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Monday,  July 15 , 2024

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Washington’s statewide races are heating up. Here’s a look at the three contenders for attorney general:

By Ellen Dennis, The Spokesman-Review
Published: June 16, 2024, 6:02am

SPOKANE — The three candidates in the race to be the first new Washington attorney general in a dozen years have raised around $2 million, making it second-most expensive race for a Washington state office.

Whoever is elected will assume power over the state’s top legal office in the first open election for the seat since 2012.

Former U.S. Attorney Nick Brown, Sen. Manka Dhingra of Redmond, and Pasco Mayor Pete Serrano are all bidding to take over for outgoing attorney and gubernatorial hopeful Bob Ferguson.

Brown, 47, stepped down from his post as U.S. Attorney for Western Washington last summer to launch his campaign for attorney general. A lifelong Washington resident and former appointed legal counsel to Gov. Jay Inslee, Brown has never held an elected office. He is running as a Democrat.

Dhingra, 49, was elected as a state senator in 2017. As deputy majority leader of the Washington State Senate, she chairs the legislative body’s Law and Justice Committee. Dhingra began her legal career at the state attorney general’s office while she attended law school at the University of Washington.

Serrano, 43, is serving his second term on the Pasco City Council and also serves as the city’s mayor. Serrano and his family moved to Pasco in 2015 where he previously worked as an environmental lawyer for the U.S. Department of Energy at Hanford. He is running as a Republican.

Of the three front-runners for attorney general, Brown has raised the most in campaign donations so far, reporting about $1.1 million in contributions. Dhingra takes a close second-place with a reported $857,000 in donations. Serrano trails behind the two Democrats in terms of campaign cash, having raised about $158,000 to-date.

After he left the U.S. Department of Energy, Serrano went on to work at Energy Northwest before founding the Silent Majority Foundation, a conservative nonprofit behind thus-unsuccessful lawsuits to overturn a state law banning high-capacity gun magazines and assault weapons. The Pasco resident said his background, including 15 years of experience practicing energy law, deem him fit to run the top law office in Washington.

“In my last job, I was on the forefront of bringing new nuclear energy technology to the state of Washington,” Serrano said in an interview.

He added that he has “tremendous concern” over efforts in the state to move away from natural gas as an energy source.

“I would certainly do what I could if we found that the attorney general’s office needed to intervene or participate in lawsuits in relation to potentially challenging those bans,” Serrano said.

If elected, Serrano said he would take a look at state laws that are adopted by the state Legislature to assess whether they are constitutionally sound.

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If laws “violate constitutional rights and individual freedoms that are guaranteed by the Constitution,” he said, “then we shouldn’t be on the position of defending those laws.”

Prompted for specific examples, Serrano pointed to the state law passed in 2022 that banned the sale of high-capacity gun magazines.

When asked what sets him apart from opponents Brown and Dhingra, Serrano said “he doesn’t know either particularly well” and doesn’t want to “make assumptions.”

He added that he took a different stance than Dhingra on a recently overturned law that limited the ability of law enforcement to engage in high-speed police chases when they didn’t have reason to believe somebody was in imminent physical danger.

“Police and law enforcement should have the authority and ability to do their jobs,” Serrano said.

Serrano also said if elected, he would try to increase transparency in the attorney general’s office and fix the way it handles public records requests.

“I’ve requested documents, and it’s taken a year or several months,” he said.

Serrano, Dhingra and Brown all agree that if elected, they would push for Washington officials to increase the number of police officers in the state, potentially by funding incentives from local jurisdictions to recruit more cops.

Dhingra said she is the only candidate running for attorney general with a background working in the health care field in addition to law. Along with chairing the Senate Law and Justice Committee, Dhingra has served on the Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee for seven years. She said a lot of the work she’s done as both a lawyer and state senator has been in conjunction with the state attorney general’s office.

After she completed law school, Dhungra went on to clerk for Washington State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Madsen before working on sexual violence cases at the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

If elected, she said she would take a close look at hospital mergers and acquisitions in the state.

“We have health care deserts in the state of Washington,” she said. “We really cannot let that continue.”

Dhingra helped spearhead the formation of the attorney general’s new Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force, a work group to address decades of systemic neglect. She said if elected, she will opt to lead with her values instead of doing what’s “politically convenient.”

“There are two things that can happen in November,” Dhingra said. “Either Trump comes back, in which case the next attorney general of Washington state will have to make sure they’re stepping up and protecting Washingtonians … making sure we’re protecting women, LGBTQIA individuals, immigrants, refugees, protecting our voting rights, protecting environmental protections. Literally, those are all the bills I’ve been working on.”

Dhingra also said she would prioritize environmental protections while running the attorney general’s office, making sure to “hold polluters accountable.”

When asked what sets her apart from her opponents, Dhingra said she’s passionate about the office and does not see it as a “stepping stone for higher office.”

“I started my legal career at this office,” she said. “A lot of the work I’ve done, you know, my entire life has been in conjunction with this office. … No one will have to guess or take a leap of faith to know how I will show up to do this work. They know how I will because I’ve been leading the past seven years.”

Dhingra said her Democratic opponent Nick Brown “comes from a political background,” adding that people are looking for “new leadership.”

Born and raised in Pierce County, Brown said he has spent most of his career in public service both in the Army and the Department of Justice. He said working as legal counsel for Gov. Jay Inslee made him realize that most of the issues he cared about happened at a state and local level.

“Up until that point,” he said, “I had been very, sort of, D.C. -focused in my own political interest, but found most valuable the work in Olympia.”

“My last six months with Gov. Inslee were the first six months of the Trump administration,” Brown said. “I got to help the AG’s team in the initial legislation opposing the Trump Muslim Ban.”

Brown said he’s been concerned about some of the “problematic” legal practices by the attorney general’s office under Ferguson’s leadership the past couple years. If elected, he said one of the first things he’d do is improve that side of things, using his experience litigating complex cases through almost a decade of work for the Department of Justice.

“There’s been a couple big cases where the AG’s office has been dinged for their discovery practices,” he said. “So in an actual case against another party, they’ve been penalized — some substantial amounts — by judges who said they weren’t providing information. That shouldn’t happen.”

Brown said he hopes to create a new labor and worker protection division in the attorney general’s office if he gets elected.

“There’s a lot of really important work we can do to protect wage theft in the underground economy,” he said. “To make sure we’re protecting union workers. They’re really foundational, I think, for a strong economy.”

When asked what sets him apart from his opponents, Brown began his answer by saying Serrano is “wholly unqualified for the job, both in experience as a lawyer and ideas for Washington state.”

“He has consistently opposed all of the gun safety laws that Washington has passed in the last handful of years,” Brown said. “I actually have a case against him right now. … He has also said, pretty explicitly, that if he personally thinks a law is not Constitutional, he is not going to defend it, which means taxpayers will be on the hook for defending these laws.”

Brown said his legal background is more robust than that of both Serrano and Dhingra.

“Civil litigation is the bulk of what the AG’s office does,” Brown said. “Senator Dhingra has never done any of that in her entire career as a lawyer.”

Washington’s primary elections for attorney general and other statewide offices will be held on Aug. 6. The top-two candidates will advance to the general election on Nov. 5.