When the history books get around to Donald Trump, his unlikely rise to power will receive plenty of ink — the buttoned-up rivals he steamrolled, the scandals he survived, the biases and tensions he exploited.
But each recollection of this period will inevitably include the first major defeat of his political career, delivered by a man who might seem his polar opposite: Washington state’s bookish attorney general, Bob Ferguson.
It was the last weekend of January, and Trump had just banned entry into the U.S. for refugees and citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries. As chaos descended following the executive order, legal professionals of all stripes scrambled to airports to help those affected, cheered on by impromptu crowds of protesters and around-the-clock press coverage.
For perhaps the first time since the civil rights era, lawyers were being portrayed as anti-establishment rebels in the eyes of the national media. But beyond the action at airports, beyond the ACLU press conferences and the massive spike in donors to legal rights nonprofits, Ferguson made the most pivotal move of all. The so-called “Muslim ban” was issued on a Friday. The following Monday, Ferguson’s office sued to challenge it.
“People around the country saw lawyers upholding what we think of as American values,” Ferguson said in an interview with GeekWire. “The law is a powerful thing, everyone is accountable to it. It’s the great equalizer. To me, it didn’t come as a surprise that it was in a courtroom that he finally suffered his first defeat.”
Ferguson has continued suing the Trump administration on various issues, and as rivalries go, historians couldn’t ask for an odder couple. Trump built his political brand around being brash and off-the-cuff. Ferguson builds his around being a mild-mannered former chess champion. One owns properties literally gilded in gold, including in a skyscraper that bears his name. The other is a staunch anti-materialist who drove a 1993 Honda Civic until very recently, when it was totaled by a teen driver.
Trump collects expensive estates and golf courses. Ferguson’s hobbies include collecting old political buttons, following a longtime stint as a bird-watcher.
But dig under the surface, and beyond the wildly divergent personalities, a few similarities emerge. Both men found inspiration in the Reagan era, though they followed that muse in different directions. Both are highly ambitious leaders who keep a close eye on their public image, and are closer to being independents than most of the politicians that surround them.
And if it were up to leaders in their respective parties, neither would hold their position of power right now.
An underdog’s rise to political office
Before he was named among Time Magazine’s most influential people in the world, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson was just another college grad who felt out of place in his time.
It was the 1980s, and Ferguson was running a Portland emergency shelter as a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. His uncle Bill, a Catholic priest, had taught him that those who didn’t take time to help others weren’t worth a damn. So there he was, spending a post-college year on society’s fringe.
To hear both Ferguson and his friends tell it, his career can be seen as a reaction to this period. The Cold War was winding down, and Americans under Ronald Reagan had been instructed to ask what their country could do for them, not the other way around. Social programs were being slashed, “Greed is Good” was a popular slogan, and Trump was riding the wave into his first taste of fame.
But where Trump embraced the era’s new mindset, Ferguson felt a “visceral distaste” toward it, says Peter Jackson, a friend of Ferguson’s since their college days at the University of Washington. He felt the need to push back.
“I was living in an inner-city neighborhood, and there was a legal clinic nearby,” Ferguson said about that time. “I remember feeling like I was helping people get by day-to-day, but I couldn’t escape the notion that I was providing them a Band-Aid. It was important, but I wasn’t fundamentally changing anything based on the work I was doing. But I’d look at the legal clinic, and I felt hey, the work they do is a bit more fundamental.”
Ferguson came to see practicing law as a potential “moral enterprise.” It’s a phrase he’s used numerous times to explain why he went to law school, and why he wanted to become the state’s attorney general. It’s why he calls his current office more consequential than the governorship, though many predict he’ll run for that position in 2020.
“With the executive position or in legislature, you have to go through so much to pass one bill,” he said. “But as AG, I can do the good as I see it. We have the largest law firm in the state of Washington to put to that end. It’s logical that AGs have tremendous powers, and that’s become more apparent now.”
Ferguson admits the lawsuit’s success was questionable, if not unlikely. But the same could apply to his political career, which began by riling up the Democratic establishment in Washington’s most Democrat-heavy region.
