The two candidates vying to be state attorney general, Democrat John Ladenburg and Republican Rob McKenna, carried on a spirited but civil debate Monday night at Seattle University.

This is what a feisty election race looks like without a blitz of negative ads.

The two candidates vying to be state attorney general, Democrat John Ladenburg and Republican Rob McKenna, carried on a spirited but civil debate Monday night at Seattle University, a refreshing break from the increasingly toxic governor’s race.

McKenna, the incumbent, and Ladenburg, Pierce County’s executive and former prosecuting attorney, laid out differing visions for the job without personal attacks and with some collegiality.

Ladenburg, 59, touted his experience as a trial lawyer and said he’d be more of an aggressive “activist” attorney general like California’s Jerry Brown. He said he’d be quicker to file lawsuits against companies that harmed Washington citizens, such as Countrywide Financial Corp., the nation’s largest mortgage lender.

McKenna, 46, cited his results in reducing identity theft and methamphetamine production, and winning settlements against predatory lenders, such as Countrywide. McKenna said his office led negotiations in a recent multistate settlement against Countrywide that will bring an estimated $200 million to Washington state borrowers deceived by the company.

The attorney general’s chief duty is to represent state agencies in lawsuits and legal issues. Less than 1 percent of the lawyers practice criminal law. But the office does handle consumer-protection cases.

Monday’s debate was sponsored by City Club, The Seattle Times and Seattle University School of Law. Questions came from the audience, as well as three panelists: Jaime Hawk, a federal public defender; Kellye Testy, head of the Seattle University School of Law; and James Vesely, the Times’ editorial-page editor.

Ladenburg and McKenna agreed on a number of issues: Both stressed their respect for tribal sovereignty; both said they’d vote against Initiative 1000, which seeks to legalize assisted suicide for terminally ill patients; both said Gov. Christine Gregoire did enough to try to keep the NBA’s Sonics in Seattle; and both said they have confidence the Nov. 4 election results will be counted fairly and accurately.

They also said the state should not spend more money on prisons and that new identification cards should be required for entering Canada. They also both opposed legalizing marijuana — though McKenna went farther and said the increased potency of pot from British Columbia should lead the federal government to reclassify marijuana as a more serious drug.

The candidates disagreed sharply on the state’s initiative process. McKenna said he would leave the process as it is because flawed initiatives can be corrected by the Legislature. Ladenburg said he’d like the state Supreme Court to review the legality of initiative questions before they go to a vote.

McKenna said such a pre-emptive review would violate the state Constitution’s separation-of-powers clause. Ladenburg disagreed.

The two also disagreed about the role of the attorney general. Ladenburg said the first priority should be to represent the citizens, not state agencies. He suggested the attorney general should be on television every night cracking down on scams like KING-TV consumer reporter Jesse Jones does.

“We have local TV shows where everyday they have a consumer fraud case and fix the problem,” he said. “If there’s so much fraud, why should you have to get Jesse on KING-5 news when you ought to be able to get the attorney general.”

McKenna responded that Jones had called him to say he was chagrined that Ladenburg keeps bringing him up. Jones said he sees the Attorney General’s Office as a “critical partner” in his work, according to McKenna.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com