Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum will not seek reelection next year, setting up a heated open race for the role of Oregon’s top lawyer at a time voters are concerned about crime and disorder.
Rosenblum, 72, made her decision official Tuesday afternoon. As OPB reported before her formal statement, she had quietly circulated the news among allies in recent weeks. The three-term attorney general’s future plans have been a looming question among Oregon politicians as they game out next year’s top races.
“I deeply appreciate the faith Oregonians have placed in me these past eleven years,” Rosenblum said in a statement. “At the same time, a job like this belongs to the people of Oregon — not to any one individual. While there are no term limits in Oregon for AG, I have decided to impose my own and concluded three-plus terms is enough!”
With Rosenblum retiring, none of the three statewide positions up for election next year — attorney general, secretary of state and state treasurer — will feature an incumbent. That could make it easier for Republicans to mount a challenge for one or more of those seats at a time they hold no statewide office and are in the minority in the state House and Senate.
It’s no surprise, then, that both parties are marshaling their forces to take over Rosenblum’s 12-year seat atop the Oregon Department of Justice.
The only Republican candidate to report raising money is Will Lathrop, a former assistant prosecutor in Yamhill and Marion counties who grew up in Eastern Oregon. Lathrop has already raised more than $115,000 with the help of a staff that includes Trey Rosser, who managed Christine Drazan’s bid for governor last year. The candidate says on a campaign website he’s running “in order to curb the recent wave of crime and disorder plaguing much of our beautiful state.”
While no Democrats have officially filed to pursue the attorney general’s office, House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, is said to be seriously considering a run. A personal injury attorney and five-term state representative, Rayfield currently holds one of the most powerful positions in state government, wielding broad control over state spending and policy bills. His entry into the race would set off jockeying among House Democrats to fill his role as speaker.
It’s not clear if other Democrats are also thinking about a run. Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Portland, who is often mentioned in the context of an attorney general race, will instead seek reelection to the Senate. Marc Abrams, the DOJ’s top defense attorney in employment-related lawsuits, told OPB last week he’d consider it if Rosenblum took her name out of the running but has since decided against a campaign.
Last Thursday marked the first day candidates could file to run in the May primary election. As of Tuesday morning, no one had officially filed a candidacy for attorney general, according to a state database.
“By making this announcement more than a full year before the next general election — and eight months before the primary — I expect there will be good candidates to succeed me as the People’s Attorney for Oregon,” Rosenblum said.
A former federal prosecutor and judge, Rosenblum became the state’s first female attorney general when she won election in 2012.
That year, she prevailed in a hard-fought Democratic primary against former U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton, in which she capitalized on Holton’s opposition to the state’s medical marijuana law and criticized him for accepting a significant amount of money from donors outside of Oregon. While in office, Rosenblum accepted major donations from some of the same out-of-state supporters — many of them law firms looking for state contracts Rosenblum’s attorneys could help award. The donations helped fuel two reelection bids in which Rosenblum cruised to victory.
Among her calling cards as attorney general, Rosenblum repeatedly signed onto lawsuits against President Donald Trump’s administration over federal policies impacting voting, abortion, immigration and much more.
She has supported new gun laws, including a recent ban on untraceable “ghost guns” that she made a top priority. Laws helping protect consumers from unfair business practices are another focus.
But her tenure has not been free of tumult. In 2016, news emerged that the DOJ had begun investigating its own head of civil rights after he used the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter. The state wound up settling a lawsuit in that matter for more than $200,000. Two of Rosenblum’s senior attorneys at the DOJ were also accused of harassment and retaliation, spurring another legal settlement.
Rosenblum has also faced blowback from fellow Democrats for filing arguments urging the U.S. Supreme Court not to outlaw nonunanimous guilty verdicts, the controversial jury decisions that were formerly allowed in Oregon. Rosenblum said at the time she personally opposed split verdicts, but that undoing them via a court order would be unreasonably messy as the state worked to retry people convicted illegally.
While often seen as a law enforcement figure, most of the attorney general’s sphere of influence is not prosecutorial. The office has the ability to conduct investigations and send subpoenas in criminal matters, but often its criminal justice attorneys investigate child pornography and assist county prosecutors rather than filing charges and prosecuting cases on their own.
The DOJ also represents the state in civil matters and criminal appeals, gives legal advice to state agencies and officials, enforces child support laws and more.
Even so, next year’s race is likely to center on the state’s challenges with crime and fallout from a worsening addiction crisis. According to a recent poll by the firm DHM Research, 13% of respondents statewide listed drugs as the most important issue facing Oregon, and 12% listed crime. The two issues trailed only homelessness, which 45% of those polled believe is the state’s largest problem.
The results suggest crime is a far greater concern for Oregonians than it has been in the recent past. In similar poll results dating back to 1998, shared by DHM Research, no more than 6% of people polled had listed crime as a chief concern. A 2021 poll of 600 people found just 4% listed crime, drugs, violence or public safety as the state’s most pressing problem.