July 20, 2024 2:47 pm

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Three WA Attorney General candidates differ in policy and professional backgrounds

RICHLAND—On June 18, three hopefuls to replace current gubernatorial candidate Bob Ferguson (D) as the Washington State Attorney General (AG) discussed issues at a Richland debate hosted by the League of Women Voters of Washington. The forum gave further insight into each candidate’s respective values and political agendas. The Lynnwood Times breaks down how candidates Nick Brown (D), Pete Serrano (R), and Manka Dhingra (D) split when it comes to background, policy, and more.

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Washington State Attorney General debate on June 18, 2024, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Washington. SOURCE: Snapshot from YouTube feed | League of Women Voters of Washington.

Nick Brown (D)

Former U.S. Attorney Nick Brown wasted no time in portraying himself as a proud veteran, hailing from a Pierce County military family. Brown, who resigned from his federal position in 2023 before launching this AG campaign, pointed to the work he had done within the Biden administration as valuable political experience, arguing that it made him the best candidate for the position.

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Former U.S. Attorney Nick Brown, Democratic candidate for Washington State Attorney General. SOURCE: Nick Brown for Attorney General website.

He spoke positively of current AG Ferguson’s time in office, saying that it “set a standard and a legacy for each of us to build upon moving forward.” Brown highlighted several issues that he felt were most crucial to address, including gun violence, fentanyl addiction and distribution, and workplace discrimination. 

He also strongly opined that it fell upon the Attorney General’s office to combat how “our democracy and liberties” may be “attacked at the state and federal level, and certainly with the prospect of a second Trump administration…” Brown’s campaign messaging has strongly referenced Trump’s infamous 2017 “Muslim ban”, or Executive Order 13769, as an example of what he feels the Attorney General should stand against. 

Brown also emphasized “voting rights, abortion access,” and “protecting our environment” as “a big focus of the office.” He stressed the need to “advocate for clean, alternative sources of energy” to accommodate an increasing state population, but avoided giving a direct answer when it came to the issue of dam removal. “The dam conversations are going to be very difficult and hard, and it’s going to be the job of the Attorney General to advocate for state agencies to make sure they’re holding the federal government to their word and to their laws…”

Concluding, Brown again touted his experience, saying, “When we’re electing an Attorney General, we’re electing both a lawyer and a leader… I’ve led a team trying to keep people safe, to deal with the crime issues that we have here, the civil rights issues that we have here, and to defend your liberties and your freedoms.”

The Brown campaign’s hope that his federal qualifications set him above the other two candidates, who have only held state or municipal positions, may yet be unrealized, as Brown came in last place in a May poll conducted by the Northwest Progressive Institute (NPI). 

Pete Serrano (R)

Besides serving on the City Council and as the mayor of Pasco, Pete Serrano is known for co-founding the Silent Majority Foundation. A Christian political nonprofit, the foundation’s mission statement is “centered on protecting America’s constitution and theological foundation… SMF will always focus on God and Country as the core of our mission.” 

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Pasco mayor, Pete Serrano, Republican candidate for Washington State Attorney General. SOURCE: Pete Serrano for Attorney General website.

This messaging is in line with Serrano’s political history at the municipal level. He has promoted conservative constitutionalism and “law and order”, which he suggests are in “stark contrast” to his opponents in the AG race. While Pasco and the Tri-Cities region experience their own share of crime, including cartel-led narcotics distribution, Serrano’s messaging often touches on Seattle, 216 miles away from his current mayoral jurisdiction, even referring to the tech hub as “the once-Emerald city that we are going to restore when Pete Serrano brings law and order…” 

Throughout the debate, Serrano differentiated himself from his two Democratic opponents on policy. Despite being the only candidate without prior prosecutorial experience, Serrano took a more hardline approach to the issue of criminal justice, opposing initiatives to decriminalize non-violent drug possession and consumption. 

However, he did speak to the need to hold prosecutors and police to a statewide code of conduct, “whether it’s a prosecutor or sheriff or local police department,” suggesting that bringing such cases to the federal level could be a useful strategy to avoid potentially unproductive local investigations. This strays from Serrano’s organizational alignment as a conservative generally opposed to “federal overreach”, and thus may speak to a pattern of unwillingness by state officials to discipline abuse of legal power. 

Serrano cited his own climate concerns as a reason to prioritize hydroelectricity generation over wildlife preservation. Stating that he would oppose any dam removal legislation, he said, “As a resident of the Tri-Cities, I know how vital those dams are to our lifeline… a waterway to make sure that we don’t have trucks up and down these highways, congesting and polluting… those dams mean much more than clean power.”

So far, Serrano’s appeal to voters in exurbs and rural areas is undeniable. However, as a candidate inextricably linked with the evangelical Silent Majority Foundation, he may face an uphill battle within the Puget Sound region’s less religious, liberal strongholds. 

Manka Dhingra (D)

While Manka Dhingra currently serves as a state senator, representing a portion of the Eastside suburbs of Seattle, this election has more frequently seen her mention her prior position as a King County prosecutor. In fact, some confusion arose from apparently outdated references in her campaigning, with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office contacting Dhingra to request she “correct” her self-billing to make it clear that she was no longer an active employee.

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State Senator Manka Dhingra, Democratic candidate for Washington State Attorney General. SOURCE: Manka Dhingra for Attorney General website.

This aside, Dhingra’s time as a former prosecutor allows her to extensively call upon her career experiences, making a case that commitment to the legal system prepares her for the position of Attorney General. She stated that her transition from law to politics was sparked during the Trump administration, as she was “appalled by what had just happened at the federal level.” Having been re-elected as senator twice since her initial victory in 2017, she has since promoted anti-discrimination and pro-LGBT legislation, as well as efforts to address statewide issues of organized crime and widespread drug addiction. Bringing up human trafficking as a key concern, she stated, “We are one of the worst states for trafficking in the country, and we don’t talk about it enough.”

In either a gaffe or a rather questionable claim, Dhingra stated that she was “the first candidate in the state of Washington to make gun violence prevention a campaign issue.” However, she did accurately list her efforts over the past 7 years to combat gun violence, including “making sure we have a statewide ban on bump stocks” (a law unaffected by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that overturned a Trump-era federal ban on the devices). She also sponsored the 2021 creation of the statewide Office of Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention, which has served as an example nationally. 

Asked how she would address “allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in the criminal justice system”, the former King County prosecutor stressed the legal values she would uphold as AG. “As a prosecutor for 2 decades… I was told very clearly that the job of the office is to do justice. Not to get convictions, but to do justice,” Dhingra explained, emphasizing her point with a Spiderman quote: “With great power comes great responsibility.” King County prosecutors have often failed to uphold this mantra, but Dhingra maintained that, as AG, she would prioritize “holding people accountable for the great power that they’re given by the state.”

The upcoming primary election

An August 6 primary election will eliminate one of the two Democratic candidates, with the remaining Democrat facing Republican candidate Serrano in the general election. Although Dhingra currently leads Brown, the polls have been close, and with 45% of voters reporting “undecided” in the most recent NPI poll, this primary has the potential to swing in either direction.

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