Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson smiles at a news conference about a federal appeals court's refusal to reinstate President Donald Trump's ban on travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017, in Seattle. The ruling dealt another legal setback to the new administration's immigration policy. Ferguson, a Democrat, has gained national recognition as the lawyer who stopped Trump’s initial travel ban, and many speculate he may channel that fame to run for higher office. Elaine Thompson AP
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson smiles at a news conference about a federal appeals court's refusal to reinstate President Donald Trump's ban on travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017, in Seattle. The ruling dealt another legal setback to the new administration's immigration policy. Ferguson, a Democrat, has gained national recognition as the lawyer who stopped Trump’s initial travel ban, and many speculate he may channel that fame to run for higher office. Elaine Thompson AP

Politics & Government

Could ‘folk hero to progressives’ be Washington’s next governor?

May 26, 2017 09:00 AM

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson was largely unknown outside his home state — and even within it — until he successfully blocked President Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban in February.

Since then, the second-term attorney general has repeatedly pushed back against Trump’s administration, been named one of TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” and been lauded as a progressive heartthrob on the cover of a Seattle alternative weekly, The Stranger.

Observers say Ferguson’s early win against Trump has set up the 52-year-old Democratic politician to run for higher office, especially in left-leaning Washington state. Now, he just needs to keep up his momentum — something he’s already doing with his steady drumbeat of challenges to Trump’s environmental policies and other orders, several political consultants said.

“He’s scoring points all over the place — he’s racking ’em up,” said Ron Dotzauer, who managed Democrat Booth Gardner’s successful 1984 bid for Washington governor and now runs the public-relations firm Strategies 360. “Certainly within the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, he’s become a darling, and not just here.

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“Let me put it this way: I would be shocked if he didn’t run for something else.”

Let me put it this way: I would be shocked if he didn’t run for something else.

Ron Dotzauer, who managed Democrat Booth Gardner’s successful 1984 bid for Washington governor and now runs a public-relations firm

In an interview this week, Ferguson said he isn’t thinking much about his political future right now, except when people ask him about it — which, he admitted, is happening nearly every day.

“It’s 2017, for God’s sakes,” Ferguson said when asked if he’s contemplated a 2020 run for governor. “I appreciate people’s interest, but it’s not what I’m focused on at all right now.”

Others say it’s clear Ferguson is taking advantage of his high-profile challenges to Trump to bolster his own political prospects, and that governor is his most likely next step.

“Bob Ferguson kicked off his campaign for governor the moment he held that silly, little press conference about taking on the travel ban,” said Keith Schipper, a Republican campaign consultant. “He’s becoming a folk hero to progressives around the country.”

In the four months since Trump took office, Ferguson has already initiated or joined more lawsuits against the federal government than he did during four years under Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration.

First came Ferguson’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Trump’s January executive order on immigration, which would have temporarily banned travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries and suspended the entry of all refugees for 120 days. A federal judge sided with Ferguson in early February, halting the implementation of the travel ban and forcing Trump to draft another version, which Ferguson also challenged.

Then, in April, Ferguson and 10 other states filed an intent to sue over the Trump Administration’s plans to delay new energy efficiency standards. Federal officials later said they would reverse course and allow the pollution-reducing standards to go into effect.

More recently, Ferguson has challenged the Trump administration’s decision to restart the leasing of public lands to coal companies, and he is looking to join a lawsuit defending key parts of Obama’s health reform law.

By comparison, Ferguson sued the federal government only twice when Obama was in charge, both times over conditions at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland, his office said.

He’s becoming a folk hero to progressives around the country.

Keith Schipper, a Republican campaign consultant

Ferguson said he has a two-part test for whether he needs to challenge a federal law.

“I bring cases when I think Washingtonians are being harmed, and if I think we have a good legal argument. That’s our criteria,” he said. “I believe this administration is violating civil rights and environmental laws.”

The travel ban, Ferguson said, was “blatantly unconstitutional and Washingtonians were being harmed.”

“I’m not going to put up with that,” he said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Even when he’s not suing Trump, Ferguson is frequently taking a public stand against many of the Republican president’s policies.

He’s threatened to sue federal officials if they try to shut down Washington’s legalized marijuana market or strip protections for some of the state’s national monuments. And, after the Trump administration withdrew federal protections for transgender students in February, Ferguson asked a federal appeals court to uphold those students’ right to use bathrooms that match their gender identity.

Look, if I had a nickel for every time some political consultant said we did things for political reasons, I wouldn’t have to worry about my kids’ tuition.

Bob Ferguson, Washington state’s attorney general

Political consultants say all those issues strike a chord with voters in Washington, where Trump won only 38 percent of the vote in November. Trump performed even worse in and around Seattle, winning only 22 percent of the vote in King County, the state’s most populous.

“Trump is a great foil for any aspiring Democratic politician,” said Ben Anderstone, a local Democratic political consultant. “I think that Ferguson has done a particularly good job, while staying in the bounds of his office, of making himself a clear contrast to the Trump administration.

“He’s using his office to pursue moral ends that are going to appeal to the Democratic base.”

Chad Minnick, a Republican campaign consultant, said it appears that Ferguson would be the Democratic frontrunner if he decides to run for governor three years from now.

The incumbent, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, is in his second term, and no Washington governor has served three terms since Dan Evans left the governor’s mansion 30 years ago. (Some have even speculated that Inslee, a former congressman, may try to run for president in 2020.)

The state’s last four attorneys general have all sought higher office with mixed success.

While Democrat Chris Gregoire went on to serve two terms as governor, former Attorney General Rob McKenna lost his bid for governor in 2012, as did Republican Ken Eikenberry in 1992. Republican Slade Gorton, who served as Washington’s attorney general from 1969 to 1981, left to become a U.S. senator.

The fact that these are winning issues in court legitimizes his actions.

Chad Minnick, a Republican campaign consultant

Minnick said he doesn’t think Ferguson’s primary reason for fighting Trump’s policies is to gain political points.

“The fact that these are winning issues in court legitimizes his actions,” he said.

But Minnick said that doesn’t mean Ferguson won’t enter battles with Trump that serve a dual purpose: defending Washington residents, while boosting his profile at the same time.

“For Ferguson, Trump is the gift that keeps on giving,” Minnick said. “I would say Ferguson will be laying in the weeds like a jungle cat — he will spring upon any issue that will gain him notoriety and increase his relevance.”

Ferguson said he doesn’t pay much attention to what political consultants say and isn’t meeting with any right now to talk about his future. He’s said he’s focused mainly on family — he has a wife and 9-year-old twins — while doing the job he already has.

“Look, if I had a nickel for every time some political consultant said we did things for political reasons, I wouldn’t have to worry about my kids’ tuition,” Ferguson said.

Still, he found the time to write an op-ed in TIME this month, using a chess metaphor to criticize Trump’s aggressive political tactics.

“What I believe is that the office of attorney general is the most consequential job in politics right now,” he told a reporter over the phone. “That’s my feeling, and I think the work we’re doing demonstrates that.”

Dotzauer, who ran Booth Gardner’s campaign, said he’s not surprised Ferguson isn’t talking much about his future plans right now.

“There’s not a candidate anywhere in the world three years out who will tell you they’re going to run for office,” Dotzauer said. “If you find someone who does that, I’ll show you someone who’s going to lose.”

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Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1