On Saturday, January 28, cameras across the nation were trained on airports as huge crowds of protesters filled arrival terminals to protest President Donald Trump's travel ban. The executive order that Trump had signed the night before barred entry to immigrants, refugees, and even those holding green cards from seven majority-Muslim nations. On the ground, the reaction arrived swiftly and in force. At Sea-Tac International Airport, 3,000 people gathered, holding signs and chanting, "Let them in!"
That day, as the nationwide protest response was beginning to build, Washington State attorney general Bob Ferguson was in the air. The reedy, 52-year-old former state chess champ was flying back from a conference of attorneys general in Florida, and although he didn't know it, his phone was blowing up with messages about the ban, about a press conference with Governor Jay Inslee, about what to do next. Ferguson, an unflappable character who appears to have maintained the same boyish haircut since the 1980s, touched down at Sea-Tac just in time. His first major decision: skip the press conference. Instead, he checked in with his solicitor general, Noah Purcell, went home to say hi to his wife and kids, and then got to work on the first and only lawsuit that would end up blocking the rollout of Trump's ban nationwide.
In two days and nights, subsisting on meals cobbled together from the vending machine, the team at Ferguson's office worked up a case that normally would have taken weeks to write. In February, they won in federal court, halting the ban and becoming the first state attorney general's office to successfully take on the new president. This month, Ferguson and his team are asking a federal judge to block Trump's new ban, too.
The lawsuit against the Trump administration turned Ferguson into an overnight national sensation. He appeared on Anderson Cooper 360 and The Rachel Maddow Show. He did an interview with the German magazine Stern, the New York Times included him in a story called "How Attorneys General Became Democrats' Bulwark Against Trump," and, in light of his lawsuit, the Washington Post dubbed Washington State the "epicenter of resistance to Trump's agenda." Seattle residents have since held spontaneous thank-you-card-making parties for the attorney general's office.
But Ferguson's ability to take on Trump wasn't an overnight fluke. It's the result of decades of nurturing a competitive streak, a deliberate focus on civil rights, and the kind of confidence that comes from rarely losing, whether in chess (he was an internationally rated chess master by age 19), in elections (with the exception of a race for high-school student-body president, he's never lost one, having won a total of three elections to the King County Council and two terms as attorney general), or in court (as Trump has just learned).
On a recent rainy Tuesday in Ferguson's downtown Seattle office, he gestures for us to sit down at a table piled with legal briefs and an empty yogurt container and then leans his wiry frame back into a chair. Immediately it's clear the man thinks three steps ahead. His hands grip and ungrip the armrests as he speaks, issuing complete rapid-fire answers to questions about his early life and career. He may feign a bashful aw shucks quality, as if he's stumbled into his notoriety, but Bob Ferguson isn't here to fuck around. Every move in Ferguson's political career has strategically propelled him toward taking on bigger and more formidable opponents.
"A lot of people say, 'Well, Bob, it must have been a really hard decision, right?'" Ferguson says of suing Trump.
Long before Robert Watson Ferguson became the first attorney general to take on Trump, he was Bobby Ferguson, the fluffy haired 19-year-old chess champ from Queen Anne. He traveled as far as Berlin to compete, a passion that nearly prevented him from going to college.
Ferguson, the descendant of German immigrants, was born the sixth of seven children to Betty Ferguson and her husband, Murray. Betty, a descendant of the Hausmanns who opened an Everett meat market at the turn of the 20th century, was a teacher, and Murray worked as a facilities manager at Boeing. By the time Bob came along, the Fergusons had already given birth to five boys. Ann Ferguson, the only Ferguson sister, remembers being so disappointed upon learning Bob wasn't a girl that she cried.
According to Ann, 62, now a curator at Seattle Public Library, the Ferguson kids led a relatively hands-off childhood and lived by the ethos that no whining was allowed. An oft-told family tale: When one Ferguson broke his leg or kneecap (no one can remember which) playing baseball with his siblings, the rest insisted that he continue playing—otherwise the teams would be uneven. He waited until the game was over to go to the hospital.
