Candidates chime in on crime, courts and environment in Oregon's Dem AG race

Chris Rizo Mar. 11, 2008, 7:00am

John Kroger

Greg Macpherson

SALEM, Ore. -- Vying to be Oregon's next attorney general are two Democrats who have promised to raise the profile of the office by aggressively protecting consumers and defending the state's vast natural resources.

In lengthy interviews with LegalNewsLine, candidates Rep. Greg Macpherson and Professor John Kroger both praised retiring Attorney General Hardy Myers, the 68-year-old Democrat who has quietly led the state Department of Justice since 1996, but each said they would run the agency differently than their predecessor.

"I want to elevate the energy-level and visibility of the Department of Justice," Macpherson said. "Raising the profile of the office will help Oregonians understand what the Department of Justice is doing for them and can do for them."

Similarly, Kroger, who teaches criminal law and jurisprudence at Portland's Lewis & Clark Law School, said he would boost the AG's profile and use the Department of Justice, with its more than 1,300 employees and $380 million budget, to pursue "corporate polluters" and drug dealers.

"I'm going to use the bully pulpit of the office much more aggressively than Mr. Myers," Kroger said. "I think it's important that we have an effective and dynamic communicator in that office who can build political coalitions outside of Salem and talk about big issues and get the public to focus where it needs to focus."

Although no Republican contenders have entered the GOP race for the $77,000 a year post, the state Republican Party has promised a candidate. Many observers thought that former state Rep. Kevin Mannix, R-Salem, who lost to Myers in 2000, might be the one, but he has instead decided to run in Oregon's 5th Congressional District, which is open this year.

Macpherson, 57, is a three-term state legislator from Lake Oswego, Ore., whose father and grandfather both served in the Oregon Legislature. He said he will make neighborhoods safer, protect consumers from flimflam artists and protect a woman's access to abortion.

"I have a strong track record of having worked on some of the most important and challenging issues the state has had in recent years," said Macpherson, who has been endorsed by many of his Democratic legislative colleagues.

Macpherson, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, noted his role in drafting a voter-approved initiative aimed at preserving farmland and open-space and leading widely successful efforts to curb methamphetamine manufacturing.

He said he is eager to put recently penned laws into practice that allow the attorney general to be the lead plaintiff in class action lawsuits. Another new statute, he noted, provides remedy for investors who buy variable annuities.

"As attorney general," Macpherson said, "what I'll do is to use those new authorities I created as a legislator to make sure we go after bad actors."

Meanwhile, Kroger, 41, vowed to use his experience as a former federal prosecutor to enforce the state's environmental laws and go after big-time drug dealers.

"These are areas that need a lot more attention," said Kroger, who has been endorsed by the Sierra Club of Oregon and 17 county district attorneys.

To go after drug dealers, Kroger said he would "revitalize" the Department of Justice's Organized Crime Section, adding that improved treatment access would also be part of his anti-drug efforts.

"Oregon has one of the least effective drug treatment systems in the whole nation," Kroger said, noting that the state is 49th in the nation in terms of access to drug treatment for young adults.

Oregon has "good" environmental laws on its books, but those statutes are not enforced aggressively, he said pointing to a Business Week magazine report that labeled Portland, Ore., the third most toxic city in the nation.

"My goal is to really improve the enforcement of our environmental laws, seeking higher penalties when people violate the law and much more aggressive use of criminal laws to protect the environment," he said.

Taking a swipe at Macpherson, who he said lacks trial experience, Kroger said when voters choose the next attorney general they are electing more than just the state's legal representative, but also their advocate in court.

Kroger said in his time as a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn, N.Y., he worked on hundreds of felony cases, including actions against Mafia bosses and drug kingpins. He was also a member of the U.S. Justice Department's Enron Task Force.

"I come to this job with a lot of experience in court at both the trial and the appellate level, and Greg Macpherson has never tried a case in court," Kroger said. "I also have a strong law enforcement background and that's another fundamental difference between us."

Macpherson, a longtime attorney at the state's largest law firm, Stoel Rives LLP, specializes in employee health benefits. He said Kroger's claim that he has never tried a case in court is false.

"I am the only candidate in the race who has represented a client in an Oregon courtroom," Macpherson said, adding that Kroger was only admitted to the Oregon Bar late last year.

Policy distinctions

As for fundamental policy differences between Kroger and Macpherson, the two differ on whether more of the Justice Department's jobs should be relocated to Portland, the state's major population center.

Kroger said such a move would help the agency recruit and retain attorneys, in particular. Macpherson, however, said he would rather "expand opportunities for remote access" for the attorneys so they don't have to work always from the department's Salem headquarters.

A striking difference between the two relates to Oregon's voter-approved mandatory sentencing law for violent crimes, outlined in Measure 11.

Macpherson said unlike Kroger, he believes that policymakers ought to be "open to changes" to the law, particularly because the state's prison population has exploded since its passage in 1994.

"We've seen that Oregon's prison population has more than doubled over the last dozen years, and it has made it very hard to support other public services we depend on like schools and even other public safety programs," Macpherson said.

Endorsements matter

Oregon State University political science Professor Bill Lunch said unlike other statewide contests, voters rely heavily on endorsements in the race for attorney general, partly because of a lack of understanding for the AG's function.

"This is one of those relatively obscure offices from the point of the view of the man or woman on the street; so, voters rely more on endorsements for attorney general more than they might for other offices," Lunch said in an interview from his Corvallis, Ore., office.

Lunch said not surprisingly, Kroger is backed by most of the state's powerful unions, given Macpherson's principal role in overhauling the state's Public Employees Retirement System, parts of which have since been struck down by the state Supreme Court.

The plan, which was vehemently opposed by public employee unions, reduced benefits to help keep the PERS system solvent amid billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities.

"The unions were not happy to say the least," Lunch said. "And, the unions feel it is payback time for what Macpherson did back in 2003."

Among groups that have lined up to support Kroger are the Oregon Education Association, the Service Employees International Union and the Carpenters Local Unions. Kroger also is backed by former Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber and state Labor Commissioner Dan Gardner.

Macpherson, meanwhile, has the support of Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski, state Treasurer Randall Edwards, state Schools Superintendent Susan Castillo and U.S. Rep. Darlene Hooley, D-Ore.

As for a Republican jumping into the race, Lunch said the GOP will likely introduce a candidate by Tuesday's 5 p.m. PT campaign filing deadline.

"Even if somebody has to be heavily recruited (by Republicans) they have to have somebody credible running," Lunch said. He added that 2008 might not be a good year for Republicans in the Beaver State given its left-leaning electorate.

"The Democrats tend to dominate statewide contests, and any sensible Republican politician who is looking to move up - from the House or Senate - and run for statewide office probably wouldn't pick 2008 to do it," Lunch said.

He added, "The political climate just isn't good for Republicans. You have a Republican president in the White House with approval ratings that at the very best are in the low 30s and an economy that is headed downhill."

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