In nearly eight years as attorney general, McKenna has developed a reputation for working across party lines — an asset he touts in his campaign for governor against former Democratic Rep. Jay Inslee. But he's also shown a willingness to leap into politically charged battles with other leaders.
This is one in an occasional series of stories examining the records of Washington’s candidates for governor.
Attorney General Rob McKenna surprised many lawmakers last session when a campaign news conference on state spending turned into an attack on Democratic House Speaker Frank Chopp.
The GOP candidate for governor accused Chopp of derailing the state budget by withholding votes on Republican-backed bills. “These reforms are being blocked for political reasons because it’s an election year,” McKenna said. “That’s just not acceptable. It’s not responsible.”
Lawmakers were embroiled in a bitter fight at the time, and Democrats were already furious that Republicans had seized control of the Senate budget with the help of three crossover votes. “All McKenna did was throw fuel on the flames,” said Senate Ways and Means Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle.
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In nearly eight years as attorney general, McKenna has developed a reputation for working across party lines — an asset he touts in his campaign for governor against former Democratic Rep. Jay Inslee.
But his slap earlier this year at one of the state’s most powerful Democrats shows another, long-standing trait: a willingness to leap into politically charged battles with other leaders.
McKenna joined the GOP lawsuit that sought to overturn President Obama’s health-care law without consulting Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire, and refused the Democratic public-lands commissioner’s request to appeal a court decision dealing with the placement of power lines in the Methow Valley.
Still, he’s largely avoided taking on controversial issues attorneys general elsewhere have tackled, such as abortion and illegal immigration.
He worked with GOP and Democratic attorneys general to help negotiate a $25 billion national mortgage settlement with the country’s five largest loan servicers. He led an effort to pressure the online classified-ad site Backpage.com to drop escort-services ads that authorities say are used to pimp teenaged girls as prostitutes.
And while he’s failed to get traction in the Legislature on issues such as tort reform, he’s pushed through dozens of bills with broad support in both parties, including increased penalties for sex offenders and people convicted of domestic violence, and legislation cracking down on identification theft.
Former state GOP chairman Chris Vance says it’s possible for a Republican to fight Democrats on occasion and still be bipartisan.
“The tendency today to say it’s all or nothing is just crazy,” Vance said. “You can be a partisan but still be able to sit down and negotiate with members of the other party.”
Tenure as attorney general
McKenna is the sixth state attorney general in the past century to run for governor. He won the AG office in 2004 after serving nine years on the Metropolitan King County Council, where he was known for opposing property-tax increases and Sound Transit’s light rail.
As attorney general, he oversees the state’s largest law firm. The agency has shrunk some during his tenure, as has the rest of state government, and now has a little more than 1,100 full-time equivalent positions. The office employs more than 500 attorneys.
The bulk of the agency’s work involves advising and defending state agencies.
But there’s plenty of leeway to take on high-profile cases, such as the multiple lawsuits with banks responsible for mortgage and foreclosure abuses.
McKenna considers the mortgage cases his top accomplishment as attorney general.
He was a key player in settlements with Ameriquest Mortgage in 2006, Countrywide in 2008 and Wells Fargo in 2010.
The biggest case was this year’s $25 billion national settlement with five large banks: GMAC Mortgage, Bank of America, Citi, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo.
The settlements weren’t without controversy.
In the Ameriquest case, for example, critics argued the settlement meant consumers might get less money than they deserved because anyone who accepted payment was required to sign a release promising not to sue for additional damages. About 13,500 Washington residents who got home loans between 1999 and 2005 were expected to split $6.5 million in restitution, some receiving as little as $600 each.
McKenna at the time said the release was necessary to resolve such a large case. Ameriquest agreed to a $325 million settlement involving 49 states.
He was one of a handful of attorneys general on the team that negotiated the $25 billion settlement this year.
Melissa Huelsman, a Seattle attorney who specializes in cases of predatory lending and mortgage fraud, said the payment “in no way, shape, or form is at the level it should be to deal with the magnitude of what was done. But … do I acknowledge that they probably did the best they could under the circumstances, yes.”
Washington is projected to get $648 million from the settlement. The bulk of the state’s share is aimed at relief efforts, including principal reduction, where borrowers owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth and are delinquent or at risk of default.
Principal reduction was a sore point for many Republican attorneys general who worried that some people would strategically default on their mortgages once they learned about the settlement — a fear that McKenna said was unfounded.
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat who led the overall negotiations, credited McKenna with helping keep Republicans on board.
“Definitely, Rob rallied the Republicans and kept in touch with them and kept them convinced this is the right thing to do,” said Miller.
Pushed through bills
At home, McKenna has pushed through legislation that encountered little to no opposition in the final floor votes.