Ann also says that Bob learned at a young age how to beat older kids at their own game. Ping-pong was big in the family, and "Bob's head was barely above the table" when he started playing with his older brothers, Ann remembers. "He got very good and could compete," Ann says. "He didn't get any concessions for age."
Some of that, she thinks, contributed to her younger brother's competitiveness. Most of the Ferguson kids learned chess, but Bob became obsessed with it, studying chess books for hours. By the time Bob was 12, he started riding his bike from Queen Anne to the University District to hang out in the back of the Last Exit on Brooklyn, a smoke-filled coffee shop and chess hangout populated by poets, college kids, and stoners. Toward the end of high school, Bob started playing hooky from school to play chess there.
Hanging around with college students and adult chess masters allowed teenage Bob Ferguson to soak up some political philosophy. Mostly, though, the chess elders looked after him. Ferguson had become addicted to the sport of it, but also to the game's beauty: each match a work of art painted by pure strategy.
The chess habit continued through high school. When Bob's senior-year crush wanted to ask him to prom and he wasn't at school, a friend found him by pay phone at the Last Exit.
It took some convincing to send teenage Bob Ferguson to college. He had taken a year off after high school to play chess abroad, but his father didn't approve of chess as a career choice without a college education. The late Murray Ferguson, who regularly hosted political events for Republican candidates in his home while the children were young, had studied English at the University of Washington. He asked Ann to help enroll Bob at the UW, and eventually the younger Ferguson did sign up—for one class. Russian studies. By that point, Ferguson had already been reading a Russian chess publication for years. "It was the best class I've ever taken," Ferguson remembers, "because [the professor] let me write all my papers about Russian chess masters."
At the end of that year, Ferguson had to make the decision to stick with chess or enroll full-time. "It was a really hard decision," Ferguson says. "In some ways it was a harder decision than to sue Donald Trump." But eventually he decided to get an education at UW, and in the politics of the university campus Ferguson ended up finding a pleasure similar to the one he derived from chess. He had joined the "gentleman's frat" on campus, Chi Psi, as well as the Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW) board of directors. Then, in his junior year, Ferguson ran for ASUW president, pitting himself against two leftist candidates. While Ferguson's competitors ran on anti-apartheid boycotts and a proposed tuition freeze, Ferguson was promising to focus on tangible, popular goals: "curbing the minority attrition rate," "improving academic advising," and bringing Robin Williams and the Kinks to campus. The Daily, the UW student newspaper, endorsed one of Ferguson's opponents—a point that Ferguson still mentions sometimes, says Sally Clark, a former Seattle City Council member and Daily writer. "This really stuck with Bob," Clark remembers. When Ferguson won, the newspaper displayed a photo of his victory: a triumphant Ferguson in a bow tie and khakis carried on the shoulders of fist-pumping frat boys.
It seems like Bob Ferguson's nascent political identity evolved more after college, when he spent a year with the Jesuit volunteer corps. For a time, Ferguson even considered becoming a Jesuit priest. "I think sometimes folks mistake Bob's competitive streak for political ambitiousness," Ann Ferguson says. "I think what's motivating him is a sense of justice."
That sense of justice, the Fergusons say, came from their parents. Bob Ferguson cites an example: When his father found out that his own UW fraternity didn't accept Jewish members, he protested by writing a letter to the fraternity president and quit. Ferguson also cites his uncle, a Jesuit priest who spent a lot of time with the Ferguson siblings as they grew up, as a major influence.
Still, it's hard to determine exactly where in all that Ferguson became serious about his political ambitions. "I was student body president of my grade school, for god sakes," he says. "I was class president of my high school." That he would someday hold political office now seems inevitable.
His first race was in 2003, when he took on King County Council member Cynthia Sullivan, a fellow Democrat and a 20-year incumbent.
"There's no question people thought he was crazy, but he felt a conviction about it," says Clark, who worked briefly for Ferguson. "He felt like it was the right time to stir up the status quo. He took a lot of flak from people who said, 'That's not what you do inside the party.'"
