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Sunday, February 27, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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McKenna takes on role of "general" with gusto

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — Washington Democrats generally won the bragging rights and the marquee races in the last election, but Republicans captured Gov. Christine Gregoire's powerhouse post of attorney general.

Today, they're already talking up the brainy and affable Rob McKenna as a future governor or senator. The GOP farm club also includes newly minted U.S. House members Cathy McMorris and Dave Reichert, nearly Gov. Dino Rossi, and state Chairman Chris Vance.

The office of attorney general is a powerful, if unreliable, stepping stone. For the past half-century, attorneys general have used the office as a launching pad to try for higher office.

Now in office less than two months, McKenna already hears himself mentioned to carry the GOP banner against U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., next year.

He basks in that kind of talk, but quickly adds, "This is a great job. I'm in no hurry to leave."

For now, he's still meeting staff — the Northwest's largest public law firm with 460 lawyers and 1,100 employees overall — and working on a valise full of issues including the state's "sunshine" laws, consumer protection and lessening the state's exposure to big legal judgments.

Once an Army brat ...

McKenna, 42, was one of a handful of high-profile Republicans who managed to win office in an otherwise Democratic year. McKenna was the most popular Republican on the ballot, drawing more than 1.4 million votes, running ahead of President Bush by more than 100,000 votes.

It was doubly impressive because it was McKenna's first bid for statewide office and his Democratic challenger, Deborah Senn, had been elected insurance commissioner twice and defeated Mark Sidran, a popular former Seattle city attorney, for the Democratic nomination.

Conventional wisdom was that the centrist, easygoing Sidran would have given McKenna a tougher fight, and that Senn's past clashes with business interests hurt her.

"He drew the lucky card of running against probably the most unpopular Democrat on the ballot," says independent pollster Stuart Elway.

McKenna has had the golden touch with elections, going back to student-body president at the University of Washington, three terms as a Metropolitan King County Council member, and advising a number of winning candidates.

The son of a career Army officer, McKenna was born at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, and bounced around the world. The family settled in Bellevue when he was 14. McKenna was an Eagle Scout and a top student, later earning two bachelor's degrees from the UW and a Phi Beta Kappa key. He excelled at the University of Chicago Law School, where he served on law review and specialized in the confluence of economics and the law.

He married his wife, Marilyn, during law school and they now have four children. He turned down job offers back east and returned home, joining the blue-chip Perkins Coie law firm. He specialized in business and regulatory cases for seven years. He worked with myriad community groups and campaigns before jumping into politics himself.

As one of 13 King County council members, he wrote laws for one of the country's largest counties, specializing in the budget, transportation and land-use.

... Now the "general"

Then, musical chairs created a statewide opening: Gov. Gary Locke decided in summer of 2003 not to seek a third term. Within minutes, Gregoire decided to run for governor — and McKenna began hearing from advisers and mentors such as Slade Gorton suggesting that he jump into the AG's race.

McKenna, who was also being courted for governor and an open congressional race, took about seven weeks weighing his options, including returning to lucrative private-law practice, and decided to run.

Starting with his strong GOP base in the suburbs, he began broadening his appeal, knowing Republicans alone couldn't elect him. He won over prosecutors, police chiefs, sheriffs and farm and business leaders one at a time and leveraged the endorsements into broader support.

He worked on nontraditional alliances, including tribal leaders, public-safety unions, firefighters and fellow pro-choice moderates in both parties. Once Sidran lost the primary, McKenna courted his backers.

After putting 52,000 miles on his car and running a textbook campaign, he won.

"Dad's up in heaven rolling his eyes at me being called 'general,' " he says, referring to the courtesy title that comes with the big office and the $132,000 salary.

Kid in the candy store

McKenna is the kid in a candy store. The agency has 20,000 cases going at any one time, from the mundane, such as adopting obscure regulations, to the high-profile, such as the challenge to the 2004 governor's election.

McKenna notes happily that partisanship has little to do with it. He finds himself, for instance, defending the election of the Democratic governor and the actions of the Republican secretary of state.

Gregoire herself was hired and mentored by two Republican attorneys general, and McKenna is keeping virtually all of Gregoire's team. There's no housecleaning just because the party label has changed.

The office serves as legal adviser to every agency — a shotgun marriage, McKenna wryly acknowledges — and has assistants imbedded in the departments. Some agencies are so big and complicated that they have their own AG units — Social and Health Services, Ecology, and Labor & Industries, for instance.

"The ethos in the office is to provide the most professional, unbiased legal advice possible," he says. "That helps us avoid partisan entanglements."

He's generally complimentary of Gregoire's tenure, but notes that a missed $18 million appeal and a subsequent backlash caused a "siege mentality" that he's trying to ease.

He's putting his own stamp on the office. His signature issue, which has drawn rave reviews from the state's newspaper editorial pages, is championing open meetings and easier access to public records.

He says his zeal for the issue reflects his view that government tends to run amok without checks and balances.

"I believe one of the most effective checks on government is openness and transparency. The ability of the public and the media to have access to information is key to preventing abuses and keeping our system as clean as possible."

McKenna also wants to expand the consumer-protection division, particularly in emerging areas such as cybercrime and identity theft.

He's also hoping to help the state greatly reduce its exposure to liability. The state is paying out about $150 million in settlements every two years, and is spending a like amount on negotiating and litigating.

Higher aspirations?

The last three AGs, Republicans Gorton and Ken Eikenberry, and Democrat Gregoire, all used the office as a launching pad. Gorton went on to serve three terms as a U.S. senator, Eikenberry was his party's unsuccessful nominee for governor in 1992, and Gregoire, the first female AG, is governor. Washington State University political scientist Lance LeLoup calls the good-guy office "the premier stepping-stone."

But it's also true that all three stayed in the attorney general's office for 12 years before making their move. All regarded it as a fantastic job.

McKenna is the party's ranking young star and has a limitless future, says GOP Chairman Vance.

But don't look for McKenna to start shopping for a higher office anytime soon. The first marquee opening is for the U.S. Senate contest next year. Rossi presumably has first crack at the nomination if he doesn't win his legal fight for governor this year. But McKenna says he's not interested.

"We'll see what comes eight or 12 years from now," he says. "I'm in no hurry."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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