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Is King County muddling through or making real reforms?

Bob Ferguson is serving on a King County Council that he thinks is moving toward substantial changes. But he's also looking ahead to the race for state attorney general.

King County Council member Bob Ferguson

King County Council member Bob Ferguson King County

Bob Ferguson has made a mark on the King County Council with a tendency toward centrist Democratic politics that was apparent long before fiscal constraints forced some of his fellow party members there toward the middle. He has frequently been a swing vote between Republicans and Democrats on the officially nonpartisan council. His fellow Democrats once tried, unsuccessfully, to redistrict him out of their lives.

Ferguson is now in the middle of trying to translate his independent streak, council experience, and background as an attorney into a successful run as a Democrat for state attorney general, a campaign he announced in February. He hopes to succeed Rob McKenna, a predecessor on both the council and as student body president at the University of Washington. McKenna is expected to run for governor. Assuming that happens, other contenders in the AG race are almost sure to include Ferguson's fellow County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, a Republican, and former Pierce County Executive John Ladenberg, a Democrat.

In a discussion with Crosscut writers and editors on Tuesday, Ferguson fielded questions about both his statewide run and King County, appearing more comfortable with the discussion of his current responsibilities. He seemed cautious about criticizing McKenna, with whom he has had a good relationship.

On McKenna's joining of the Republican lawsuit against President Barack Obama's health-care law, Ferguson said he would withdraw the state from the legal effort if elected. However, he quickly added, "But do I think he had the authority [to enter the lawsuit]? Yes." He did say McKenna could have done a better job of discussing his plans with other state elected officials. Referring to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who has been very upset about the suit, Ferguson said, "I was surprised that [McKenna] did not reach out with a greater heads-up to the governor, especially to a governor who is a former attorney general." Ferguson also noted that, while McKenna has talked about disagreeing with only parts of the law, the suit actually seeks to overturn the entire health-care act.

Ferguson raised concerns about whether McKenna's efforts on preventing gang violence have a large enough dose of prevention but also pointed to the costs of prevention. And he said that a visit with Yakima Democrats had brought home to him that McKenna's efforts respond to a serious issue that "is a part of daily conversation."

On county issues, Ferguson praised Executive Dow Constantine, saying he had brought a "more thoughtful approach" to budget issues since being elected in 2009. He said Constantine had done an excellent job negotiating cost savings with employee groups.

Ferguson said the county has so far engaged in a combination of stopgap measures to find savings and more serious long-term reforms aimed at ensuring manageable government operations. Asked specifically whether King County Democrats had just hoped to "muddle through," he said, "I think that was the approach four or five years ago. … I don't think it could be fairly described that way now."

Now, he added, "There is not a muddle-through approach from any of the council members, Republicans or Democrats."

Ferguson spoke of the importance of county voters' approval for renewal of a veterans and human services levy later this year. But he said he has been surprised by political calculations that seem to assume he would support a $20-per-year fee on car tabs to support Metro Transit if Olympia gives the new taxing authority to the county. Ferguson said that as a regular Metro rider "who was standing on the 41 this morning," he understands the need and would probably support such a measure. But other options, he said, also need to be examined carefully.

Joe Copeland is political editor for Crosscut. You can reach him at Joe.Copeland@crosscut.com.


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