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.
Ferguson graduated from New York University Law School in 1995. He served two clerkships, one in Spokane and one in the Midwest, before returning to Seattle to join the law firm Preston, Gates & Ellis (now K&L Gates.) He was elected to the King County Council in 2003. After serving two terms as a county legislator, Ferguson allows that returning to the law in an executive role has been tough at times.
"The first few months were challenging. Any new job is," he says. "On the legal side of the operation, although the issues are not always easy, I feel very comfortable in that environment. On the other hand, we have 13 offices around the state. It's a big operation, and the challenge of directing something that size? It's going to take some time to get good at that."
The most important working relationship for any AG is the one with the Governor, Client #1. "For a year and a half," says Ferguson, "I was Jay Inslee's warm-up act on the campaign trail, and now he's a client. So it's a very different relationship. … We meet on a regular basis, we chat on the phone on a regular basis, obviously, as needed. I would characterize it as a close working relationship. That doesn't mean he always agrees with the advice we give him."
One thing Ferguson and the Governor may disagree about in the future is Ferguson's political trajectory. Associates of the AG fully expect him to run for governor some day. Already, his "Elect Bob Ferguson for Attorney General" website has become the "Re-Elect Bob Ferguson" website. Is he running a permanent campaign?
"You know, I went through an experience last year where a PAC led by Karl Rove spent $3 million bucks against me, so I have to be prepared for that again,” says Ferguson, clearly thinking several moves ahead. “I promised that I'd take on powerful interests who don't play by the rules, and I believe I'm living up to that promise. And that's gonna tick some people off, so I have to be prepared for that. And I intend to be prepared for it, politically."
Talk of running for governor makes Ferguson skittish. "Don't even bring that up,” he says. “My wife will get nervous. I just got elected, right, and it was long, hard campaign. I worked hard to get this job and I love it, I really do. There's so much opportunity to do good in this job. And so, you know, that's really all I've got to say about it."
For now, anyway. Insiders who see Jay Inslee as a one-term-and-out governor may come knocking on Ferguson’s door sooner than he expects.
Ferguson’s tenacity is an advantage in his role as the state’s chief counsel. “When I set a goal … I don't like taking no for an answer, and I am prepared to make whatever sacrifice I need to make to achieve that goal,” he says. Sometimes, the sacrifice can be significant. But Ferguson is not one to back down. “For whatever reason,” he says, “I've always been that way."
It may all come back to chess, where Ferguson learned to embrace the notion of calculated risk.
"In a chess game,” he explains, “you're looking at position and thinking if I make this move, he makes that move. You look ahead six, or seven or eight moves and you imagine a position in the future that you evaluate as good for me or bad for me or even. And you can do that most of the time.
“But there are times where you look at that future position and, for whatever reason, it doesn’t lend itself to an easy evaluation. There are too many variables. It’s just too complicated. Is this good for me, or bad? You don't know. But you know if you don't make that move, your other choices aren't all that great, and you're in a worse off position.
"There were many chess players who were, frankly, better chess players than me but they were unable to take that calculated risk. And I'd ask them why didn't you make that move, and they'd say 'It's a mess, I don't know what's going to happen.' And I'd say yeah it's messy but if you don't go there, you know you have a bad position.”
Ferguson’s willingness to go there, to step into the occasional unknown mess, sets him apart from many politicians. It is the one wild card in his otherwise ordered approach to life and law and his political future. But it may also offer the occasional opening to checkmate an opponent — six or seven moves before they realize what’s going on.