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Who are the three candidates running for WA attorney general?

3 pictures of a man standing outdoors with lush green trees in a white button dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a woman with long brown hair standing outdoors, and a man with short cut brown hair wearing a dark gray suit and blue dress shirt in front of a light gray background.
Courtesy of the candidates via Crosscut
Washington State Attorney General Candidates, from left, Nick Brown, Manka Dhingra and Pete Serrano. (Courtesy of the candidates)

We already know a lot about Washington’s next attorney general, even though the election is still four months away. The leader of the state’s largest law firm will be an attorney with extensive experience in government work. They will be at least a decade younger than the current occupant of the office. And as Bob Ferguson steps down after more than a decade as Washington’s attorney general, his replacement will also be a person of color. 

The two Democrats and one Republican competing to be attorney general also have a lot of priorities, experiences and ideas that set them apart.

The three candidates are former U.S. Attorney for Western Washington Nick Brown, 47, who is Black; state Sen. Manka Dhingra, 49, a King County deputy prosecutor who is of Indian descent; and Pete Serrano, 43, who is the mayor of Pasco, a former environmental attorney for the U.S. Department of Energy and is Hispanic.

Brown and Dhingra are Democrats. Serrano is a Republican. The top two vote-getters – even if both are Democrats – will advance to the general election after the Aug. 6 primary. Ferguson, who took office in 2013, is running for governor. Brown and Dhingra have a healthy lead in fundraising but election results are very difficult for anyone to predict.

Brown had raised more than $1.2 million as of mid-June. Dhingra had raised $873,000. Serrano trailed with $162,600.

The state attorney general’s office is the largest law firm in the state, with some 1,700 employees, including 727 attorneys, spread among 13 offices. They have an annual budget of $350 million. The attorney general’s office focuses on consumer protection, civil rights and environmental protection, plus elder abuse, Medicaid fraud and sexually violent predator civil commitment cases. It does not investigate or prosecute criminal violations unless asked by a county prosecutor or the governor.

Brown said if he wins he will focus on public safety, fair housing, employment issues such as wage theft and worker safety, mental health and drug counseling.

“The attorney general needs to be engaged,” said Brown. He added that the attorney general will play a big role in protecting democracy and voting rights should Donald Trump win a second term as president in November. Ferguson sued the Trump administration numerous times during Trump’s first term.

“It would be exponentially worse than the first term,” Brown said of a possible Trump return. ”The attorney general is the front line of defense.”

“Abortion is top of mind for me,” Brown said. “We have to ensure abortion protections in Washington.”

Brown, who led a staff of 75 lawyers and 80 support staff as U.S. attorney in Seattle, also said he has much more experience leading a large law office than his opponents.

“I would hit the ground running, he said.

Dhingra said she has had extensive management experience, including numerous opportunities to create new systems. 

“When I was elected, I realized that the Legislature did not have an HR office, code of conduct or an infrastructure to help employees,” she said. Dhingra chaired the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee where she led in establishing an HR office.

“I believe in creating an environment where people feel empowered to provide feedback and where they can create meaningful change in their work culture,” she said.   

Serrano, 43, worked as a lawyer on projects to clean up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. But he pointed to his work on the Pasco City Council and as mayor of the city for his management experience.

The city has a $250 million budget and hundreds of employees, he noted.“We set goals and projections and prioritize spending on projects,” Serrano said. “We meet every week to discuss them.”

He also pointed to his work as a project manager for an environmental consulting firm in California, and the conservative Silent Majority Foundation he started at his kitchen table as other examples of management experience.

As attorney general, Serrano said he would focus on aiding local jurisdictions with prosecutions.

“We need to have safe streets,” Serrano said. “We need to protect the people of Washington.”

Serrano would also focus on making sure state agencies stay within their constitutional powers and are “not taking more power than is due them.”

Toward that end he would work to improve transparency, including quicker and more efficient fulfillment of public records requests, Serrano said.

Regarding a possible second Trump presidency, Serrano said it didn’t matter who is president in his mind.

“My fundamental duty is to protect Washingtonians,” he said. “I’ll sue any administration when necessary.”

Dhingra has been a state senator since 2017.

She said her top priorities would depend on who won the presidential election in November. A Biden victory would direct her focus to consumer protections, access to health care and protection of the environment.

A Trump victory would shift her focus to protecting reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights and the rights of undocumented immigrants, she said.“I hope Biden is in the White House,” she added.

Regarding consumer protections, Dhingra said big issues include data privacy and other cybersecurity topics.

She noted she passed 12 bills last session, largely because she works cooperatively with members of both parties.“We need people willing to work with anyone,” she said.

All three candidates appeared at a debate on June 18 in Richland sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Washington and Benton and Franklin counties.

During that debate, Serrano said solving Washington’s fentanyl crisis is a priority for him and criticized the Legislature for recently passing drug laws he characterized as too lenient. He said he wants to ensure that there are felony penalties for distributing illegal drugs.

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

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

Brown and Dhingra said they would protect Washington’s existing gun control laws, which ban assault-style weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines.

Dhingra highlighted her experience in Olympia pushing for some of those laws and Brown said the state’s gun restrictions have saved lives.

Serrano, on the other hand, has fought through the Silent Majority Foundation to overturn some of the new gun laws, He 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. 

Regarding consumer protection laws, Serrano said the state must fight fraudulent business activities.

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.

From 2021-23, Brown served as the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington. 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 was a deputy prosecuting attorney for King County. She has represented the Redmond area in the state Senate 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. Before that, he was an environmental lawyer for the U.S. Department of Energy at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where the government is involved in cleaning up the waste left over from the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons.

“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.

On the hot-button topic of breaching four federal dams on the Snake River in Washington to protect and restore endangered salmon runs, the candidates agreed the attorney general’s office will play a big role in likely negotiations with the federal government.

“Right now, Washington state is struggling to get by and have power sources that power the people we have right here,” Brown said. “But this is a state that is growing. This is a state that is going to add millions of people in the next 10 and 20 years. And we need to make sure that we continue to advocate for clean, alternative sources of energy.” 

Dhingra said this is a case of competing interests: the desire to protect salmon pitted against the state’s need for clean energy.

Serrano said the “dams mean much more than clean power,” and are important to the region’s economy.“If legislation is passed and it somehow violates our rights, I will stand for you continually in court to make sure that that lifeline is not destroyed,” he said.

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Nicholas K. Geranios Nicholas K. Geranios is a contributor to Cascade PBS. He previously worked as a news reporter with The Associated Press for 40 years.