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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 11.15.07

 

Kroger Runs for Top Cop

Will outsider rock attorney general, Democratic establishment?

By Alan Pittman

A new generation has moved to Oregon.Energetic and smart, they could have chosen to live anywhere but picked Oregon for the state's livability and natural beauty.

This creative class is a big part of the reason Portland has boomed in recent years with lively people and soaring condos. The new generation will bring new political leaders. John Kroger hopes to be one of them.

Kroger first found Oregon by bike after cycling here in a three-month journey from New York City six years ago. The 41-year-old former Marine, Yale and Harvard overachiever, federal mob and Enron prosecutor and law professor now wants to be Oregon's attorney general.

Yawn. No, not an attorney general like the current, retiring office holder Hardy Myers, dubbed "Hardly Matters" by critics. Compared to the crusading New York AG Eliot Spitzer, Kroger promises to be an attorney general who will rock the Oregon political establishment and corporations.

Kroger offers an impressive biography. At 17, a lanky Kroger left Houston, Texas to join the U.S. Marines. "I didn't have any money to go to college," he explains. After training for an elite recon unit and three years of service, he left for Yale to study philosophy. Graduating with high honors and a master's degree, Kroger went on to join Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. After Clinton's election, Kroger earned a Harvard law degree, magna cum laude.

Kroger put his law degree to work as a federal prosecutor helping to put Mafia killers and drug kingpins behind bars. Burnt out after three years of long hours, Kroger took three months off to bike across the nation to Oregon. "When I got to Oregon, I basically fell in love with the state," he said.

After the 9/11 attacks, Kroger went back to work helping the FBI with search warrants and subpoenas to investigate potential terrorist cells.

But Oregon and teaching called and Kroger soon found a professor job at Portland's Lewis & Clark Law School in 2002. After a semester, his old boss recruited him back to work in the Enron Task Force, helping to prosecute one of the greatest corporate fraud's in U.S. history. After a year, he returned to Lewis & Clark where students chose him for a best teacher award.

Now Kroger wants to bring his overachieving career to rock the Oregon Attorney General's office.

Oregonian columnist Steve Duin recently described the AG's 289 lawyers as "perhaps the state's greatest collection of underachievers."

Myers, 68, has held the seat for three low-key terms in which he's functioned more as the governor's lawyer than as a crusading defender of the people.

In contrast, Kroger said he would "use the tools of the office very aggressively."

The state has long taken a laid back stance with repeat corporate polluters, choosing to "educate" them on the law rather than fine them. "That drives me crazy," said Kroger. "We should be hammering them; there should be no messing around."

"Even if there's bureaucratic resistance" at the Department of Environmental Quality, Kroger said, "we can do that independent of the DEQ."

Kroger announced his run for office on the steps of the Portland office building where Enron conducted a lot of its electricity trading fraud. "It wasn't an accident they were here," he said in an interview. Enron chose Oregon because, "they didn't think they'd ever pay taxes, and they didn't think they'd ever be regulated," he said.

Kroger said he'd also prioritize protecting consumers from business scams, protecting women from domestic violence and collecting child support for poor children.

"Consumers, not corporations, are going to come first in this state if I am attorney general," he said to applause in Washington County.

In a potential appeal to conservative voters, Kroger said that "problem number one in the state is tackling the meth problem."

Kroger links meth to child abuse and property crimes, although skeptics have questioned whether either have statistically surged with the supposed meth "epidemic."

But Kroger's approach to meth isn't the lock-them-up strategy of conservatives. "To me drug treatment is the number one thing we should be focusing on."

Oregon ranks "45th in the nation in terms of drug treatment," Kroger said. Kroger points to a California study showing that four dollars are saved in incarceration and other costs for every dollar spent on treatment.

Secure with his record as a federal Mafia and drug kingpin prosecutor, Kroger says, "I don't need to sound tough on crime." Oregon needs to be "not tough on crime, but smart on crime."

Kroger said he supports Measure 11's costly long mandatory sentences, but said he "strongly opposes" a proposal by Republican perennial candidate Kevin Mannix to expand the law to property crimes.

The expansion would impose long sentences on first-time offenders who should get drug treatment and probation, according to Kroger. The "$200 million a year" it would cost in more jails "is going to come out of education," he said.

Kroger is critical of the Bush administration's use of torture and illegal wiretaps in the "War on Terrorism." He calls the lack of protest in the legal community of Bush's use of rendition and torture, "a giant failure of American lawyers."

While he wouldn't want to pull the Oregon State Police out of Bush's Joint Terrorism Task Forces, he said he would be cautious. "The last thing we need to do is have people involved in unconstitutional wire tapping or something like that. If they did, we should get them out of there."

Kroger is hard to pin down on whether "terrorism" should include nonviolent property crimes; the terrorist label has been applied to environmental saboteurs here. He does say overusing the label "is playing a dangerous game."

Kroger said better mental health treatment would help reduce controversial police shootings in the state. He said he would examine "very disturbing" statistics on racial profiling by police.

On open government records, Kroger said, "the goal of having very open access is great."

Kroger is pumping the issues hard, but he faces a long uphill pedal to get elected. He has raised $82,000 for his campaign, about a third of that from family members. In contrast, his Democratic primary opponent Greg Macpherson, 57, has raised $113,000. No Republican has declared, although there's speculation that Mannix may run again.

Almost a quarter of Macpherson's campaign money has come from lawyers at Stoel Rives, one of the state's most powerful corporate law firms and Myers' old firm. Macpherson has worked as a pension lawyer at Stoel for decades and is deeply rooted in the state's Democratic establishment.

Macpherson has represented Lake Oswego for three terms in the state House and has the endorsements of Gov. Ted Kulongoski and former Gov. Barbara Roberts. His grandfather was a state legislator. His father, Hector, was a key author of the state's land use planning system which Greg Macpherson helped defend as a leading player in the recent passage of Measure 49.

Macpherson supporters have knocked Kroger as a carpetbagger who came to Oregon recently to get elected.

But Kroger, who's never run for election before, says that's not the case. "I have no interest in being a professional politician," he said. "They are so cautious about their political future that they don't do what's right."

With the Democratic political establishment tarnished by the Neil Goldschmidt child sex scandal and newcomers diluting nativist sentiment, Kroger may have a chance. He's campaigning hard, picking up trash along roads, giving firm handshakes in Eastern Oregon and picking up district attorney endorsements.

Although Macpherson shares much of Kroger's campaign rhetoric, the former prosecutor said he doubts the corporate attorney would actively pursue justice as he would. Oregonians can decide between an aggressive attorney general "or a continuation of what we have now," Kroger said. "It's a very clear choice."