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The Attorney General Behind The Resistance To Trump's Travel Ban

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks at a Feb 3. news conference outside U.S. District Court, Western Washington, in Seattle. Ferguson filed a state lawsuit challenging key sections of President Trump's immigration executive order.
Karen Ducey
Getty Images
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks at a Feb 3. news conference outside U.S. District Court, Western Washington, in Seattle. Ferguson filed a state lawsuit challenging key sections of President Trump's immigration executive order.

Outside the federal courthouse in downtown Seattle last Friday afternoon, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson suddenly found himself in the national spotlight after federal Judge James L. Robart had just imposed an immediate, nationwide halt to President Trump's executive order on immigration and refugees. As camera shutters clicked, Ferguson played David to Trump's Goliath.

"The law is a powerful thing," Ferguson said. "It has the ability to hold everybody accountable to it and that includes the president of the United States."

Now, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is weighing Ferguson's case against the Trump administration; a decision is expected later this week.

In the space of a few days, Ferguson, a Democrat just beginning his second term, has gone from unknown state attorney general in the far corner of the country to making national headlines. He told member station KUOW in Seattle it was an "unusual experience."

"I mean CNN called my 88-year-old mother in Seattle trying to track me down so they could talk to me on Friday night for example," Ferguson said.

Professional chess player

Ferguson and his team moved swiftly after Trump issued his executive order.

Within 72 hours, they had drafted a lawsuit and rounded up declarations of support from Washington-based companies like Amazon and Expedia. Ferguson compared the pace to his time on the professional chess circuit in Europe playing under the clock.

"This is what reminds me of that," he told KUOW. "When constitutional rights are involved you have to be willing to move quickly and play in that 'time trouble' as a lawyer; that's what our team is doing."

Approximately 100 companies, more than a dozen states and 10 former high-level national security, foreign policy and intelligence officials, including former Secretary of State John Kerry, have put their support behind Ferguson's lawsuit.

Ferguson got help rounding up that backing from Harold Koh, a law professor at Yale University. Koh says the effort began in earnest when a mutual friend put him in touch last Saturday with Washington state Solicitor General Noah Purcell, who works for Ferguson.

"And then suddenly it's, 'Gee can you file something by tomorrow?' and it's on Super Bowl weekend too and I'm a big Patriots fan so my thought [is] try to get this done before the kickoff," Koh joked in a phone interview.

Soon the former U.S. officials were emailing around a draft six-page declaration that condemned Trump's executive order on immigration and refugees as "unnecessary" and harmful to U.S. national security and foreign policy. Koh says to file the declaration with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the former officials took pictures of their signatures with their phones and emailed the photos to submit to the court.

Unlikely foil

Ferguson might seem an unlikely foil to the new president. At 51, he still has a boyish face framed by glasses and a mop of dark hair. But longtime Democratic political consultant Christian Sinderman, who has worked for Ferguson, says in many ways he has been preparing for years for a moment like this.

"You know there's a Harry Potter-like quality of Bob Ferguson, the glasses, the serious intent and the sense of almost destiny in standing up for what's right and the little guy," Sinderman said.

This isn't the first time Ferguson has gone up against the federal government in court.

He repeatedly sued the Obama administration over the pace of cleanup at the Hanford nuclear site in southeast Washington. Hanford is home to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste left over from plutonium production during World War II and the Cold War.

More recently, Ferguson has made headlines at home by calling for a repeal of the death penalty and for proposing a ban on so-called assault weapons.

"Higher ambitions"

Ferguson grew up the sixth of seven children in a Catholic family in Seattle. His mother was a special education teacher and his father worked at Boeing. At the University of Washington, Ferguson was student body president. Before attending law school at New York University, he and a college friend, Brian Bennett, spent six weeks driving around the country with the goal of seeing a game at every Major League Baseball stadium.

"It was a six-week trip in my beat-up old Honda hatchback and we made it to each one. My car broke down a few times, a number of stories along the way but we did actually make it to each ballpark," Bennett said, recalling the trip recently.

Bennett, now an attorney himself, describes Ferguson as fiercely competitive in everything he does. He noted that Ferguson won his first campaign for public office in 2003 by defeating the chair of the King County Council in Seattle — a fellow Democrat.

Even before his lawsuit against the Trump administration, Ferguson was viewed as a likely candidate for Washington governor in 2020. Sinderman believes Ferguson is a tactician who looks for opportunities to both make a difference and make a name for himself.

"Since Bob first came into public life in Washington state, it's been clear that he's got higher ambitions than the current office that he's working in," Sinderman said.

While Ferguson has vowed to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary, it is also apparent that he and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee are prepared to go to court again if the Trump administration issues more executive orders on issues like immigration, climate change, voting rights or health care.

As Inslee told The Washington Post recently, "This is what the resistance looks like."

Copyright 2020 Northwest News Network. To see more, visit Northwest News Network.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."