The first televised debate between attorney general candidates Reagan Dunn and Bob Ferguson was combative, with the two sparring on issues from the death penalty to their attendance records at the Metropolitan King County Council.

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The top candidates for state attorney general, Reagan Dunn and Bob Ferguson, offered a look at their coming campaigns in a bruising, at times personal debate Tuesday in Spokane.

The two Metropolitan King County Council members mixed it up from the start, when Dunn, a former federal prosecutor, insisted he had more criminal and courtroom experience than Ferguson, who has worked only on civil cases.

Ferguson was quick to counter that current Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, also lacks criminal experience, and has stressed that fewer than 1 percent of the office’s attorneys work on criminal cases.

The theme surfaced time and again during the one-hour debate sponsored by the Association of Washington Business and moderated by journalist Austin Jenkins. “We need an attorney general who’s led law-enforcement investigations and stood in court,” said Dunn, a Republican.

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Ferguson, a Democrat, maintained he would be more willing than Dunn “to take on powerful interests” such as banks “who don’t play by the rules.”

The attorney general’s chief duty is to represent state agencies in lawsuits and legal issues; the office also handles consumer-protection cases. The post has been a springboard to higher office for the likes of Gov. Chris Gregoire and former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton.

Even when the debate focused on whether consumers were being gouged by gas prices, Dunn, 41, turned it back to his prosecutorial experience, saying he would take on tough challenges because he was the only candidate in the race whose life was threatened by a gang leader.

Ferguson, 47, stressed his record of independence — crucial for the office, he said — by noting that he pushed to shrink the County Council, which led to him being punished by his own party.

In a difference mentioned several times, Dunn accused Ferguson of supporting 18 tax increases as a County Council member. In return, Ferguson chided Dunn for voting against increased funding for mental-health services, which could help prevent violence.

The death penalty was another hot issue.

Dunn said he supported it, particularly as leverage used to extract important information from murderers such as Green River Killer Gary Ridgway. Ferguson said he was personally opposed to capital punishment but would enforce the law as attorney general.

Dunn noted that Ferguson, as a law student, had helped a convicted cop-killer on death row get legal representation.

Ferguson fired back that Dunn, too, needed a lawyer some 25 years ago after being charged with a serious crime.

“I was 17 and doing doughnuts in a parking lot in the snow,” Dunn said about the incident. “I’m sorry.”

In a lively exchange, Ferguson accused Dunn of “missing more votes than anyone else on the council.”

Dunn said he actually had the second best attendance at council meetings last year, trailing only Ferguson.

That’s a sidestep, Ferguson contended, noting that Dunn attended Monday’s council meeting but left before votes were taken. “You can attend a meeting for roll call and photo opportunities … That’s how you maintain good attendance and miss votes.”

The two did agree on several major issues.

Both support same-sex marriage. Dunn said it was a matter of less government and more liberty. Ferguson emphasized that he supported same-sex marriage back in 2004, before it was a popular stand. Both candidates said, however, that if voters in a November initiative overturned the new state law legalizing marriage, they would respect the decision and work to uphold it.

Both oppose Initiative 502, which seeks to legalize marijuana — although they said they believe in the medicinal value of marijuana. Dunn said his opposition was based on public-health concerns about smoking. Ferguson didn’t explain his position, but said he believes it’s wiser to focus on more important crimes, such as sex offenses, than on pot possession.

A third candidate, Everett lawyer Stephen Pidgeon, was not on stage because the Association of Washington Business traditionally invites just the top two candidates to its debates.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or

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