By Election Day, Sullivan had out-fundraised Ferguson by $56,000, but nobody talks about the money in that race. Everyone talks about the doorbelling. At the start of the campaign, Ferguson shunned advice to spend money hiring a political consultant and pledged to knock on the door of every primary voter in the district, which covered Northeast Seattle, including the University District, Wedgwood, and Northgate. He did it, hitting around 22,000 doors. The race was surprising in more ways than one. For a Democrat, Ferguson's platform was conservative: On the trail, he was critical of Sound Transit, which had recently gone over budget by $1 billion, and supported a Tim Eyman–backed proposal to reduce the King County Council from 13 members to 9. Some angry Democrats even accused him of being a Republican, but Ferguson nevertheless won an unlikely victory, beating Sullivan by 488 votes.
Two years later, he had to take on another incumbent Democrat—this time a King County Council colleague, Carolyn Edmonds. Voters had approved the plan to reduce the size of the council in 2004, and all the seats were up for grabs in 2005, meaning some members had to run against each other. Again, Ferguson was out-fundraised leading up to the election and focused on doorbelling—and again he won.
"He's just so tenacious," says John Wyble, who ran Edmonds's campaign. "I heard stories about Bob that he went to doors so many times that kids would be like, 'Hey it's that guy Bob again.' That's some amazing politicking."
As a council member, Ferguson staked out a standard lefty position on social issues but showed a conservative streak on some fiscal issues. Along with Council Member Julia Patterson, he sponsored a bill to increase oversight of the sheriff's department. As the county warehoused people with mental illnesses in the jail but failed to quickly provide them treatment, Ferguson called it a "moral wrong" and supported a successful new sales tax for mental-health services. He also got into a public tiff with then–county executive Ron Sims about whether the county should buy new or used furniture. "I want more than a wink and a nod that we're going to examine the used-furniture market," Ferguson said at the time, proposing the county buy used furniture. He won that fight and the county saved $1.6 million.
Seven years after his election to the council, in 2012, Ferguson again ran against a county council colleague, Reagan Dunn, this time for Washington State attorney general. Ferguson promised to crack down on environmental crimes, criticized Dunn for not being transparent enough, and touted his experience in management and civil law as a contrast to Dunn's experience as a federal prosecutor. Both candidates opposed cannabis legalization but promised to defend it if it passed.
As the election approached, an attack ad funded by the Karl Rove–founded Republican State Leadership Committee mined an old case from Ferguson's past, in which he'd helped a convicted murderer on death row get a lawyer. The ad painted Ferguson as soft on crime and particularly supportive of cop killers, "the most heinous, vile type of criminal there is." As Election Day approached, the race tightened. The ad ran for several weeks, and Ferguson's team scrambled to rebut it with their own public-safety ad, theirs featuring the president of Washington State Patrol Troopers Association, who supported Ferguson. Ferguson won the attorney general seat with 53 percent of the vote.
Last year, facing only an unknown libertarian challenger and running on his office's civil rights, consumer protection, and campaign finance work, Ferguson won reelection with 67 percent of the vote.
Ferguson attributes some of his political success to the same qualities that made him good at chess.
"Look, I'm not the smartest lawyer in the state of Washington," Ferguson told a gathering of New York University law school students in 2014. "I'm not the best politician in the state of Washington. I'm not the best legal writer in the state of Washington. But I think if you ask me why I ended up being attorney general, I think it's because of, frankly, sheer tenacity and perseverance."
As attorney general, Ferguson hasn't shied away from high-profile cases. He's known to say repeatedly, in the office and in press conferences, that he's focused on holding powerful people accountable when they don't play by the rules. In another nationally watched and recently decided case, Ferguson brought a lawsuit against the owner of Arlene's Flowers, who refused service to a gay couple. He has sued Monsanto and brought a successful civil case against Matt Hickey, the former tech journalist who allegedly scammed women into sleeping with him under the false pretense of a porn audition. In late February, he pledged to stand up to the Trump administration's promises to crack down on states that have legalized recreational cannabis. And just this month, he joined 17 other states and Washington, DC, in support of a case to allow trans students to use the restroom that matches their gender identity. (The US Supreme Court recently declined to hear this case.)
