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Q&A: Mike Vaska on his run for attorney general

Longtime Seattle lawyer Mike Vaska is running to become Washington State’s next attorney general. Vaska, a Republican, is hoping to deny incumbent Bob Ferguson a third term in office by running a campaign in the vein of Northwest Republicanism.

This strategy – running on a mainstream message independent from that of the national party – is the result of the three years Vaska spent as chair of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington (MRW) Alliance. Vaska said he’s spent time thinking about what it might take to build a winning coalition, and that the tumult of recent events presents a unique opportunity for Washington Republicans.

In a conversation that has been edited for clarity and length, Vaska answered questions about his vision for the office of the attorney general, his prior experience, and why he thinks this election will be different for Republican candidates in Washington State.

Michael Goldberg: One core element of your platform is that you’ve promised to keep Washingtonians safe by taking on homelessness and public safety issues. In terms of public safety, at the moment there’s a conversation taking place around how municipal budgets are structured and the way cities deliver public safety. Can you take on public safety issues in the way that you want to without wading into municipal budgets or the way local police departments operate?

Mike Vasca: The conversation that I’ve been having about public safety really starts with homelessness. Public safety issues related to that have expanded because of issues like the CHAZ or CHOP. What an Attorney General can do — I’ve had long conversations with two of my endorsers, Rob Mckenna and Slade Gorton, about this — is convene a task force with stakeholders to come up with solutions with multiple elements. In the case of homelessness, it might require some changes to the law dealing with mental health or additional allocation for services like addiction treatment. It might include developing best practices by looking at which communities are doing better than others in addressing these issues. Along with coordination and teamwork, those are the elements of solving a complex problem like that.

Obviously the attorney general cannot dictate to a local community what they will do. You have to give the community tools, and some of those tools might be at the state level, to address the problem. Ultimately, there’s an element of using the bully pulpit: talking about the problems so people in communities understand why there’s a problem and whether there’s a political impediment. 

The example I would give is, and it’s a big part of the reason I decided to run, is when a judge in the King County Courthouse shut the main entrance because of violent attacks on people trying to get justice. The Attorney General said nothing, even though in his prior term he had sponsored legislation to stiffen the penalties for attacking people entering the courthouse. When it actually happened, he said nothing. I would have said something and said it was unacceptable.  As the chief legal officer of the state, I believe you have an obligation to speak out about a problem and figure out a way to solve it. 

So it’s about bringing people together, identifying impediments at the state and local levels to solving problems, proposing a path to solving those, and using the power of the office to communicate about the challenges to keeping people safe.”  

MG: You’ve criticized Attorney General Ferguson — who has sued the Trump administration 58 times — for being overly partisan. Washington State voted against President Trump by a landslide margin in 2016 and likely will again in 2020. What is your message to Washington State voters who may want the AG’s office to hold the line against President Trump, or another other president for that matter, who they believe is exceeding their authority or attempting to implement policy that may be discriminatory?

MV: Attorneys general have always sued the federal government. There have always been lawsuits against the federal government and there will continue to be lawsuits against the federal government when it engages in conduct that hurts the people of Washington State. I will continue that work. The mistake that Bob Ferguson has made is that he’s politicized it. 

Every lawsuit is a lawsuit against the Trump Administration, whether it has to do with issues solely affecting our state like noise at Naval Air Station Whidbey or the scrapping of holes in the Puget Sound. If it’s about something that has nothing to do with Trump or if it’s about funding for the border wall, every lawsuit he claims is a lawsuit against the Trump Administration. Just by his labeling, he’s making it partisan when it should not be. In my own practice, if I’m concerned a lawsuit will be viewed as partisan, I try to recruit a coalition of interests to make clear that it’s not. So, I absolutely will protect Washington State from any wrongdoing by the federal government, but I will not make it partisan. 

As someone who has practiced law for 30 years, I can tell you that lawsuits are expensive. So the cost must be considered as well. Is it worth it? When I tell people that Bob Ferguson has diverted – to the tune of about $19 million per year – funding that used to go to groups serving at-risk communities to pay, at least in part, for his lawsuits, people pay attention. Through consumer protection recoveries, the AG’s office historically would fund groups serving people with addiction, people who need low income housing, etc to the tune of about $19 million. Bob Ferguson changed the form of the court order for those cases to give him total discretion over how to spend the money. He’s admitted that he’s used some of that money to pay for his lawsuits. You have to think about the people who aren’t getting the help they used to get in that equation.” 

MG: On the subject of lawsuits filed by attorneys general, I want to ask about health care. If elected, will you join the lawsuit filed by Republican attorneys general to strike down the Affordable Care Act as unconstitutional?

MV: I’m not taking a position on specific lawsuits the state may or may not file. I’ve outlined for you the approach I will take as attorney general; it’s designed to ensure that we’re bringing cases that have merit, that will make a difference, and are cost effective. 

