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After success taking on Trump, Bob Ferguson faces Matt Larkin in bid for third term as AG

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 8, 2020

Attorney Matt Larkin, left, faces state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
Attorney Matt Larkin, left, faces state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Ask someone outside of Washington to name one of its statewide elected officials other than its governor, and chances are they’ll say Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

From Democrats, Ferguson gets applause for being on the front lines in the legal battles with the Trump administration. From Republicans, he receives criticism for that long list of lawsuits, which now stands at 80.

Of the 36 Trump administration challenges that have been decided, Ferguson’s office is 35-1.

Those challenges of Trump policies help explain why four years ago he faced no GOP opponent for one of the state’s top elective offices but this year had three Republican challengers. Matt Larkin of Woodinville, an attorney for his family’s manufacturing firm, emerged from the primary.

At campaign rallies, Larkin gets cheers when he tells the crowd the incumbent is focused on suing Trump when he should be doing something about crime. While another elective office, county prosecutor, has the primary responsibility for criminal prosecutions, Larkin said he’s running for attorney general because he’s concerned about the entire state.

He says he’s a strong supporter of the president and his efforts to reduce taxes, cut regulations and shrink government.

“I think there’s always a time and a place to sue the federal government,” Larkin said later. But, he said, the number of cases pursued by Ferguson points to a partisan bent.

Even in cases where Ferguson was on the winning side, such as a lawsuit to protect the rights of so-called Dreamers who were brought to the United States as small children and want to stay, Larkin said he would have kept Washington out if other states were involved.

“There were 14 other states,” Larkin said of the Dreamers case. “Let those states fight these battles.”

Ferguson counters his office isn’t partisan, as proof noting after he was first elected, he kept top attorneys appointed by his predecessor, Republican Rob McKenna, including a chief deputy Trump named U.S. attorney for Western Washington.

The lawsuits are necessary to protect the rights of Washington residents on issues important to the state, including immigration, a clean environment and defense spending, Ferguson said. In every case he files, the state has to prove the potential harm to its people or environment or have the lawsuit dismissed. The record of success shows they pick good cases, he said, suggesting that Washington let other states represent its Dreamers would be a “dereliction of duty.”

“Tell that to a Dreamer: ‘Hey 18,000 Dreamers in Washington state, let some other state handle that. I hope it works out well,’ ” he said.

Larkin accused Ferguson of seeking favorable venues for some cases, like a recent suit against changes in the U.S. Postal Service handled in Yakima, which resulted in a nationwide order blocking the changes. Ferguson countered that Larkin apparently doesn’t understand how the court system works, because the judges for the Eastern District of Washington assigned the case to Yakima.

In his eight years, Ferguson has significantly expanded the consumer protection office and scored major victories, including against Comcast for improper charges, Johnson & Johnson for failing to describe the risks of its transvaginal mesh devices, and Monsanto for PCB damage. In all, the office has collected more than $650 million in payments, more than half of which went to consumers and more than $100 million of which went into the state’s General Fund.

A lawsuit against major opioid distributors is scheduled for next spring.

Larkin said that if elected, he would seek to expand the number of criminal prosecutors in the office and offer help to county prosecutors, who are responsible for bringing criminal suspects to trial. It would help overwhelmed local prosecutors and reduce the crime rate, he said.

“People don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods,” he said. That’s causing businesses to move out of cities, including Spokane, he told a Republican women’s meeting recently.

Asked for statistics on businesses leaving Spokane, which local economists said they were unaware of, Larkin backed off, claiming he didn’t recall mentioning Spokane, but has talked to business owners who say they are leaving Seattle.

Washington’s crime rate has fluctuated between 2013 and 2019, the last year for which full statistics exist, but has tracked national trends and stayed consistently below the national rate, data from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs show.

Larkin acknowledged state law only allows the attorney general’s office to intervene in such cases if the local prosecuting attorney or the governor asks. Those requests typically come from rural counties with small offices facing big cases, like a murder.

“I would train up a team of prosecutors willing and able to assist,” he said, then send out the word statewide: “We’re here. We’re standing by the phone. I think they would call. I would hope they would.”

He would ask the Legislature to pass a law giving the attorney general’s office the authority to help city prosecutors, something it currently lacks.

Ferguson said his office provides prosecutors to counties when asked, and recently handled a murder case in Ferry County and has a case involving sexual misconduct charges against a sitting judge in Asotin County. But he can’t force his staff on county prosecutors, and he questions the fiscal sense of setting aside staff to help with requests from city prosecutors, who only handle misdemeanors.

One of the main duties of the AG’s office is defending state officials, agencies and legislation in court. Larkin, who has campaigned with GOP gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp, said he could defend Initiative 1639, adding new gun-control restrictions, though he disagrees with it.

For law enforcement officials who say they won’t enforce it – which Culp, the Republic police chief, has said ever since the initiative passed – Larkin said those officials have the discretion to decide what laws to enforce and exercise it all the time.

“What I struggle with is them openly saying it, because it is a dangerous precedent,” he said. “You get into slippery slopes.”

Someone running for attorney general also should follow state laws, Ferguson said, and that includes the current restrictions on gatherings and requirements for wearing face coverings that are part of the emergency orders issued by Gov. Jay Inslee. Larkin has appeared at rallies with larger crowds than those restrictions allow, where most people didn’t wear masks.

“You can’t violate the law to further your political views,” he said.

Larkin, a Gonzaga Law School graduate who also has a masters of law degree from George Washington University, served in the George W. Bush White House and currently works as legal counsel for his family’s pipe manufacturing company. He said the state would benefit from an attorney general with the “fresh perspective of a business owner,” one who is not a “career politician.”

At campaign events, Larkin has suggested Ferguson “never had a real job,” something the incumbent countered by saying he’s worked at a range of jobs, from dishwasher to educator, and that Larkin is denigrating that work. He graduated from New York University Law School, clerked for U.S. District Judge Frem Nielsen in Spokane and was a member of a large Seattle law firm before serving on the King County Council.

Ferguson also said Larkin overstates his experience as a prosecutor in Spokane and Pierce counties. Larkin served as student volunteer known as an “extern” in the Spokane County prosecutor’s office while at Gonzaga, so he would have needed supervision by an attorney, and only worked for about two months in Pierce County as a deputy prosecutor before leaving to help with the family business.

Larkin defended the description, saying he did some courtroom work by himself as a Gonzaga extern and mentioned his supervisor, Brian O’Brien.

O’Brien said later he had no specific recollection of Larkin’s work, but that externs were allowed to do some District Court work by themselves “after an appropriate period of supervision.”

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