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Oregon's Attorney General Hits The Ground Running

Only one person in Oregon got more votes than Barack Obama in last November's election. 

That would be Democrat John Kroger, who after a bruising primary battle, breezed to an easy general election victory to become Oregon Attorney General. 

Kroger has played more of an activist role than his predecessors, bringing increased attention to the office.  Salem correspondent Chris Lehman caught up with Kroger recently and has this profile.

John Kroger is sitting by the phone in a small south Salem office.  He's waiting for someone to call in to the state's consumer complaint hotline. 

 John Kroger
John Kroger answers the phone at the state's consumer complaint hotline.

John Kroger:  "So Joanne, tell me about this screen.  What's going on here?"

It's a publicity stunt to highlight a list of the Top Ten Consumer Complaints received by the state.  But Kroger seems genuinely interested in how to properly handle a complaint phone call.

John Kroger:  "Hi, you've reached the consumer hotline, and this is Attorney General John Kroger.  How are you this morning?"

The caller can't seem to believe who answered the phone.

John Kroger:  "It really is the Attorney General."

Kroger takes notes as the caller tells of losing a deposit on a wedding dress at a suburban Portland bridal shop.  And if politicians like to be able to empathize with their constituents, then this time Kroger hits the goldmine.

John Kroger:  "Um, this is a remarkable coincidence, but I am also getting married on August 1st. So I understand exactly the kind of pressure your family is under." 

That's right, in addition to taking on the job as the state's top law enforcer this year, Kroger is also planning a wedding.  He barely has time for his other pursuit:  learning Spanish.  He listens to instructional tapes during his daily commute from Portland.  So when he's on the clock, he tries to focus on the issues he campaigned on.

John Kroger:  "I came into office with a very clear agenda of fighting crime, sticking up for consumers, and protecting the environment.  So every day a very big portion of my time is spent on those three key priorities."

But being Attorney General means being flexible.  Such as when Kroger agreed to investigate revelations that Portland Mayor Sam Adams had sex with a teenager and then lied about it.  It certainly wasn't a case Kroger expected to handle when he took office. 

Other cases were more expected, such as lawsuits over liquefied natural gas and clean-up at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.  Those are the kind of battles Kroger promised when he ran for office.  And he says he'd like to do even more.

John Kroger: "We believe that Oregon needs its own environmental crimes unit. Right now in the state, we've got very good laws on the books, but we don't have a single environmental crimes prosecutor in the state." 

Kroger's hoping to convince the state Legislature to change that. But in a tight budget year, asking lawmakers for more money may be as hard as convincing a skeptical jury.  Kroger does have his share of fans in the law enforcement community. 

Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis was one of more than a dozen DA's to endorse Kroger in the May Democratic primary. Marquis says in his short time in office, Kroger has listened to the needs of local criminal justice officials.

Josh Marquis:  "Even though a relatively small percentage of what the Attorney General does is criminal law, the Attorney General in many ways sort of takes the lead and speaks for the justice community in the state of Oregon."

Kroger won so many votes in the November election in part because he faced no Republican opposition.  His real political battle came in the May primary, when he faced then-state Representative Greg MacPherson.  The contest proved to be a match-up of competing visions for what the Attorney General's office is all about.  MacPherson saw the Attorney General as the state's chief legal advisor, while Kroger promised a more activist role. 

Norman Williams of the Willamette University Center for Law and Government says Kroger's style is becoming more common for Attorneys General.  But he says it's not without its pitfalls.

Norman Williams "You will get a lot of media exposure, but with that notoriety comes the dark side of notoriety, which is that people will start criticizing you for using your office in that way, and you'll have to be defending your decisions."

In Kroger's first few months in office, the criticism has been muted and the media exposure has been high.  For instance, that publicity stunt we told you about a few minutes ago landed Kroger a spot on the nightly news.

Television News Anchor:  "Oregon's new Attorney General says he has a lot of work to do.  Today he released the annual list of the Top Ten Consumer Complaints." 

Kroger has also received press coverage for more substantive issues like cases involving mortgage lenders, banks, pharmaceutical and tobacco companies.  Kroger says at the end of the day it's not style but results that matter.

John Kroger:  "My office has all the powers it needs to protect citizens in this state. But I think that ultimately what is important is how our lawyers do in court, and whether we're able to bring some big important cases and make them stick."

With nearly four years remaining in his term, Kroger will have plenty of chances to show Oregonians what an activist Attorney General can really do.


Oregon Department of Justice

List of Top Ten Consumer Complaints

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