The bills included measures that increased penalties for crimes against vulnerable adults, protected people’s cellphone numbers from being sold without their consent, protected the ability of reporters to keep sources confidential, and allowed victims of domestic violence to tap the state’s shared leave program, which allows employees with excess leave to donate it to others in need.
“I think in general he requested bills that made a lot of sense given that you had a Democratic Legislature,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, who has co-sponsored some of McKenna’s bills. “I think someone who is in his position and is smart, and can read the political tea leaves, generally will have a much higher success rate than someone who is really intent on pushing through an agenda that isn’t realistic.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Adam Kline, D-Seattle, doesn’t give McKenna quite as much credit. The attorney general pushed some law-enforcement bills the Legislature would have gotten to anyway, Kline said.
McKenna disagreed. “If they were easy, they’d already be done,” he said.
McKenna’s office said, for instance, that 2006 legislation cracking down on the production and distribution of methamphetamine took a lot of work to pass, including getting bipartisan support and bringing in law-enforcement officials to testify.
The measure made it easier to get warrants to do property inspections, and helped with the cleanup of meth-lab sites, among other things. It also required several million dollars in additional state spending.
The bill passed through four committees and two floor votes with virtually no opposition.
But former Democratic state Sen. Mark Doumit, who has endorsed McKenna for governor, said that makes it sound easier than it was — particularly considering the Legislature is held by Democrats.
“This was a new appropriation of state dollars,” said Doumit, who was vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee at the time. “Had he not worked with the chairs of the committees, myself and others, I don’t think he would have been able to pass it.”
But a number of measures he backed died or never got a hearing, including legislation that would have limited the state’s liability to lawsuits — an issue McKenna campaigned on.
The state waived its immunity from lawsuits decades ago, with the belief that it should compensate citizens for official wrongdoing. Since then, the state has paid out several hundred million dollars in claims.
Washington is the most wide open state in the country when it comes to getting sued, McKenna’s office says.
He backed a measure in 2006 that would have provided broad immunity from lawsuits. The measure got a hearing but died in committee. His office blames opposition by trial lawyers, who also happen to be major contributors to Democrats.
McKenna has championed his work in promoting government transparency, but public-records advocates say he’s had mixed results.
Former Republican state Rep. Toby Nixon, who is president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said McKenna made a good start by appointing an ombudsman to help people deal with agencies reluctant to turn over records and introducing legislation to open up government meetings and records. One measure would require closed executive sessions to be recorded. It never got a floor vote.
But McKenna has also supported reduced access in some cases.
“Some of the bills that have been introduced at the request of the attorney general have been anti-transparency,” Nixon said, such as a measure to allow injunctions to block prisoners from getting records in some cases.
The state has said some inmates were abusing the public-records system by filing numerous requests to harass corrections staff.
McKenna’s office also has filed friend-of-court briefs supporting the right of local governments to keep records closed, Nixon said, adding: “They could have remained silent … or taken a position in support of transparency.”
Critics and controversy
Like Chopp, Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, has been on the receiving end of McKenna’s sharp criticism.
In 2010, McKenna’s office backed a bill that would have prohibited governments from using eminent domain to condemn property for economic development. The legislation was before the House Judiciary Committee, which handles many of the bills requested by the Attorney General’s Office.
But the measure failed to get a hearing, said Pedersen, who chairs the committee, because McKenna’s office did not indicate it was a priority, nor did the bill’s sponsors.
McKenna, however, went on a television news show and accused Pedersen of blocking the legislation, noting Pedersen’s private law practice represented cities opposed to the measure.
Pedersen is still rankled by the comments.
“I would not count the legislative piece as a strength of McKenna’s,” Pedersen said.
McKenna acknowledges his words did not help get the bill heard in committee.
That same year, McKenna got into a legal tussle with the Democratic commissioner of public lands, Peter Goldmark.
Goldmark had lost a court battle that allowed the Okanogan Public Utility District to condemn state trust lands so it could build a new transmission line over rolling hills above the Methow River. McKenna declined to appeal on behalf of the state, so Goldmark asked the state Supreme Court to force him. The court ruled the attorney general had to represent Goldmark.
McKenna hired an outside lawyer to handle the transmission-line appeal, which is still pending.
His most controversial move, though, was his decision to join the Republican lawsuit to overturn Obama’s health-care law. Democratic leaders from the governor on down excoriated McKenna for jumping into the case. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law earlier this year.
McKenna says he was concerned about the constitutionality of the provision that requires most adults to maintain health insurance or pay a tax. Since the ruling, he’s said he would work to implement the law as governor.
If elected, McKenna likely will face at least one legislative chamber — and possibly both — that’s controlled by Democrats.
He says he’d do what he’s done as attorney general: work on a bipartisan basis to handle key issues like the state budget.
“Parties are coalitions of individuals,” he said. “It’s not all that common that they lock up forever when you have a closely divided Legislature, which is likely to be what we’ll be seeing in 2013.”
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266