State AG candidates nearly same; Ferguson has slight edge

If it weren’t for the fact that every Washington state attorney general since Don Eastvold, who served from 1953 to1956, has run for governor or the U.S. Senate, this statewide elected office might have a lower public profile.

Of the six previous attorneys general who launched a quest for higher office, only Slade Gorton and Chris Gregoire have succeeded, so far. Attorney General Rob McKenna is attempting to become the third in this fall’s election.

Except when joining major, national lawsuits, such as Gregoire did with big tobacco and as McKenna did on President Barack Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act, the position is largely administrative.

The attorney general has two main responsibilities. The AG manages the state’s law firm of 500 attorneys, whose job it is to defend and counsel government agencies and departments, and they either file or join lawsuits undertaken to protect consumers.

As such, the position is overwhelmingly concerned with civil law. Only about 2 percent of its cases involve criminal activity.

There is little to separate the candidates to succeed McKenna – Republican Reagan Dunn and Democrat Bob Ferguson – but the edge goes to Ferguson for his civil law experience and the greater likelihood he would advocate for consumers against powerful interests, such as the mortgage and banking industry.

Both candidates were elected and re-elected to the Metropolitan King County Council, as was McKenna, and have voted the same way 99 percent of the time. Both men, in their 40s, are bright, rising political stars within their respective parties.

McKenna nominated both candidates to fellowships in the Aspen Institute, an organization devoted to good governance through bipartisanship. Both point to instances where they have gone against their party – Dunn on social issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, and Ferguson on standing up to unions for conciliation on compensation.

Given so many similarities, the state could be well-served by either candidate.

But Ferguson nudges ahead on two counts.

First, he has greater experience with civil law, albeit a brief 41/2 years. Neither candidate can tout a long legal career. Both have served longer on the King County Council than they did in the legal profession.

Dunn’s experience is primarily as a criminal prosecutor. His vision for Washington is “the best place to start a business and the worst place to commit a crime.” That focus on crime is admirable, but not a qualification for this office.

The difference in experience might explain why more than 900 attorneys around the state have endorsed Ferguson, while only 100 are supporting Dunn.

Second, one of the roles of the attorney general is to enforce the state’s Consumer Protection Act, which Ferguson says he would do aggressively.

Promising to take on powerful interests that don’t play by the rules, Ferguson specifically mentions holding banks accountable for predatory lending, and protecting families from foreclosure and unscrupulous mortgage practices.

Both candidates claim to have bucked their party’s priorities. Dunn’s rebellion is over social issues. He supports same-sex marriage and a woman’s control over reproductive rights, both key Republican issues.

Ferguson has acted independently on several substantive issues, angering Democrats each time. He sided with right-wing activist Tim Eyman in pushing the King County Council to shrink from 11 to nine members, he convinced unions in 2010 to give back some of their negotiated pay raises, and he spoke out loudly against the burgeoning costs of Sound Transit.

The candidates differ on McKenna’s decision to join other Republican attorneys general in the lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court denied in June, ruling it constitutional. Dunn would have joined in on the narrow basis of the mandate; Ferguson would not have joined at all.

Both have good records and a commitment to open government, and acknowledge it is the attorney general’s job to defend the state in lawsuits that may conflict with their personal beliefs.

This will be a close race, but Ferguson deserves voter support.