The nature of the attorney general's office, though, is that it doesn't always conform to Ferguson's idealism. At its best, the office pursues cases like Arlene's Flowers or Washington v. Trump, but the office also functions as the state's lawyers. That means Ferguson's office represents the state when prisoners on death row appeal their cases (Ferguson himself is openly opposed to the death penalty) and defended the state against a lawsuit brought by victims of the Oso landslide. In that case, a judge fined the state after it came to light that an employee in the attorney general's office knew expert witnesses in the case were deleting e-mails that should have been saved. Today, the office is in the process of defending the state Department of Corrections in a case alleging the department is failing to provide prisoners adequate health-care access.
If Ferguson is bothered by some of the less-than-crusading work his office does while defending the state, he doesn't show it. He knows his job is to provide the state good representation, and that's not always pretty. "It is what it is," Ferguson says flatly. "That's important work. We need to do it. That's our obligation to the people."
But in the dawn of the Trump era, it appears that Bob Ferguson's obligations shifted overnight. In addition to being the state's top lawyer, Ferguson has now also taken up the mantle of protecting "the people" from the extremist, right-wing federal policy emanating from DC. In some ways, Ferguson was no more prepared for that reality than the rest of us.
One of the attorney general's 9-year-old twins, Katie, kept—and still does keep—a photo of Hillary Clinton on her bedside table. For months before the election, Ferguson posted regular updates on his Facebook page showing his kids with Clinton campaign buttons; Katie even got the chance to meet Clinton. What was it like, we ask him, to watch Katie on election night as Clinton lost? It's perhaps the one question Ferguson didn't anticipate. His expression turns deadly serious. He stumbles.
"I don't even know if I can talk about it, honestly," he says. "I mean, really. Sorry. Yeah. Yeah. It was hard."
For once, it seems like the attorney general is at a loss for words. He never anticipated Trump would win, and he blames himself for not preparing his daughter for that same possibility. "I just didn't..." He pauses. "It didn't cross my mind, right?"
Lucky for Washington State, much of the machinery for the attorney general's case against the president of the United States had been set up before Trump signed his travel ban.
It started with the creation of the Attorney General's Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit. One of Bob Ferguson's first ambitions as attorney general was to hire a dedicated team to cover state antidiscrimination statutes. "Nobody was doing affirmative work on those statutes, and that struck [Ferguson] as not something to be proud of," Colleen Melody, Ferguson's first hire as head of the unit, said.
Ferguson quickly staffed the office with longtime civil-rights lawyers. One of them, Marsha Chien, had misgivings about giving up her nonprofit job to come work for state government, but eventually embraced Ferguson's approach to the job. "I think that it's really helpful to have Bob in leadership of the AG's office, because he doesn't strike me as what I would consider a typical politician," Chien said. "He views things as I would view them, like 'That makes no sense, why are we doing that?' regardless of how much institutional buy-in or things are protecting that."
Under Ferguson, the fledgling civil-rights unit started flexing its muscles by bringing cases against employers accused of sexual harassment, a used-car dealership that allegedly misled and defrauded Spanish speakers, and landlords who've refused to rent to people with criminal records (a refusal the attorney general's office argues amounts to discrimination against black renters).
During the week leading up to Trump's travel ban, the team discussed what it might look like. Still, they were shocked to discover new details they hadn't anticipated. On January 27, Chien had gone skiing with her in-laws when news of the executive order broke. She had seen a leaked draft of the order on Thursday, but when she got cell service, she was appalled to learn that the final version also excluded green-card holders. "It caused me a lot of internal pain," she said. "It echoed to the time when we had the Chinese Exclusion Act." Chien immediately e-mailed Melody, and her husband drove her back to her office to pick up her computer.
