The state attorney general is important locally and nationally. Experts say political independence is crucial for the job, and candidates Bob Ferguson and Reagan Dunn claim they get it, and they've got it.

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When the state attorney general misses a deadline to appeal a verdict, as Chris Gregoire did in an infamous case 12 years ago, the cost to taxpayers can be severe — more than $20 million for that error.

And when attorneys general use their pulpit to push certain priorities, as Gregoire did in leading a national lawsuit against the tobacco industry, the rewards can be profound — a $4.5 billion settlement for Washington state, as well as a defining achievement for Gregoire.

You get the picture: The office of state attorney general is important and a springboard to higher office. The state’s last three attorneys general have run for governor. Former President Clinton was a state attorney general.

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Yet when voters mark their ballots in this year’s contest between Democrat Bob Ferguson and Republican Reagan Dunn, very few will have a clue what the attorney general does. “Voters don’t really know what the job is,” said Todd Donovan, a professor at Western Washington University.

The job boils down to two main functions, according to experts who include a former attorney general, a former state supreme-court justice, professors and others. The attorney general manages the state’s largest law firm, with more than 500 attorneys, most advising and defending state agencies. The post also provides a platform for sexier policymaking, often by filing lawsuits with other states to protect consumers against scams and corporate wrongdoing.

The key question for Dunn and Ferguson, according to the experts, is whether they’d maintain the state’s reputation as one of the most independent, aggressive and nonpartisan offices in the country.

“Washington shows up for every significant fight,” said Jim Tierney, a former Maine attorney general who runs a Columbia University Law School program focused on state attorneys general. “There’s a culture in the office there that’s a really big deal.”

The culture goes back decades, says Jeff Goltz, who spent more than 30 years in the office and headed its ecology division when Ken Eikenberry was attorney general. “Ken was a conservative Republican but he never interfered with aggressive enforcement” of environmental laws, said Goltz, a Democrat, who now chairs the state Utilities and Transportation Commission.

It helps that most work in the attorney general’s office is nonpartisan in nature. Just 12 of its lawyers work on high-profile consumer cases where AGs have leeway to pick their battles; 17 work on criminal matters at the request of county prosecutors; and 494 lawyers are assigned to state agencies and clients.

Styles, habits differ

Dunn and Ferguson, both members of Metropolitan King County Council, differ in style and habit. Dunn owns dozens of guns, Ferguson has never shot one. Dunn is a medal-winning bow hunter; Ferguson an internationally rated chessmaster. Dunn loves country music and Toby Keith; Ferguson sings Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” to his 4-year-old twins.

But the two are in sync when it comes to political independence in the AG’s office. Both often stress its importance while campaigning. And both are quick to point to their own independent streaks, and friction with their parties.

Dunn has the GOP in his DNA. His father was a King County party chairman, his mother a Republican congresswoman, and they named him after you-know-who. But Dunn says he’s more liberal than many in his party. He’s pro-gay marriage, says climate change is a serious problem and favors abortion rights.

He’s rubbed some conservatives wrong since shortly after he was appointed to the County Council in 2005, when redistricting pitted him in an election against GOP incumbent Steve Hammond, a former evangelical minister.

In that race, Dunn couldn’t even win his party’s endorsement. But he stayed in the contest and beat Hammond, angering some who saw him as a privileged interloper.

When Dunn declared his support for same-sex marriage earlier this year, he was quickly uninvited to GOP Lincoln Day festivities in Whatcom and Franklin counties. Conservative attorney Stephen Pidgeon was so mad he challenged Dunn in the GOP primary and siphoned off 10 percent of the vote.

Priorities Dunn says he’d pursue are mostly nonpartisan matters — open government, human trafficking, cyberbullying. One exception is tort reform, generally an issue pushed by Republicans.

But hefty payouts from lawsuits against the state — $300 million in the last six years — have prompted state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, to say the issue should be a top priority for the next attorney general.

Partisan roots

Ferguson also has partisan roots, beginning his political career as executive director of the King County Democrats in the early 1990s.

He won his first election in 2003 by defeating incumbent county Councilmember Cynthia Sullivan, who was backed by most of the Democratic Party establishment.

In that race Ferguson even dared to campaign against the rising cost of Sound Transit’s light-rail projects — practically heresy in Democratic orthodoxy.

Ferguson also supported an effort, as did anti-tax activist Tim Eyman, to shrink the County Council from 13 to 9 members. His party punished him for that, Ferguson said.

Redistricting forced him to square off against another Democratic incumbent, Carolyn Edmunds. “It cost me my district,” he said of his stance. But he won another close race, adding to his reputation as a tenacious campaigner.

He further demonstrated autonomy, he says, by being the first Democrat on the council to prod county unions in 2010 to give back some of the raises they had negotiated.

Ferguson’s priorities as attorney general include open government, gang violence and prosecuting environmental crimes and “powerful interests that don’t play by the rules.”

Legal credentials

Managerial experience also can be valuable, experts say, for a job overseeing, inspiring and hiring lawyers.

Both candidates are limited in that realm.

Dunn says he learned a lot about managing lawyers during a yearlong stint as counsel to the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys in Washington, D.C., which supervises federal prosecutors around the country.

Ferguson notes he spent 13 months as chairman of the County Council, where he was chief supervisor of 100 employees, including research analysts, support staff and a lawyer.

But managerial experience isn’t a necessity. Rob McKenna, who was a lawyer and King County Council member, had almost none when he became attorney general eight years ago. Tierney, a Democrat, calls Republican McKenna a “great” AG.

You might think courtroom experience would be the most important qualification of all. But that’s not necessarily the case. Bill Clinton, at 30, was elected Arkansas’ attorney general with virtually no legal experience. Former Vice President Walter Mondale has said when he became Minnesota’s attorney general at 32 he was “not very qualified.”

Tierney insists you don’t have to be a good trial lawyer to be successful. “I’ve seen AGs who headed their law review in college, or were Rhodes scholars and were just terrible. They can look up everything, but can’t actually figure out where states should go in developing legal policy,” he said.

That hasn’t stopped Dunn and Ferguson from quarreling about their legal credentials.

Dunn emphasizes that he’s been a criminal prosecutor — putting away drug dealers and crooked bankers — as well as a private attorney working in civil law. In all, he worked as a lawyer for six years and says he’s argued more cases in court than Ferguson.

Ferguson counters that a tiny fraction of the attorney general’s work concerns criminal cases. He has more relevant experience, he says, having spent more time on civil cases, protecting Microsoft from copyright infringement, and taxpayers from cost overruns at Safeco Field.

Even then, Ferguson is touting just four and a half years of work as a lawyer. Both he and Dunn have served longer as County Council members than practicing attorneys.

Tierney says good judgment is the most important trait for an attorney general. But it’s difficult for voters to assess in a race that’s far down the ballot and dwarfed by campaigns for president, governor and initiatives to legalize pot and gay marriage.

It’s even harder when the candidates have voted alike on 99 percent of the legislation they’ve faced as County Council members, and even traveled together to India and China as fellows at the Aspen Institute, which seeks to break down partisan barriers in the interest of good governance.

Both were nominated for the fellowship by McKenna.

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