Ferguson’s longtime friend Jackson — who knows a thing or two about local politics, as son of one of Washington’s most beloved former U.S. senators — recalls that Ferguson was labeled a “turncoat” by Democratic leaders almost immediately upon entering the political arena in 2003. That’s because another Democrat held the seat he was campaigning for on the King County Council, and had done so for 20 years.
Ferguson won the seat over the opposition of many in the party establishment, mainly by doorbelling within an inch of his life, appearing at over 22,000 households personally. The following year, Jackson recalls that Ferguson was “screwed over” when it came time to reduce the number of council seats, due to a voter-approved charter amendment. Council leadership redrew the new district lines in such a way that Ferguson “absolutely had the steepest hill to climb…. They basically gerrymandered him out of his own district behind closed doors.”
Ferguson won again, employing the same shoe leather politics. By the time he spring-boarded from the council to become attorney general in 2012, he was no longer an underdog.
At least, until he filed a lawsuit against Trump.
A thorn in Trump’s side
While progressives nationwide hailed Ferguson’s lawsuit, many legal experts considered it a losing fight. Ferguson knew this was a real possibility. He recalls watching CNN legal pundits like Jeffrey Toobin and Alan Derschowitz predict it would go down in flames, knowing they could be right.
The reason for doubt was Washington’s ability to prove harm, the foundation for any lawsuit. An individual who was turned away from an airport as a result of Trump’s order could potentially file a lawsuit because they were directly harmed. But it was less intuitive, Ferguson says, why the attorney general could file a lawsuit on behalf of the state.
Key to the suit’s success, in his mind, were allies in the local universities and tech industry. Ferguson reached out to these organizations, starting with Amazon, the day before filing the suit. They rallied to draft supportive declarations for the lawsuit, arguing that the order caused economic harm to their organizations, and therefore to the people of Washington at large.
Many legal experts, Ferguson says, “didn’t think we could prevail in that case, largely because they didn’t think I could bring it. So it was no small matter that we had those declarations, and we think it made a difference in getting into a courtroom in the first place.”
Since that lawsuit, Ferguson’s office has filed 14 more against the Trump administration on behalf of the state, on issues ranging from national monuments to environmental regulations. “That’s a lot of litigation,” he says, “and it takes up a lot of my time. … I don’t see the pace changing.”
Ferguson frequently credits chess as teaching him the importance of thinking ahead and looking at things from a tactician’s unemotional perspective. Through this lens, there’s no denying his opposition to Trump — while fulfilling from a moral perspective —is also politically strategic, and could pay dividends if he seeks a higher office.
Ferguson is a throwback politician in many ways: a wholesome family man who prides himself on relating to voters across the spectrum, not just the left. He’s friends with his Republican predecessor and maintains some crossover appeal to voters in that party —as AG, he’s ruffled the feathers of the progressive establishment on issues like charter schools and transparency around campaign donations.
By becoming the state’s most prominent resistor to Trump, however, he has not only upped his profile immensely. He’s also shored up his defenses against future challengers from the leftward flank, like a strategically placed rook might guard a king piece.
Yet for all the clear strategy demonstrated in Ferguson’s career, Jackson says there’s a guilelessness about him, a dedication to old-fashioned civic values that can be refreshing.
“He’s a nerdy guy who loves his family,” Jackson says. “He’s a chess-playing wonk. I’m not trying to make him into a saint. He’s an ambitious guy, and I’d wager he’s definitely going to run for governor in 2020. If I was a wagering guy, I’d say he’d win in 2020. If ambition is a sin, then he’s a sinner.”
But you want a smart tactician in power, Jackson says. If you’re looking for results, you want someone who, like former President Lyndon Johnson, knows who to call, what buttons to push, and where the bodies are buried. The chess analogies regarding Ferguson get overdone, Jackson says, but they’re relevant.
“You really do have to think like 20 moves ahead, and put yourself in the other player’s position, to be good at that game,” says Jackson. “He does that.”
The secret to being a successful attorney, Ferguson says, is being a good storyteller. And in the early days of the Trump administration, Ferguson has been telling a story that people throughout the nation clearly needed to hear.