Attorney General Rob McKenna has just been handed the golden baton that launched the careers of former attorneys general Christine Gregoire and Slade Gorton.
The baton is the ruling by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that imprisoned felons have the right to vote in Washington, a ruling that McKenna says he will personally argue if and when it gets to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Shades of Slade Gorton's years of court battles in the infamous Boldt Decision on Native American fishing rights in the 1970s. U.S. District Judge George Boldt in 1974 affirmed treaty rights of Native Americans to fish in "accustomed places," launching angry and sometimes violent protests by white fishermen. Gorton, attorney general from 1969 to 1980, led the state's appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he argued the case. Ultimately Gorton lost, but the case vaulted him into the U.S. Senate in 1980.
Shades of Christine Gregoire's 1998 leadership of a successful effort by 46 states to hold tobacco companies liable for damages to health. In Gregoire's case, as attorney general (1993-2005), she headed a team of state AGs in negotiations in and out of court that produced the settlement that vaulted Gregoire into the governor's mansion in the 2004 election.
McKenna, a moderate Republican, could put himself in strong position to run for governor in 2012, or against U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell. In a Democratic state, even a popular Republican office-holder needs an extra boost to gain traction.
The felon-voting ruling could be that boost for McKenna, regardless of how the courts eventually rule, because it will provide plenty of headlines and give him an image of being tough on crime and criminals. It could also, if misplayed, make him appear to be insensitive to racial minorities, who are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates compared to white citizens. That happened to Gorton, but the state had, and has, a lot more non-native fishers than Native American fishers.
Washington Republicans will be looking in 2012 for someone other than Dino Rossi to carry their banner, and McKenna is already considered a strong contender. A case that allows a guy with Boy-Scout looks and a moderate record to play tough cop could hardly damage his cause. Win or lose in an eventual court ruling, it never hurts to be on the other side from guys on the other side of prison bars.