Reagan Dunn and Bob Ferguson have rarely disagreed during their seven years as Metropolitan King County Council members, taking different sides on just 1 percent of all votes they faced. But the two candidates for state attorney general say those few conflicts reveal key distinctions between them.

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When Metropolitan King County Council members Reagan Dunn and Bob Ferguson voted recently on a deal to build a new Seattle sports arena, something unusual happened. The two candidates for state attorney general took opposite sides.

Despite combative exchanges between Republican Dunn and Democrat Ferguson on the campaign trail this year, the two have rarely disagreed on county-council votes.

Of the 3,878 full-council votes they’ve faced together from 2005 through July of this year, they’ve clashed just 43 times, or on just 1 percent of all votes.

Their most common issue of discord has been taxes, including proposed tax increases for buses, foot ferries, criminal justice and mental-health services. They’ve also disagreed on substantive policy matters such as immigration, and on some less-meaty topics such as vending-machine guidelines.

Often those conflicts play out along party lines. Although the County Council is officially nonpartisan, its five Democrats and four Republicans meet in their own weekly caucuses and often vote as a bloc.

Votes separating Dunn and Ferguson have tended toward issues that are not part of the attorney general’s job. But they reveal fundamental differences in two ambitious politicians seeking an office that has been a steppingstone to loftier positions such as governor and U.S. senator.

In 2007, they differed on two tax increases: a property-tax levy for ferries and water taxis; and a sales-tax increase to fund services for people with mental illness and addictions to drug and alcohol.

Dunn is proud that he was the only vote against the ferry district, which now operates walk-on ferries from downtown Seattle to Vashon Island and West Seattle, but was studying an entire fleet with Lake Washington and Puget Sound routes. That idea was suspended when estimates showed that subsidies for some routes would cost up to $300 per rider.

“It was a luxury item expensive for the public that served only a narrow group of people and subsequently was scaled back,” Dunn said.

As for mental-health services, Dunn has said they should be funded out of the existing budget, not through a tax increase. Ferguson disagrees, pointing to the county’s recent budget shortfalls and the $45 million a year raised through the dedicated tax.

“It’s easy to say ‘no’ but where are you going to get funding for that?” Ferguson said. “Reagan is a nice guy but he takes the easy way out.”

The two also say 2010 budget deliberations were revealing.

Dunn wanted to avoid laying off 28 sheriff’s deputies by trimming the public-health budget by $3.2 million. But the Democratic majority voted him down: They would not rule out layoffs, in part because the deputies — unlike other county employees — had refused to give up a scheduled pay raise.

Just before that vote, Dunn walked out of a meeting of the council’s budget-leadership team over its decision to cut deputy jobs.

“Whatever you want to call it, it was not leadership,” Ferguson said. “If you can’t successfully negotiate with colleagues, how are you going to negotiate with powerful interests who don’t play by the rules? You can’t take your bag of marbles and go home.”

Dunn offers a different version of what happened after his colleagues refused to budge on the deputy cuts. “I wasn’t angry at all. I said I had a different vision of the county and I’m going to let you do what you want to get a budget passed,” he said. “Just because a group doesn’t give up a raise it doesn’t mean you punish citizens by denying them a reasonable amount of police protection.”

In their most recent tax disagreement, Ferguson last year voted to increase car tabs by $20 to fund bus service. The council enacted the increase by a supermajority vote. Dunn wanted the measure put on the ballot so voters would have a say.

Ferguson contends he has saved public money in other areas: giving back his pay raises the last three years; pushing to shrink the county council from 13 to nine members; insisting the county buy used furniture for a new building.

For all of their jabs at one another, the overall lack of disputes between Dunn and Ferguson is representative of the council as a whole.

Of all the full-council votes during their joint tenure, 97 percent have been unanimous.

Many votes are about mundane details of county operations, such as appointments to volunteer advisory boards. In other instances differences are worked out in committees, or in amendments to the final legislation.

“The county culture is to reach consensus on as many issues as possible,” Ferguson said.

Dunn agreed. “Only a very small universe of votes are substantive policy changes, and that’s where wedges can be driven,” he said.

Symbolic motions

In all, Dunn and Ferguson differed on nine votes regarding taxes and fees. Of their remaining 33 conflicts, 10 were on largely symbolic motions that expressed the council’s support for policies such as President Obama’s health-care reform — which Ferguson supported and Dunn opposed.

Some motions have been less weighty. Dunn’s penchant for less regulation, and bottled jolts of energy, led him to cast the only vote against guidelines calling for healthier snacks in county vending machines. “We should resist the urge to have government solve all our problems. If I want to get a Mountain Dew with high-octane caffeine content I want to be able to do that,” he said.

Dunn also voted against banning smoking in the busiest areas of county parks, and requiring swimmers and boaters on several major rivers to wear life jackets.

In one instance, though, Dunn now says his less-government stance went too far. In 2006, he voted against extending county civil-rights protections to transgender individuals. At the time, Dunn said the measure would open the door for lawsuits against small business. But if he had to take that vote again, Dunn said, he would probably vote “yes” because his views have evolved.

On three occasions Ferguson has cast the only dissenting council vote: against selling a county property in Wallingford to a developer; against building soccer fields in a Redmond park; and against renaming a Kent street after a high-school mascot. Each case reflected his tendency to listen and be swayed by constituents, Ferguson said — a trait he also points to as playing a part in his pro-arena decision.

These issues may not surface in the attorney general’s race. But another high-profile council vote already has.

In 2009, Dunn disagreed with Ferguson on the county’s “don’t ask” law on immigration policy.

In that decision, council Democrats voted to continue providing county services without regard to citizenship or immigration status. The law prohibits sheriff’s deputies from asking about people’s immigration status in most circumstances — which already was the practice of the sheriff’s office, as well as county public-health providers.

A spokesman for then-Sheriff Sue Rahr explained that a “don’t ask” policy allowed witnesses and victims to come forward without fear of being deported. Health officials said providing vaccinations, for instance, was more cost effective than denying them.

Despite those long-standing practices, Democrats said the county should codify the practices in law to guide future elected officials. Council Republicans argued the opposite, asking why the need to codify something the county had done for almost two decades.

Dunn maintains the law creates an “amnesty county” and prevents law-enforcement officers from asking about immigration status when that could be an element of a crime, such as unlawfully possessing a firearm.

At the time, Ferguson said the law makes the county safer and healthier. He now contends that Dunn is trying to score political points on a policy the Sheriff’s Office supported.

Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.