SEATTLE — Should Washington’s attorney general focus on street crime, like gun violence and gangs, or concentrate on making sure people don’t fall victim to scams or get taken advantage of by powerful corporate interests?
That is one of the questions underlying the race between Republican Reagan Dunn and Democrat Bob Ferguson, who are both vying for what is arguably the second-most visible state elected office.
Dunn points to his experience as a federal prosecutor in Seattle, while Ferguson stresses his work as a civil litigator at one of Seattle’s biggest law firms.
At a debate in Spokane in June marked by testy exchanges, the two candidates clashed over their differing visions for the office. The confrontation was notable for its frank and sometimes personal barbs, as well as the fact that it overshadowed the main event at the spring meeting of the Association of Washington Business — the first gubernatorial debate between current Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, and his Democratic opponent, Jay Inslee.
For all their differences, there are many similarities between Dunn and Ferguson. Both are politically ambitious, seen as rising stars in their respective parties. Both are from the greater Seattle metro area and, most distinctively, they’ve both had the same job for years — serving on the King County Council.
“I sit next to Bob on the council,” Dunn said. “When you know somebody well, it’s a little easier to be more aggressive with them. I don’t take that stuff personally, and I don’t think Bob does either.”
“The reality is that both Reagan and I are able to separate our campaign side from our other sides,” he said. “We’re usually teasing each other about the race.”
Kidding aside, the stakes are high for both men. They will likely advance to the November election after the Aug. 7 primary, in which the top two vote-getters move on, regardless of party. Conservative Republican and states’ rights advocate Stephen Pidgeon is also in the race.
The attorney general’s office has been a springboard to higher positions. Gov. Chris Gregoire was the state’s top legal officer before McKenna, and former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton also spent 12 years in the role.
The attorney general oversees more than 1,100 people, including 525 attorneys. The current two-year budget for the office is about $229 million.
One of the office’s main priorities is enforcing consumer protection laws and representing customers in lawsuits against companies. Its attorneys also represent Washington in all legal cases involving state interests, provide legal opinions to public officials and can investigate and prosecute criminal activity at the request of the governor or a county prosecutor. There are only 20 attorney positions slated as prosecutors who primarily work on criminal matters.
Dunn says even though the criminal investigation aspect of the attorney general’s role is smaller compared to civil litigation work, the subject is important.
“Every other question we get is a law enforcement question,” said Dunn, adding that the office deals with concerns about gun and gang violence, online crime and cyber bullying. “You can say that most of the litigation of the office is civil in matter, but you are still the state’s top law enforcement officer.”
The son of the late Republican congresswoman Jennifer Dunn, Reagan Dunn has served on the King County Council since 2005. He says he’d work on public safety issues, consumer fraud and environmental issues if elected. He also says he wants to make the attorney general’s office more efficient.
His time as a federal prosecutor in Seattle working on things like narcotics and bank fraud cases, as well as his stint at a private Bellevue law firm, has given him a broad view of the legal world, Dunn says.
“I’ve got a much better rounded resume, and a deeper legal resume, than my Democratic opponent.”
Ferguson counters that the “overwhelming majority” of the attorney general’s work is on the civil matters, and his resume trumps his rival’s.
“I understand he’s trying to fit his background on the prosecutorial side. It’s a good fit for running for prosecuting attorney, but not for attorney general,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson, who has been a county councilman since 2003, worked as clerk for a federal appellate court judge before joining the Seattle law firm of Preston Gates and Ellis (which is now K&L Gates). In private practice he worked to shield taxpayers from cost overruns from Safeco Field construction and challenged the constitutionality of some of initiative promoter Tim Eyman’s measures.
Ferguson says the recent unsuccessful lawsuit targeting the new federal health care law brought by more than 20 mostly GOP attorneys general, including McKenna, shows how significant the top legal officer in the state can be.
“More and more we are seeing AGs making a huge difference, either good or bad, depending on your perspective,” Ferguson said.
He said he would use the office to represent people who don’t have the resources to fight for themselves. Among his goals are to investigate banks and mortgage servicers who won’t help responsible homeowners who are in trouble, to beef up prosecutions of dishonest lenders, increase penalties for repeat drunk drivers and to protect veterans from consumer fraud.
“I think I bring the right independence to the office of attorney general, and a willingness to take on powerful interests,” Ferguson said. “Your average Washingtonian can’t afford to hire a high-priced lawyer. It’s your AG who is your representative.”