In retrospect, Chien said, Ferguson's convictions on the death penalty made her feel empowered to take action on President Trump's travel ban. "Feeling strongly in your convictions is very helpful in a position like this, like the position we were in on January 27," she said.
At the office, Melody had started to put together a team to address the president's new order, including Chien and Patricio Marquez, another assistant attorney general. Ferguson talked over the legal arguments with Noah Purcell, the solicitor general, and asked him what he thought about their chances of success. "We walked through a lot of the strategy," Ferguson said. "And at that point, the conversation pretty quickly went to 'Let's just file it, time is of the essence, people are getting turned away at airports. Every hour matters.'" By Sunday morning, less than 48 hours after the ban was issued, all were in the office by 6 a.m., ready to work. Ferguson skipped church, Purcell brought pastries, and the team began delegating tasks to create a challenge to the executive order.
Over the next week, the team—which expanded to include two more lawyers—worked nights to do research for their first hearing in a federal judge's downtown Seattle courtroom. If colleagues didn't bring the team home-cooked meals as a sign of solidarity, they lived off those vending-machines meals. To make matters worse, Seattle was three hours behind East Coast time. The lawyers often went to bed wondering what Donald Trump might accomplish by executive order before they woke up.
Then the day of the federal hearing arrived. On the afternoon of February 3, just four days after the team filed the complaint, so many people showed up to hear oral arguments that the federal courthouse had to open up two overflow rooms so observers could watch the proceedings via TV screens. After Judge James Robart grilled Purcell and government attorney Michelle Bennett for nearly an hour, the judge issued his decision from the bench. As he opened the oral ruling with a preamble about the role of the judiciary in checking executive power, Chien—who was sitting in the courtroom next to her colleague, Marquez—hung on his every word.
"When he brought out his decision and said something about the limited role of the judiciary, I think my heart just sank for a good five seconds," Chien said. But then Robart sided with Ferguson, issuing a temporary restraining order on the executive order nationwide. As a result of the work of Ferguson and his team, Trump's travel ban had been halted. "It restored my faith in the founding fathers of this country who had this checks-and-balances system," Chien said. "I think that moment was really big for everyone in the courtroom." For the first time in a week, the team got a good night of sleep. Amid all the pain and protest and uncertainty about the direction of the country, the nerds working at the Washington State Attorney General's Office had changed the course of history
In early March, Ferguson and his office won another victory and a new spot in the news cycle. The Trump administration released a new, narrower travel ban. It dropped its appeal of Ferguson's case and agreed to pay the state's court costs. The president, Ferguson declared, had "capitulated." Then on March 9, Ferguson announced his office wasn't done fighting Trump. He plans to press on in federal court, arguing that the injunction Washington State already won to stop Trump's first travel ban should apply to Trump's new travel ban, too.
Still, Melody worries about how much Ferguson's office will ultimately be able to accomplish under Trump. "I'm worried about the limits of our legal tools to solve some of the community concerns, to pacify some of the panic that's happening in living rooms across the country," she said, "because people don't know what's next."
Ferguson knows we're going to ask this question during our interview, and we know he's not going to answer: Are you running for governor in 2020?
The heightened publicity around the cases Ferguson has brought as attorney general—Washington v. Trump the biggest among them—has everyone speculating about Ferguson's political ambitions. More than at any other point in his career, he now has a crisp narrative about his progressive cred. The political chattering class is sure Governor Jay Inslee won't want to run for a third term, and that leaves an opening for a rising Democrat. Along with Ferguson, King County executive Dow Constantine is commonly speculated about as a potential candidate.
"Bob is starting to get a reputation as someone who is not a shrinking violet. He's going to be bold," says Wyble, who worked for Ferguson's opponent back in 2005. "That reputation in a Democratic primary is going to be gold."
But Ferguson avoids the question and slips back into aw shucks mode. He's not going to tell us his next move until he's ready to make it.
"If there's an office in this state that can make a bigger difference right now than being attorney general, I mean, someone let me know," Ferguson says. "But I don't think there is. I just don't."