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Five takeaways from the first WA attorney general debate

A man in a black suit, a man in a blue suit, and a woman in a white cardigan and blue top are standing at podiums with navy blue tops.
TVW
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Washington State Standard
Candidates for Washington state attorney general in 2024, from left to rigth, Pete Serrano, Nick Brown and Manka Dhingra.

Washington’s three candidates for attorney general talked Trump, public safety and consumer protection during a debate Tuesday night.

The League of Women Voters of Washington and Benton and Franklin counties hosted a forum in Richland between former U.S. Attorney Nick Brown, state Sen. Manka Dhingra and Pasco Mayor Pete Serrano.

All are vying to run Washington’s top legal office. With less than two months before the Aug. 6 primary, Brown, a Democrat, appears to be the frontrunner, having raised nearly $1.2 million as of Tuesday. Dhingra, also a Democrat, is close behind, raising around $873,000, followed by Republican Serrano, who’s raised $162,600.

The top two candidates in the primary will advance to the general election in November.

Here are five takeaways from Tuesday’s debate:

Donald Trump is casting a shadow over the race.

Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who’s running for governor, prides himself on the number of cases he’s brought, and won, against former President Donald Trump.

If Trump is elected again, Brown and Dhingra said Tuesday they are ready to continue his work.

“I don’t want to sue a presidential administration just to have my name in the headlines, just because it makes me more popular,” Brown said. “But if I need to bring a case to protect the people of Washington, whether that’s a Trump administration or anybody else, we will absolutely do it.”

Similarly, Dhingra said if Trump wins and she is elected as AG, she will do everything she can to protect reproductive rights.

Serrano, the lone Republican running for the office, said he is prepared to protect Washington residents “regardless of who’s in office, whether it’s in D.C. or in Olympia.”

But he never characterized another Trump administration as a threat. When asked about Project 2025 – an almost 1,000-page national conservative policy playbook embraced by those who support another Trump term – Serrano said he would stand up against any proposals he felt violated Washingtonians’ rights.

Public safety is a priority for all candidates, but they each see it differently.

Serrano said addressing the state’s fentanyl crisis is a priority for him and criticized the Legislature for their recent drug policies, which he characterized as too lenient. He said he wants to ensure that there are felony penalties for distributing illegal drugs.

Serrano also emphasized he wants to make sure that police have the power to keep communities safe. “They can’t do their job without the backbone of the attorney general’s office,” he said.

Dhingra said her most important criminal justice priorities would be addressing gender-based crimes, such as trafficking or domestic violence.

Brown said he wants to see more policies that address the root causes of crime and public safety concerns, like increasing housing and investing more in the state’s education system and early learning.

Brown and Dhingra want stricter gun safety laws. Serrano, not so much.

In recent years, the Legislature has passed significant gun control legislation, including banning assault-style weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines.

Dhingra said gun violence prevention is top of mind for her and pointed to her experience in Olympia pushing for some of those laws. Brown said he would continue to defend the state’s recently enacted restrictions on firearms and that they have saved lives.

Serrano, whose conservative nonprofit – the Silent Majority Foundation – has sought to overturn some of these laws, said he doesn’t want to “pit the right of the people against the protection of the people.”

He said people need the ability to protect themselves and added that the state should continue to prosecute those who obtain guns illegally.

All candidates support strong consumer protections.

Serrano said the state’s consumer protection office can be a “tremendous tool” to help shield residents from fraudulent business activities. But he also said if its authority is misused, it can result in “egregious acts of abusive power.”

He criticized Ferguson, saying he’d sponsored legislation to use the state’s consumer protection laws in areas where they shouldn’t apply, though Serrano did not specify what he was referring to.

Brown said he wants to remain aggressive on consumer protection, particularly when marginalized communities are vulnerable to corporations and others in power.

Dhingra said the attorney general’s office needs to do better at communicating to the public that the office can fight on consumer protection issues. “We need government to work for the people,” she said.

Everyone thinks they have the most experience.

All three candidates have experience as attorneys and working with or for the government. And on Tuesday, they didn’t let audience members forget it.

From October 2021 until last year, Brown served as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington. Before that, he was a partner at Pacifica Law Group, where he is still working part-time. He also served as general counsel to Gov. Jay Inslee from 2013 to 2017.

“I have a decade of experience being an advocate for people,” Brown said.

Dhingra is a senior deputy prosecuting attorney for King County. She has been a state senator representing Redmond since 2017. She currently chairs the Senate Law and Justice Committee and has pushed legislation on firearm restrictions, abortion protections and police accountability.

“We need bold leaders who have a history of working on tough issues,” Dhingra said.

Serrano is in his second term on the Pasco City Council and serves as mayor. He’s also the former leader of the Franklin County Republican Party. Before that, he was an environmental lawyer for the U.S. Department of Energy at Hanford. In 2021, he helped found the Silent Majority Foundation.

“I’m here to protect you, whether that’s protection from the bad guys out there or protection from the government and advising them you may not, you cannot and you shall not violate these individuals’ rights,” Serrano said.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence

Laurel Demkovich is a reporter for the Washington State Standard.