said he would have joined the legal challenges to Trump’s immigration ban.
But at a time when politicians of both parties are desperately trying to appear “anti-establishment” and “populist,” Bharara said he is focused on helping those people attempting to restore order.
“I'm not here because there is some sort of, you know, conspiracy to resist,” he said.
Cover image: Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and Ohio state attorney general candidate Steve Dettelbach stop off at Grandpa’s Cheesebarn in Ashland, Ohio. (Photo courtesy of the Dettelbach campaign)