Attorney General Bob Ferguson turning Trump lawsuits into campaign cash


NOVEMBER 03, 2017 02:00 PM,

UPDATED NOVEMBER 06, 2017 11:19 AM

Five months ago, when Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson was asked whether he was thinking of running for governor in 2020, he scoffed.

“It’s 2017, for God’s sakes,” he said. “I appreciate people’s interest, but it’s not what I’m focused on at all right now.”

It’s still 2017, and public records show Ferguson has been raising campaign money hand over fist since mid-July, openly trading on numerous legal actions his office has filed against President Donald Trump’s administration.

“I am proud to have blocked President Trump’s unconstitutional and un-American travel ban,” Ferguson said in a campaign fundraising note sent Sept. 20. The letter invited supporters to attend a re-election fundraiser at a private home in Tacoma and suggested contributions from $50 to $1,000 or more.

Eleven similar letters, sent once per week or more between Sept. 20 and Nov. 2, underline the Trump connection. An Oct. 25 letter referenced official action taken by Ferguson less than two weeks earlier.

“Last week I joined a coalition of attorneys general to challenge President Trump’s cruel decision to undermine the Affordable Care Act,” the letter stated, closing with a request for donations.

Records show the push is paying off. Campaign finance reports show Ferguson has raised more than $305,000 for his re-election campaign since mid-July, including $212,000 in August, September and October.

His campaign is emphasizing small contributions. A handful of individuals have donated $4,000 apiece, but hundreds more have donated smaller amounts, down to single digits. Ferguson’s fundraising letters also note that he won’t accept contributions from corporate political action committees.

It’s an impressive haul for a re-election campaign that’s still more than two years away — perhaps more impressive because Ferguson doesn’t have a declared opponent.

That fact, among others, fuels speculation that the growing war chest is meant for something else: a gubernatorial run. In theory, Ferguson’s campaign could shift the contributions from his re-election campaign to a gubernatorial one with written permission from donors.

Ferguson and his campaign representatives did not respond to requests for comment sought Thursday and Friday before this story was posted.

Political insiders note an iffy convergence between Ferguson’s official actions and his private fundraising.

“It certainly touches on an interesting ethical question, which is how do you separate what’s politically popular from the duty of your office,” said Ben Anderstone, a local Democratic political consultant. “Most of the time I think there’s less of a political eye on the AG than there is currently, and that cuts both ways. That politicizes everything that Ferguson is doing.”

Ferguson’s office has filed or joined in 17 lawsuits against the Trump administration, contending its actions are unconstitutional or threaten laws that protect citizens. The torrent led to a recent dust-up with Republicans in the state Senate.

A question about the costs of the suits prompted Ferguson to write a nine-page letter to Republican senators, detailing the actions and their purpose. Ferguson contended costs to the public are minimal because his salaried staff members work on them in the evenings or on weekends, and they’re not receiving extra pay.

The legal actions have a side effect: They’ve raised Ferguson’s political profile as an anti-Trump warrior nationally and locally.

It hardly hurts Ferguson in deep-blue Western Washington, where Trump’s popularity is low. Political insiders from both parties see the lawsuits and the fundraising flurry as a plain prelude to a gubernatorial run. They also wonder whether explicit fundraising based on those official actions blurs the line between official business and politics.

“One lawsuit against the federal government is significant and unusual,” said Alex Hays, a local GOP consultant. “Multiple lawsuits are even more unusual. It is an affirmative choice that is outside the range of the state Attorney General’s Office. There’s something going on here. To connect it directly to a fundraising appeal feels weird. It does not feel normal.”

Prior attorneys general have conducted similar public crusades ahead of gubernatorial campaigns. As attorney general, Democrat Chris Gregoire famously sued tobacco companies, which led to a landmark settlement. Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna sued the Obama administration over the Affordable Care Act before mounting a gubernatorial campaign that fell short in 2012.

Ferguson has filed or joined more legal actions against the federal government than his predecessors, in a far shorter time frame. On one hand, arguments hold that Trump’s actions go so far beyond established norms that the legal reaction is justified. A counterargument holds that official action and political fundraising shouldn’t be linked so closely.

“Any politician that’s running is going to talk to their donor base about the things they’re doing and why you should donate,” said Chad Minnick, a local GOP consultant. “But typically there’s a separation. Most of the time they separate the politics from the campaign in a much more traditional way. Ferguson doesn’t.

He’s all politics, all the time.

“The bigger issue is that he’s supposed to be the attorney general for the state of Washington, not the attorney general for the King County Democratic Party, and that’s how he’s behaving.”

State law prohibits legislators from raising money during annual legislative sessions. The prohibition, known informally as a freeze, bars lawmakers from raising money 30 days before sessions begin and continues through the entirety of sessions.

As a statewide executive, Ferguson faces the same restrictions during the session period, with one significant difference: His office can take official action at any time, outside of legislative sessions, and no law bars him from raising money in the same window.

Another recent campaign letter that doesn’t mention Trump shows a separate real- time linkage between Ferguson’s official actions and fundraising. A request for donations sent to supporters Oct. 17 referenced a lawsuit Ferguson’s office filed Sept. 28 against pharmaceutical companies, including the makers of Oxycontin.

Formally speaking, Ferguson’s fundraising is attached to his campaign for a third term as attorney general. Informally, it’s another story, according to insiders.

“The aggressiveness of the lawsuits, the aggressiveness of the fundraising on the lawsuits, is not in keeping with running for AG,” Hays said. “This feels like he is currently campaigning for governor.”

A comparison of Ferguson’s fundraising for his prior re-election in 2016 shows a contrast as far as amounts. He started raising money in 2013, three years ahead of

the election. Then, as now, he had no declared opponent (a Libertarian candidate eventually emerged in 2016, and raised less than $5,000 in a losing effort.)

Over a two-month period in August and September of 2013, Ferguson raised a total of $28,000, according to campaign finance reports. This year, in the same two-month period, he raised $144,000.

Is that attorney general money or governor money? Ferguson isn’t saying, but the second race tends to hold a higher profile than the first.

Either way, the Trump factor is paying off. Anderstone, the Democratic consultant, notes that political tradecraft requires seizing the moment, and Ferguson is no exception.

“The work that he’s doing as AG is clearly making an impression among folks who are Trump skeptics, which is kind of the deepest vein in terms of Dem fundraising out there right now,” he said. “So he’s trying to connect his work to his fundraising pitch, to basically make the case that he’s doing this morally zealous thing in the course of his duties, and that’s pretty standard.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486@seanrobinsonTNT