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From guns to dams. 5 major takeaways from the WA attorney general forum in Tri-Cities

By Eric Rosane, Tri-City Herald
Published: June 20, 2024, 7:39am

KENNEWICK — The three candidates running to be Washington’s next attorney general answered 23 questions at a Tuesday candidate forum in the Tri-Cities, covering their stances on public safety, consumer protections and the Trump Administration.

After more than a decade serving as the state’s AG, Democrat Bob Ferguson is stepping aside this year to run for governor. That means Washington voters will pick the state’s new chief law enforcement officer, who will take office in 2025.

The candidates are former U.S. Attorney Nick Brown and senior King County Deputy Prosecutor Manka Dhingra, both Democrats, as well as constitutional litigator and Pasco Mayor Pete Serrano, a Republican.

The AG’s office pursues legal cases in the public’s interest, proposes bills to the state Legislature, represents state departments in litigation, advises state bodies and the governor on legal issues, and provides written opinions on Washington constitutional or legal opinions.

Only two candidates will advance past the Aug. 6 primary election to appear on the Nov. 5 general election ballot. Those will be whichever two earn the most votes during the primary.

Trump presidency

Dhingra and Brown wasted no time discussing the possibility of a second Trump presidency when asked about their top priorities if elected.

Brown listed public safety issues, public advocacy and defending democracy as his priorities.

“We have to have an attorney general whose ready to defend the liberties here,” Brown said. “That includes our voting rights, abortion access and protecting our environment.”

Brown later touched on the travel bans Trump implemented early on in his presidency against seven majority Muslim countries. Ferguson led the state challenges to those bans, and headed a team of Washington attorneys early on to upend them. Brown provided assistance as Gov. Jay Inslee’s general counsel.

“We not only changed the arc of justice for the people here, but all across this country. And that is the attitude we have to bring and the challenges we might have under a second Trump Administration,” he said.

“It will depend on what happens in November,” Dhingra said of her priorities.

If Trump loses, she says she would focus on consumer protection, protecting the environment and health care access issues. But if he wins?

“If there is a Trump Administration, then we have to do everything we can to protect Washingtonians. Making sure we’re protecting reproductive rights, LGBTQI rights, that we are focused on consumer protection, that we are focused on data privacy — those are all the laws I have worked on as a state senator.”

Dhingra currently serves as deputy majority leader in the state Senate, first elected to office by voters of the 45th Legislative District in 2017.

Originally from India, Dhingra said she would be the “only immigrant attorney general in the country.”

“We have to make sure that we are protecting all Washingtonians. When Trump talks about rounding up immigrants and deporting them, he’s talking about people who look like me — people who look like they don’t belong. And he’s going to, what, stop and detain us? That is unacceptable and it is never going to happen in the state of Washington,” she said.

Pressuring state executives

Serrano says he’ll step back on sponsoring bills in the Legislature but would pressure state executives “who fail their duties.”

Serrano’s comments came when he was asked how he would protect people with disabilities. He said state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal was “failing our children in education.”

“To get an IEP, an Individual Educational Plan, is nearly impossible. To have it enforced is nearly impossible. To get the right tools for your child — or someone’s theoretical child — nearly impossible. The AG can do a lot by pushing down on those executives who fail their duties,” he said.

Serrano also stands out from Dhingra and Brown on the question of the AG’s relationship with the Legislature. If elected, he says he’ll take a back seat.

“There’s an opportunity to advise. I’ve seen Attorney General Ferguson’s office author a lot of bills, that say ‘at the request of the AG’s office.’ My present intention is not to do that — let the Legislature legislate, let the attorney general advise and assist with making sure those actions by the Legislature are constitutional and protective of the people,” he said.

Gun reform

Brown says the state needs to continue its track record of establishing gun safety solutions, and says the AG’s office should be “hyper focused” on these issues.

He has represented the Alliance for Gun Responsibility in court and defended the implementation of Initiative 1639, a 2018 slate that made changes to Washington’s firearm laws.

Dhingra leaned on her legislative experience to get laws around bump stock bans, safe storage, background checks and training for gun purchasers passed.

“We have to make sure that individuals who have been found to be a danger to themselves or others actually surrender their firearms,” Dhingra said referring to the state’s laws on extreme risk protection.

Serrano says the issue “pits the rights of the people against the protection of the people,” and the AG’s office should take a harder stance on prosecuting people who break laws.

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“Whether you’re in Pasco, whether you’re in Renton, whether you’re in Yakima — if you’re someone who needs the ability to protect yourself, you have got to have that ability. And we need to make sure, as the attorney general, that criminals are prosecuted to keep our streets safe,” he said.

Founder and general counsel of Silent Majority Foundation, Serrano has been at the forefront of challenges to Washington’s most stringent gun laws, including attempts to overturn restrictions on “ghost guns” and a ban on high-capacity magazines.

Snake River dam removal

AG candidates were also asked to weigh in with their thoughts about removing the lower four Snake River dams to restore salmon populations.

Brown said the AG will play a big role in supporting the state’s work as federal negotiations continue about the dam’s removal.

“Right now, Washington state is struggling to get by and have power sources that power the people we have right here. But this is a state that is growing, this is a state that is going to add millions of people in the next 10 and 20 years. And we need to make sure that we continue to advocate for clean, alternative sources of energy,” Brown said.

Dhingra said this is a case of competing interests: We need to protect wildlife, but the state also needs clean energy. But it’s all about bringing stakeholders to the table to “find sustainable solutions.”

“That is what I have been doing most of my life: When I started talking about domestic violence in the South Asian community when no one wanted to talk about it, when I started talking about crisis intervention with law enforcement when that was such a new concept, when I was talking about therapeutic courts, when I started an HR office in the Senate,” she said.

Serrano said the “dams mean much more than clean power,” and remain a crucial aspect of the region’s economy and agriculture. He’s met with local mayors and parts of Washington’s congressional delegation on support to retain the dams.

“That said, if (federal) legislation is passed and it somehow violates our rights, I will stand for you continually in court to make sure that that lifeline is not destroyed,” he said.

Criminal justice reform

Dhingra says Washington desperately needs a state leader who will address gender-based violence, and it needs to be a priority for the next AG.

“We continue to see domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking cases go forgotten. We are one of the worst states for trafficking and yet we don’t talk about it enough,” Dhingra said.

She touted her work reforming Washington’s trafficking laws and her role in establishing and serving on the Washington Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People task force.

Serrano said the state shouldn’t be focused on decriminalizing drug possession and consumption, but rather focus on holding distributors accountable, including the individuals who over-prescribe or wrongly prescribe.

Brown says it’s important to prosecute crimes, but it should also be a priority to address the root causes of crime — education inequities, a lack of housing and mental health resources, and public health and drug counseling systems.

“We need to do both. We need to hold people accountable, but we also need to address those core, root causes that will make the safety sustainable for generations to come,” he said.

Election outlook

What little political polling that has been conducted in this year’s AG race suggests voters are overwhelmingly unsure of who they’ll back for this important state executive position.

One poll conducted recently by the Northwest Progressive Institute of 615 likely general election voters found Serrano with 36%, Dhingra with 10% and Brown with 9%. In all, 45% of voters said they were “not sure” who they would be supporting.

That likely means a tight race for Brown and Dhingra as they spar over independent voters and undecided Democrats, and an easy primary season for Serrano.

Tuesday’s forum was hosted by the League of Women Voters of Washington and Northwest Public Broadcasting, and can be watched online at TVW.org.

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