Smooth Sailing for McKenna?

Despite opponents’ claims that he’s a hard-right do-nothing, the AG doesn’t appear to have much to fear this election season.

With apologies to Dino Rossi, Attorney General Rob McKenna may be the golden child of the state Republican Party. "He's at the top of the talent pool," says Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University. "He's in a great office for getting good press, and he's done that by focusing on good government and issues everyone can agree on—[while] skillfully avoiding the social-conservative themes that have haunted state Republicans." Democrats grudgingly acknowledge as much. "After four years of using the office for political purposes, he's established an appearance of independence," says State Sen. Adam Kline (D-Seattle), who has worked with McKenna as Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. There's plenty of speculation that, as many AGs do, McKenna is positioning himself as a popular moderate for a run for higher office. (There's an old joke that AG actually stands for "aspiring governor.") His decision last Friday to file suit against rabid Republican backers the Building Industry Association of Washington for campaign-finance regulations will help him appear nonpartisan. Yet McKenna is also the chair of John McCain's Washington state campaign, and has praised staunchly conservative Supreme Court justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts as "outstanding picks" by President Bush. A popular, politically adroit Republican who may be more conservative than he appears is the Democratic nightmare (see: Rossi), but the Democrat seeking to halt McKenna's rise, Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, has been unable to raise even one-third as much as the incumbent. Ladenburg's campaign estimates that it will raise $600,000 to $700,000, compared to the more than $1.5 million already in McKenna's treasury. Democrat Deborah Senn amassed $1.2 million in her battle against McKenna for the open AG spot (vacated by now-Gov. Gregoire) in 2004. Ladenburg campaign manager David Sawyer points to McKenna's fundraising prowess as a sign that the incumbent hasn't done his job. "He's getting a lot of donations from car dealerships, payday lenders, and insurance companies. As an advocate for consumers, he's done an excellent job of not making enemies [in industry]." McKenna responds with examples of consumer protection cases he's pursued and says that Ladenburg "lives in a big glass house" on the subject of campaign contributions, having twice attended meetings of the Democratic Attorneys General Association, a political organization funded largely by corporate interests, to solicit donations. Ladenburg acknowledges meeting with the group to discuss strategy and to solicit help for Gregoire's campaign, but says he's neither received nor solicited donations from the group. Questions about Ladenburg's prospects don't end with fundraising. In the August 19 primary, he was unable to win any of the major counties, including Pierce, where he's served in various offices for the past 26 years, and where his wife, Connie Ladenburg, is currently serving her second term on the Tacoma City Council. Ladenburg has gone on the offensive, portraying McKenna as more interested in publicity than consumer protection. McKenna "issued more press releases than subpoenas," Ladenburg quipped at a September 18 debate at the Gig Harbor Chamber of Commerce. He was referring in part to McKenna's decision not to issue civil investigative demands (a device similar to a subpoena) in his probe into gas-price fixing. Ladenburg says McKenna should have convened an inquiry court (similar to a grand jury), using price data to establish the reasonable suspicion necessary to put industry members under oath. "If an investigation can't be done, how did Slade Gorton do it in 1970?" Ladenburg asks, referring to the former Attorney General's gas industry litigation. McKenna counters that he used information that federal agencies had obtained via their stronger investigative powers, and also went across the state soliciting evidence of misconduct, of which there was never enough to warrant issuing a CID. "As a former prosecutor, John of all people should understand that to issue the CID without sufficient evidence would be an abuse of power," he says. "He is shamefully demagoguing this issue." Tim Hamilton, Executive Director of the Automotive United Trades Organization, which represents independent gas stations and convenience stores, agrees with McKenna that the CIDs were out of reach, and praises the inquiry as a periodic update of a study of the gas industry by the State Department of Community Trade and Economic Development. (The study is recommissioned at least once per decade.) But he is "outraged" that McKenna would refer to the inquiry as an investigation. McKenna "knew this couldn't be an investigation from the get-go," Hamilton says. "He just wanted free political advertising." Related to the dispute is a fundamental disagreement between the candidates on the proper exercise of an AG's power. McKenna, whose top priorities include combating identity theft, serial domestic violence, and methamphetamine abuse, repeatedly criticizes former New York AG Eliot Spitzer's famous lawsuits against the financial industry for using publicity to drive down companies' stock prices and strong-arm them into regulation that bypasses the usual rulemaking procedures. By contrast, Ladenburg embraces Spitzer's broader, more aggressive approach. "I think Spitzer did brilliant work," Ladenburg says. "He saved hundreds of millions of dollars by taking on mutual funds that were basically stealing money from people. Rob doesn't believe in being an activist AG. I do." But debates over the aggressiveness and regulatory implications of AG enforcement actions are fairly esoteric, and the extent to which the public will hear them, or to which Ladenburg's campaign can afford to present them, is up in the air. Though Sawyer calls it "the second most important race in the state," Donovan questions how many voters are paying attention to the AG race. "It's hard to get this on people's radar screen. 'Here's this office that you may or may not have heard about.' It's even harder as a challenger." dagnos@seattleweekly.com

 
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