Attorney-general candidate Reagan Dunn's political pedigree has helped him. But it's also led to perceptions that he's glided in life and work.
Read Thursday’s front-page profile of Bob Ferguson, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, here.
In Reagan Dunn’s first run for office, he took on incumbent Metropolitan King County Council member Steve Hammond, a former evangelical minister from Enumclaw.
One of Hammond’s supporters likened that Republican primary clash to the Clampetts and Drysdales from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” with the rural Hammond against the country-club Dunn.
The perception of Dunn as a privileged elite gliding on the name of his late mother, a respected congresswoman, has lingered over his career.
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He contributes to the image at times. He missed more votes than any County Council member, according to a count earlier this year. He likes to joke that his mom went to Stanford, his dad to Harvard, and he graduated from Arizona State. His backslapping style, high-wattage smile and ever-present Mountain Dew add to the impression that his life is one long Saturday afternoon.
There’s no question his pedigree has helped him. He figures his name is worth 10 percentage points in a Republican primary. It also played a part in his landing a job as a federal prosecutor, experience crucial to his campaign this year for attorney general against Democrat Bob Ferguson.
Dunn calls his mother his mentor and embodies several of her signature traits. He keeps a sunny outlook, moderate views, and, above all, her style of making politics look easy. “He went to school on his mother,” said Dennis Dunn, his father, a former member of the Republican National Committee.
But Dunn says he’s made his own way.
“I’m always going to get accused of standing on the shoulders of others,” he said. “Some people work hard and tell everybody that’s what they do. I’ve never been one that likes to run around and project that.”
Learned from his mom
It’s hard to resist the idea that Dunn, 41, was born lucky.
He was named after Ronald Reagan, but it was back in 1971 when the former actor was a one-term California governor. Dunn’s parents were smitten by Reagan’s positive brand of conservatism, and catchy one-liners, and believed he’d be the new GOP standard-bearer. It’s a good thing, Dunn jokes, he wasn’t named Nixon.
Outdoorsy, charismatic and cheerful, Jennifer Dunn seemed to model herself after the governor in her rise from state party chair to the highest-ranking Republican woman in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Reagan Dunn said he learned politics from his mother the way other boys might learn the family grocery business — except that learning itself was a challenge.
He suffered from dyslexia, something he rarely discusses. “I spent eight years struggling with that learning disability,” he said. “I could’ve used it to get extra time on SATs, LSATs and the bar exam. I chose not to. I chose to sit with everybody else in the same rows and conditions.”
True, he grew up in Bellevue’s Newport Shores neighborhood, in a house his mom got when she and his father split. “But when my parents divorced, Mom was making $22,000 a year and bringing in $250 a month in child support,” he said. He was 8 years old.
He and his brother were latchkey kids, he says, raised mostly by their single mom, whose career started in the county assessor’s office. Dunn still owes money on his law-school loan, according to financial disclosures filed with the state.
“The perception that Reagan was born with a silver spoon is little more than that,” says his older brother, Bryant Dunn, a fishing and hunting guide in Idaho.
Dunn says his mother wanted him to go into business and make money. But as a young lawyer at a Bellevue firm he couldn’t shake the political bug.
In the late 1990s he saw Texas Gov. George W. Bush speak and told his mother: “You’ve got to get behind this guy.”
Reagan Dunn became co-counsel for Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign in Washington state. When the Supreme Court settled the election in Bush’s favor, Dunn went to Washington, D.C., to be part of the transition team. Hired by the Department of Justice, he became coordinator of Project Safe Neighborhoods, a national initiative to reduce gun violence.
During his two years in D.C., he received letters of praise from the head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
A chance to return home came in 2003.
As John McKay, then U.S. Attorney for Western Washington, explained it: “The Department of Justice gave us an extra slot” for a federal prosecutor. McKay interviewed Dunn for the job.
“Obviously,” McKay added, “it didn’t hurt that his mom was a member of Congress whom I knew.”
But McKay said he was concerned Dunn might see the job as a political sinecure. “I wanted to make sure he was going to get in and work hard,” McKay said.
Dunn gave his word and kept it, said McKay. “You can’t be responsible for drug cases, with DEA agents waiting on you, without being a hard worker.”
Dunn’s life was threatened by a drug dealer he put away, a credible enough threat that McKay alerted higher-ups in Washington, D.C. “We took those situations very seriously,” said McKay, who is supporting Dunn’s campaign for attorney general.
Dunn’s two-year stint as a prosecutor wasn’t very long, but he was respected, according to Federal Public Defender Tom Hillier, who supervised lawyers arguing against Dunn in court. “Reagan was a straight shooter, somebody reasonable to deal with, and to me that’s an important attribute,” Hillier said.
It’s tempting to see Dunn as kindred spirits with George W. Bush, another son of a well-known politician with a folksy style.
But Dunn disagrees. “I never felt a real connection with W. even though I worked for him. A Texas Republican is a different kind of Republican.”
Dunn supports gay marriage, says climate change is a serious problem and favors abortion rights.
Dunn’s urbane moderate streak has irritated some on the right. He blunts some criticism by taking after his father, a record-setting bow hunter, in his hobbies. The younger Dunn likes to collect guns and hunt and fish. His father says “there’s not anything he can’t make, build or repair,” whether it’s his cabin in Cle Elum or a vintage Jeep he recently restored.
After beating Hammond to represent a district that sprawls to the Cascade foothills, he moved from Bellevue to a 6,900-square-foot house outside Maple Valley. “I give him credit for saying, ‘I’m going to get out in the unincorporated area,’ ” Hammond said.
But in an interview for a biography of his ex-wife, Dennis Dunn said his son needs to “get in touch with personal core beliefs philosophically.”
Reagan Dunn chuckles at that. “What he means is I need to find beliefs more in line with his. I know exactly where my beliefs are, and I’m proud that I’m the first Republican running statewide to vote for marriage equality.”
Dunn’s college roommate compares him to a Democratic former president. “I’ve always been enamored of Reagan’s drive. He’s probably not going to like this, but it’s like the way Clinton handled himself: It seemed effortless but you know he’s one of the hardest-working guys in the business,” said John Stevens, a Hollywood producer of shows such as “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”
Dunn says his accomplishments at the County Council are limited by being in the minority party.
The top achievement listed on his council biography is his work to reform the state’s bail system after four Lakewood police officers were murdered by a felon in 2009. Dunn was statewide director of a campaign that amended the state constitution to allow judges more discretion to deny bail for some offenders.
And, he notes, he is doing something no other statewide Republican candidate can claim four weeks from Election Day. He’s the only one leading his Democratic opponent in fundraising — although he and Ferguson are virtually even if you subtract the $100,000 Dunn contributed to his campaign.
Hammond says Ferguson and Dunn have contrasting styles. “I see Bob as an intellectually goal-driven kind of person who probably does more to keep his own counsel. I see Reagan as a mix-it-up and rub-elbows guy … he seems to have a fluid way of knowing where the stones are to get across the stream.”
Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report. Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org.