Attorney-general candidate Bob Ferguson is known for his goal-setting tenacity. But some have felt stung by his headstrong, exacting nature.
Read Friday’s front-page profile of Reagan Dunn, the Republican candidate for attorney general, here.
At the age of 9, Bob Ferguson set the goal of becoming Washington state chess champion; at 18 his name was etched on the trophy.
After college he and a friend hit the road, intent on visiting every major-league ballpark, with two rules: couldn’t buy a ticket at the box office, couldn’t stay in a hotel. Again, after 24 cities, two countries and one worn-out Bob Seger cassette, mission accomplished.
And in his first run for office, Ferguson set out to knock on the door of every Democratic voter in his North Seattle district. Some 22,000 homes later, Ferguson knocked out incumbent Metropolitan King County Council Chair Cynthia Sullivan, stunning party leaders who stood behind her.
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That 2003 underdog campaign established the lore of Ferguson — now running against Reagan Dunn for state attorney general — as a guy who sets goals and never gets outworked, according to longtime friend Burien Mayor Brian Bennett, who did most of the driving on Ferguson’s ballpark tour.
“Depending on where you stand, he’s remarkably tenacious or stubborn as hell,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine, introducing Ferguson at a fundraiser earlier this year.
Ferguson admits there’s some truth in Constantine’s quip. But he says he’s more concerned about doing good than hurting feelings. He also recognizes that the attorney general’s job is different from his current one. He says his headstrong, exacting nature wouldn’t keep him from delegating duties to more than 500 lawyers and settling cases in the public interest rather than fighting all the way to a stalemate.
In his striving and driving, Ferguson, 47, has left some feeling outmaneuvered, frustrated or just flattened.
“It feels like a steamroller,” is the way former Redmond Mayor Rosemarie Ives put it, with tears in her eyes, after she had lost a battle with Ferguson over one of his signature achievements, a tax levy to help troubled veterans.
That bitter debate started when former County Executive Ron Sims convened a task force to study a new tax for social services. After much work, Sims’ group was poised to recommend a measure for the 2006 ballot.
A first-term council member fighting for his political life at the time, Ferguson chaired the county’s Regional Policy Committee. Redistricting had forced him into a tough election against fellow Democratic incumbent, Carolyn Edmonds, also on the regional committee.
Under Ferguson’s leadership, the panel proposed not a social-services tax, as Sims wanted, but instead a smaller $11 million property tax dedicated to veterans.
Acrimony ensued. Committee members felt cornered by Ferguson. They didn’t want to vote against veterans. Some saw election-year opportunism in his strategy.
“My gut feeling then was that people were grabbing after this interest group for political reasons,” said Ives, who voted against the veterans-only levy.
But in retrospect, she says she respects Ferguson’s hard work, analysis and conclusion. “Maybe he had more vision and clarity” than the social-service advocates she sided with, Ives said.
The son of a veteran, Ferguson wasn’t the only one pushing a veterans levy. Polling had shown marginal voter support for Sims’ idea. Other committee members said Sims’ plan was “shelf art,” going nowhere. America was fighting two wars at the time. They believed a veterans-only levy would be more fruitful. Ferguson says he couldn’t let election-year perceptions dictate his actions.
“Was I not supposed to do anything,” he said in an interview, “because I was running for the council?”
He offers a postscript. He had the votes to pass the veterans levy through the county council, he said. But just before a vote was scheduled, Constantine, then a council member, suggested a compromise: increase the levy and split it between veterans and a broader population of the needy.
“I didn’t have to say ‘OK,’ ” Ferguson recalled. “But I wanted every member to vote for it and that was a reasonable compromise.”
By an overwhelming majority of voters renewed the levy last year. “The result speaks for itself,” he said of the levy, which now brings in about $17 million a year. “Was the outcome one that everybody now agrees was positive for the county? Yes.”
And for his perceived stubbornness and its impact on working with others? “We’re all adults, and it’s politics and governing, and those who are successful have to have a short memory,” Ferguson said.
Seattle City Council President Sally Clark has known Ferguson since she edited the UW Daily in the late 1980s and Ferguson was student-body president. Clark later worked as an aide to Ferguson after he was first elected.
“I definitely see the stubbornness in its best incarnation as dedication in pursuit of a worthy goal,” Clark said. “Some people are going to feel shrugged off. I’ve encountered that in talking with Bob.”
She says Ferguson welcomes debate and listens to a solid argument — you just have to prepare for him “to come at you like a litigator.”
Some might even argue that Ferguson listens too much. Why else would he vote against renaming a street in front of Kentlake High School after the school’s mascot?
The “Falcon Way” proposal was the kind of innocuous bill that often sails through the council with barely a question, smiles all around, and a ceremonial photo to mark the occasion.
But one of the five neighbors whose homes would be affected by changing the street name trooped downtown to council chambers. The neighbor testified that she had just started a business and printed her home address on marketing materials. Falcon Way would spell hardship for her.
While other council members stretched their legs and checked their phones, Ferguson started in with questions. What would the name-change cost the county? What precedent was there for such a change? Would others schools expect the same? He then cast the only dissenting vote, citing the neighbor’s testimony.
“Bob being Bob,” said council member Pete von Reichbauer, the bill’s sponsor.
His dogged attention to details leads some to wonder if Ferguson would micromanage the attorney general’s office, the state’s largest law firm.
“That I’d definitely disagree with,” Ferguson said. Listening to constituents is crucial to his job as a legislator. “Is that micromanaging? I don’t think so.”
The attorney general’s job is clearly different, he says, and he’s comfortable delegating to his chief of staff Mamie Marcuss, who’s worked for him since 2008.
Ferguson’s competitive intensity comes from growing up with four older brothers in an athletic family, says his only sister, Ann Ferguson.
The chief rule during driveway basketball games at their Queen Anne house was “no blood, no foul,” she said. “Bob didn’t get any breaks. I didn’t get any as a girl. It taught Bob he had to work extra hard to compete.”
All the Ferguson kids were exposed to chess by their father, a Boeing facilities manager. (Their mother is a retired public schoolteacher.) But Bob was the only one who subscribed, at 12, to a Russian chess magazine so he could learn the strategies of the grandmasters. And when he walked into his first UW class, his Russian history professor asked if he was “Bobby Ferguson the chess player.” That only reinforced, his sister said, the idea that perseverance pays off.
His sister knows Ferguson’s political persona is relentless and driven. “But those aren’t the words I’d use to describe Bob,” she said. When he’s with friends and family, playing with his kids or watching sports with a beer in-hand, she said he’s a “fun, fairly relaxed, easygoing guy.”
In his current campaign, Ferguson has set the goal of raising $1.5 million in contributions — more than any other Democratic attorney general candidate has ever collected. He’s about 85 percent of the way there. He and opponent Dunn have seesawed back-and-forth for the fundraising lead during the campaign, with Dunn now ahead.
State Party Chair Dwight Pelz says he’s never seen a candidate with Ferguson’s stamina at dialing for dollars. Bennett, the Burien mayor, said he wouldn’t bet against Ferguson. “He has the ability to be more disciplined than anyone I know.”
Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org