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Originally published October 23, 2012 at 9:34 PM | Page modified October 24, 2012 at 6:52 PM

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Race to the bottom: Dunn, Ferguson up against political sleazefest

If you want to peer into the dark arts of political advertising — if you watch TV you may have no choice — then the attorney-general contest is the race for you.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Campaigns for attorney general feature legal eagles vying to lead the state in consumer protection and the like, so they tend to be straight-laced affairs.

Maybe that was just too boring.

Because now, one of the candidates would cause children to die. While the other is such an enabler of the dregs of society that he helped loose a murderer on the land.

This year's attorney-general race has suddenly morphed into a Willie Horton-style sleazefest of Karl Rovian proportions. If you want to peer into the dark arts of political advertising — if you watch TV you may have no choice — then this is the race for you.

What's genius, perversely, is how the ads are mostly factual. Yet they still manage to turn two mostly noncontroversial lawyers into monsters.

The first ad blisters the Democrat, Bob Ferguson, for once giving legal aid to a cop killer. A Snohomish County sheriff's deputy testifies powerfully about how vile Ferguson's help was, and how the act should disqualify him from office.

The last scene shows a boy swinging at a playground, next to a photo of Ferguson. Suddenly, the boy vanishes from the swing, and these words appear: "Keep our families safe, defeat Bob Ferguson."

Oh my god, Bob Ferguson just killed that kid! Why would he do such a thing?

If you go to the ad's website — wrongforwa.com, sponsored by a national Republican group — you can sign this pledge "I, (fill in name here), agree that cop killers belong in jail." Everybody does. Except that radical Ferguson.

The real story is that when Ferguson was in law school two decades ago, he worked on an anti-death-penalty project. He did indeed help a cop killer, at that time on death row. But Ferguson didn't try to spring him. He helped write a brief arguing the already convicted inmate deserved to have a court-appointed lawyer for appealing his death sentence.

This right to counsel doesn't apply in all cases, but it's bedrock to our judicial system — it's right there in the Bill of Rights. Ferguson, as a student, helped convince the court that a death-penalty defendant of all people ought to have one.

The big result of all this, not revealed in the ad, is that the cop killer presently is serving two life terms in a West Virginia prison. Not out stalking your children.

But as misleading as that ad is, it apparently worked. So this week groups supporting Ferguson fought back, with an ad just as sleazy.

"Prosecutors should help keep us safe from criminals, right?" it starts out.

Then it ticks off cases where the Republican candidate, Reagan Dunn, "cut deals" with hardened criminals when he worked as a federal prosecutor.

Over prison scenes and judgment-day music, the ad paints Dunn's past as sordid, suggesting he made all manner of dirty deals with drug smugglers, child pornographers and the like.

All of which is true. It's called "plea-bargaining." You can find this heinous activity occurring in any criminal courthouse in any town on a daily basis.

But the ad goes full Willie Horton when it says in one case, "Dunn even cut a deal with a convicted domestic abuser who only ten days after his release, beat someone to death in a drunken rage."

Unsaid is that the man went to prison for nearly three and a half years for a gun charge. When he got out, he did a bunch of petty crimes such as driving drunk and running from police. He was convicted of those in Clark County, where he served more jail time. He also was in and out of federal court and halfway houses three more times for parole violations.

When he did kill someone, in April 2008, it was 10 days after his latest release, but more than a year after he'd completed his original, Dunn-negotiated prison term. In the interim, he'd stood before judges at least five more times, and was allowed to go free.

Yet the blood of this murder is on Dunn's hands?

Like I said, dark arts.

Both these ads are by independent groups not directly tied to either campaign.

Ironically, the ad that twists plea-bargaining into the devil's work was paid for in part by some Democratic attorneys general and a trial lawyers' group.

Lawyers often complain about how they're hated. That their work is misunderstood. This time they got it coming.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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