Washington's political chess master

Like any good chess nut, Attorney General Bob Ferguson is comfortable taking "calculated" risks. Will one of those risks be running for governor?
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Washington Attorney General - and chess master - Bob Ferguson

Like any good chess nut, Attorney General Bob Ferguson is comfortable taking "calculated" risks. Will one of those risks be running for governor?

Talk to Bob Ferguson, and it is rare that the game of chess doesn't come into play.

Friends and colleagues say "chess is central" to understanding Ferguson, the former King County legislator who is now ten months into his job as Washington State's 18th Attorney General. He's played the game since childhood, is a two-time state champion and has the aura of intensity you’d expect from an internationally-rated chess master. His proficiency is on full display when he describes how he operates: thinking several steps ahead, studying the opponent, working a detailed plan and taking a calculated risk when the calculation looks good.

To some Ferguson observers that intensity represents admirable focus; to others it borders on obsessive. Either way, this careful, calibrated — some would say relentless — approach is clearly key to Ferguson’s psyche and political style.

Ferguson’s political brand is that of a quiet hard worker who brings a gut sense of right and wrong — occasionally edging towards righteousness — and real political ambition to the task. Friends and colleagues expect him to run for governor some day. It can’t have escaped the chess master’s notice that the AG job has been a stepping stone to higher office. Both Slade Gorton and Christine Gregoire served as Attorney General before moving on to the U.S. Senate and Washington’s governorship, respectively.

Two pictures adorn the walls of Ferguson’s spartan downtown Seattle office. One is of the late chess legend Bobby Fischer; the other is a vintage campaign poster of the late Henry "Scoop" Jackson, U.S. Senator and Washington political legend. Jackson is a central figure in Ferguson’s political formation. Both families hail from Everett where, as Ferguson puts it, "everyone knows everyone." The storied Senator was such an inspiration that Ferguson named his son Jack after Scoop.

Ferguson assumed leadership of what amounts to the largest law practice in the state (13 offices with more than 500 practicing attorneys and 1,100 employees) after a bruising campaign in which millions in political action committee (PAC) money poured in from outside the state in an effort to defeat him. Since taking office in January, he has tackled a range of major, high-profile issues. His approach in each case reveals a knack for deploying toughness along with tact. 

He found a way to implement Washington’s marijuana legalization law without running afoul of the federal government, while simultaneously holding the feds' feet to the fire for habitually missing deadlines in the decades-long cleanup of the Hanford nuclear site. In the former case his strategy was all mellow and light touch, giving the U.S. Justice department lots of room and time to delicately maneuver on what is, for the federal government, a really tricky issue.

"I thought the federal government was in a tough spot and I didn't want to make it any harder for them,” explains Ferguson, about his approach on marijuana. “If I was Eric Holder, I'd want the space and time to make a decision without the Attorney General out in Washington holding press conferences or whatever."

Hanford was a “different situation,” says Ferguson. The relationship between Washington State and the feds over cleanup at the nuclear facility has been dysfunctional for years. So Ferguson played hardball, appearing at a press conference with the governor and threatening to sue. “The federal government entered into an agreement, in court, to meet certain deadlines, and they're not meeting them,” he says. “In fact, the one thing that has been consistent is their failure to meet those deadlines. And I find that unacceptable. When Washington State has successfully moved the ball forward on Hanford, it has been, frankly, when we've taken strong legal action. Thoughtful legal action, but legal action."

Ferguson has also seen fit to wade into the murky world of campaign finance law. In October, his office brought suit against the Grocery Manufacturer's Association for its failure to report the source of $7.2 million in campaign contributions to defeat Initiative 522, which would have required labeling of genetically modified foods. (Crosscut has learned that the AG's office is about to amend that complaint upwards to $11 million, based on further investigation.)

People have criticized Ferguson for stepping in with legal action in the middle of an election, but he makes no apologies, nor does he see any reason to settle. “It was an important case to bring given the size and scope of [the alleged violation],” he says. “$7.2 million dollars is a lot of money in which they failed to disclose who the donors were and how much they donated. This case is appropriate not just for a penalty, but a significant penalty, because there should be a deterrent effect."

Ferguson has also taken action against smaller fry on larger issues. Last April, he filed an alleged civil rights violation and consumer protection case against Arlene's flowers, the tiny florist in Richland, Washington that refused to sell wedding flowers to gay patrons.

The suit accuses Arlene’s of violating civil rights’ and consumer protection statutes. Ferguson explains that when anti-discrimination violations occur in the realm of commerce, they justify a consumer-protection cause of action.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Matt A. Fikse

Matt A. Fikse

Matt Fikse-Verkerk (Twitter: @mattfikse) covered urban affairs, politics, tech, and business at Crosscut from 2009 to 2014. He lives in Seattle and works for a biotechnology firm in Redmond, WA.