President Donald Trump had been in office all of 10 days when Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed the first of his 80 lawsuits against the administration.
The January 2017 challenge to Trump’s executive order barring travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations dealt a jarring setback to Trump a few days later, when a federal judge sided with Ferguson and halted enforcement of the order.
It’s a scene that Ferguson, a Democrat, wants voters to remember as they decide whether to hand him a third term in the Nov. 3 election. His campaign is airing TV ads emphasizing numerous legal wins over the Trump administration.
“If he interferes with this election, we will be ready,” Ferguson vows in the ad, referring to Trump’s efforts to sow doubts about the upcoming election results.
Matt Larkin, Ferguson’s Republican challenger, would like voters to focus on other images — of crime, drug use and violent clashes between protesters and police in Seattle.
The first-time candidate, who works for his family’s manufacturing business, says Ferguson has been far too focused on Trump and national politics while neglecting problems closer to home.
“I don’t feel like there’s a lot of leadership right now,” Larkin said. “We need someone ready to step in, roll up their sleeves and lead.”
The job description
At its core, the job of Washington’s attorney general is to head a big public law firm which advises elected officials and state agencies, and defends the state from lawsuits.
The office also enforces the state’s consumer-protection act and has a criminal division, which assists smaller counties with complicated prosecutions.
Washington’s legal payouts have been on the rise, according to an annual report by the state’s risk-management office. The state paid $518 million in judgments and settlements over the past four years, up from $276 million during the previous four years.
The largest payout was a $50 million settlement in 2016 in a lawsuit over the state’s role in the 2014 Oso landslide that killed 43 people. Insurance covered $40 million of that.
Ferguson said legal liability costs are a concern and that his office works with agencies to try to reduce risks of future lawsuits. “We advise our clients on these cases and work with them to try and fix mistakes, so they don’t happen again,” he said.
The Attorney General’s Office has about 1,400 employees, including more than 600 lawyers, and an annual budget of $180 million. Ferguson’s 2020 salary is $172,259; his pay and that of other elected officials is set by an independent citizen commission.
As the incumbent, Ferguson has major advantages in his third-term bid. He won 56% percent of the vote in the Aug. 4 primary, has raised about $4.1 million, and had $2.7 million cash on hand as of last week. Nearly $330,000 of his donations have come from attorneys.
Larkin received 24% of the primary vote, topping two other Republicans to advance to the general election. He has raised $416,000, and had about $100,000 cash on hand last week. He has donated about $75,000 to his own campaign, and relatives have kicked in $20,000.
Ferguson, 55, grew up in Seattle, and was state chess champion in high school. He received his undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Washington and a law degree from New York University. He began his legal career at the Seattle law firm Preston Gates & Ellis (now K&L Gates.)
Ferguson made his splashy entry into politics in 2003, winning a seat on the Metropolitan King County Council by defeating a 20-year Democratic incumbent. He was reelected twice before winning his first term as attorney general in 2012.
He is a likely candidate for governor once Gov. Jay Inslee leaves the office.
“That’s the best they’ve got?”
Long known as a tenacious campaigner, Ferguson has not taken his reelection for granted; he has aggressively challenged Larkin’s criticisms and says his opponent is exaggerating his experience.
“I mean, really, I’m serious, right, quote me on it. That’s the best? That’s the best they’ve got?” he said of Larkin as a candidate and Republicans.
Ferguson defends his Trump administration lawsuits, which have fought proposed rollbacks of the Affordable Care Act and environmental laws, as well as efforts to slash the U.S. Postal Service ahead of the election. His office has won 35 of 36 cases that have been decided so far.
Ferguson is rankled that Larkin is running to be the state’s chief legal officer while flouting the state’s mask-wearing and social distancing mandates at political events.
“He’s out there going to rallies, outdoors and indoors — and he admits to it — in direct violation, the governor’s emergency proclamation,” he said. “So there’s an irony in anyone running for attorney general, wanting to be a law-and-order candidate when he can’t follow the law.”