I was asked a question in a recent interview about the DACA case – Bob Ferguson trumpets his role in that case – and I said that I read the opinion and I didn’t see the state of Washington mentioned at all. There were 150 parties in that case and three major court of appeals decisions that consolidated multiple district court decisions. With these mass actions, it’s really questionable whether Washington State can play a role. 

On DACA though, my father was a Dreamer of his era. He came here as a refugee under a false name, which meant he was here unlawfully, even though he came under a lawful refugee program. He was worried about getting deported until the day he died. I have a lot of emotion around that issue but I would not allow my emotion or personal preferences to dictate whether or not the state would get involved in a case like that. We have to be nonpartisan, dispassionate, and look at the policy impact.”    

MG: In the platform on your website, one of three main priorities you list is “Protecting your rights as an independent, nonpartisan watchdog over state government”. You propose doing that by issuing public opinions on the limits of emergency powers and proposing amendments to the emergency powers laws as a check and balance on the Governor’s power. On the page highlighting your prior experience, you talk about winning cases involving the following issues: “limit[ing] the reach of government by lowering car tab fees, reducing regulations, and protecting private property rights.” Do you think this list of priorities is reflective of a nonpartisan agenda?

MV: Well, that’s not an agenda; that’s a statement of what I’ve done. The attorney general doesn’t play a role in those things. As far as the independent watchdog role, Slade Gorton and Dan Evans, both mentors of mine, said absolutely it’s the function of the attorney general. The attorney general is independently elected, not appointed by the governor, to play an independent watchdog role for the state government. It’s needed now more than ever. [Washington State] just had $600 million stolen from us; the largest heist in the history of the United States. Something’s wrong there and the attorney general needs to be part of figuring that out. 

In terms of the style and approach to governing, which is part of what MRW alliance teaches, it is a big tent approach to solving problems. It’s about reaching across the aisle to work with people of all political stripes to find the best solution for the state. That’s how I approach all problem solving.

As far as elements of my prior experience that you just highlighted, each one of those with maybe one exception exemplifies what I just described. For example, if you read Referendum 49, which is the reducing car tabs measure I worked on, that was before Tim Eyman. That was a Republican legislative proposal recognizing there was a budget surplus. At that time, all car tab fees went to the General Fund, none of it went to transportation. We thought it was important that a fee people thought was paying for transportation actually pay for transportation. We shifted half of the money to transportation and because there was a budget surplus we were able to reduce car tab fees by $30. I got grief for that but I thought it was the right thing to do. But I’d also learned from my civic work that it was a very unpopular tax. We were trying to preserve that tax by making it more fair. The next year, a guy named Tim Eyman came along and tried to wipe it out. But we should always be trying to reduce taxes when there’s a budget surplus. I think that’s common sense.    

I’m the only professional lawyer on the Republican side of the race. That’s what we do, we protect people’s rights. As attorney general, my agenda will be to address homelessness and to form a task force, like what Rob McKenna did after the Great Recession, to lift the regulatory burden on small business, even if it’s only temporary.  That’s the source of a lot of our jobs and there’s going to be a lot of unemployment. I’ll also create a cyber crimes unit at the AG’s office which Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, created when she was attorney general. Bob Ferguson got rid of it. We have very high levels of cyber crime in our state, much higher than other states. Those are my priorities. I don’t have an agenda on the things you mentioned; I’m not going to advocate for any of those policy changes or others. That’s for the Legislature or private practice lawyers to do. But that’s what I’ve done, and people want to know what you’ve done.”

MG: I interviewed Mainstream Republicans of Washington (MRW) Alliance chair Jon Nehring a few months ago about what he thought it would take to build a Republican governing coalition in Washington State. In terms of campaign strategy, how will you go about crafting a message and building a coalition that can win a general election? 

MV: Jon actually succeeded me. I was chair for three years prior to that. So I’ve spent the last three years working on putting that winning coalition together. We need the voters to understand that state government is important to their lives, which I believe they do now because of everything that’s happening. We need them to focus on who among the candidates can best address the challenges we’re facing. If we can get the voters to focus on how important state government is and who is in the best position to solve those problems, Republicans will win this year. A big part of it is segmenting the way people think about government. That is what my mentors Dan Evans and Slade Gorton did; they created a Northwest brand of Republicanism that was independent of the national brand, and people understood that.

I believe there is a higher level of discontent in Seattle over public safety, homelessness and related issues than I’ve ever seen, and I’ve worked in Seattle for 30 years. I haven’t heard Bob Ferguson say anything about these issues; he’s made his entire term about suing the President. The contrast between us will be very sharp.  

I think people are starting to wake up to the fact that this is a different kind of year they assumed it would be. Businesses and political people are starting to understand that this is a change year and it is a tremendous opportunity for Republicans in particular to win. With everything that’s happening, people really want change. That I would really not have guessed when I entered this race. Public safety concerns, the CHAZ, the CHOP, the stay-at-home order, the economic distress; people are really looking for something different than what they’re getting from state government.” 


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