Larkin responded he has been “very selective” about which campaign events to attend and has preferred outdoor venues “with social distancing when possible.”
While Ferguson’s Trump lawsuits get a lot of attention, he has shaped his office in other ways, too.
He created an environmental protection unit, and has tripled the size of the consumer division, which has targeted major corporations for deceptive business practices. Last year, his office won a $9.1 million judgment against Comcast for signing people up for a service protection plan without their knowledge.
Larkin’s background and campaign
Larkin, 39, also grew up in Washington, graduating from Westmont College, a private, Christian liberal arts school in California, with degrees in political and social science. He received his law degree from Gonzaga University and a master of laws degree from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
He worked as a White House speechwriter in the final year of George W. Bush’s administration and then returned to Washington state, taking a job as deputy prosecuting attorney in Pierce County.
Larkin has played up his prosecutor background in campaign videos, describing himself as a “proven prosecutor” in Spokane and Pierce counties.
But that experience is limited. He says he worked 67 days at the Pierce County job. Public records from the Spokane County prosecutor’s office say there is “no record” of Larkin working as a deputy prosecutor there. Larkin says he was an unpaid intern for the office while in law school.
For the past decade, Larkin has worked as legal counsel and part-owner of Romac Industries, the Bothell manufacturing company started by his grandfather, which makes pipe-related products for water and sewer systems and employs more than 500 people.
Though the job doesn’t put him in courtrooms — it’s more about contracts and sales — Larkin says the private business experience gives him a perspective that Ferguson lacks.
“I think that’s what we need in that office. We don’t need a career politician. I think we need a fresh set of eyes because things aren’t getting better,” he said.
Larkin is paid at least $120,000 annually by his family company and also reported income of at least another six figures from an estate-planning trust fund, according to a personal financial-disclosure statement candidates are required to file, which lists income only in broad ranges.
Larkin’s campaign has emphasized increases in some violent crimes in Seattle and the state, as well as protesters assaulting police officers and small business owners grappling with vandalism, break-ins and open-air drug markets.
By law, the Attorney General’s Office has a limited role in criminal cases. It cannot pursue them on its own, but has to be asked to step in by the governor or a county prosecutor.
Larkin says he’d emphasize the criminal division’s availability and speak out publicly against crime and disorder in ways Ferguson has not.
He has touted a “detailed crime plan,” pointing to a one-and-a-half page statement on his campaign website that says he’d “refocus resources” away from federal lawsuits to the criminal division and seek to change state law so the attorney general can assist in city-level prosecutions.
“I would set up a team of trained attorneys who can alleviate some of the higher, more serious caseload and allow local jurisdictions to better handle their street crime-type issues,” Larkin said.
Trump as an issue
Ferguson said his office already helps counties on criminal cases, typically handling complex prosecutions, such as murders, for smaller counties. While he says he doesn’t necessarily oppose Larkin’s idea of aiding cities, too, he noted municipal prosecutors handle only misdemeanors, not felonies.
“If there is a case that the local prosecutors can’t do for some reason, we have a team that’s ready to go,” he said. But he said he has not been asked by any city to provide such aid.
On the campaign trail, Larkin has expressed support for Trump, saying the president has the right policies on issues such as lowering taxes and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. But he said he doesn’t like the president’s name-calling tweets.
He declined to weigh in on Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, including the president’s own infection. “I don’t have a strong feeling,” he said. “If I were him, I would have worn a mask more. I’m not interested in the federal government. My focus is here.”
As for Ferguson, if Trump loses, removing his biggest lawsuit target, he said he’s got a third-term agenda with plenty of work to do.
He cited reforms to the criminal justice system, including a review to ensure counties comply with a new state law that requires independent, conflict-of-interest free investigations into police use of deadly force.
“Those kinds of issues are important to me. You’ll see that only continue in the next term,” Ferguson said.