Race for Oregon attorney general pits incumbent against GOP activist

Oct 17, 2020

Oregon’s attorney general is one of the highest-profile elected offices in the state, and one of the many races voters will get to decide this November. The state attorney general runs the Oregon Department of Justice, which is primarily responsible for advocating for and defending the state in court as well as enforcing state laws.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, a Democrat, is running for her third term. She’s held the seat since 2013.

Michael Cross, a Republican, is running as a challenger. He says he’s a software designer and is a self-employed small business owner in Salem. He’s a former septic system technician and served in the U.S. Air Force.

Lars Hedbor is the Libertarian candidate on the ballot. He didn’t return OPB’s interview requests. Hedbor also did not submit candidate information to the Oregon voter pamphlet. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 1986-1992, according to information he provided the Oregon secretary of state and lists his current occupation as a technical writer living in Beaverton.

Rosenblum, the current attorney general, calls herself a progressive who has taken on the Trump administration. Since Trump took office, Oregon has signed onto numerous lawsuits with other states to target actions taken by the administration.

“Oh, I’ve lost track, it’s somewhere upwards of 25 now,” she said in an interview.

Roseblum was a former federal prosecutor and judge before being appointed to the position in 2012. Since winning an elected term later that year, she’s taken an active role in strengthening the state’s hate crime laws and creating a system to document bias crimes statewide.

“We’re putting into action legislation that made it possible for us to address these situations and respond to them,” Rosenblum said.

Meanwhile, Cross is self-employed and runs a software design business. In 2019, he ran a recall campaign against Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. The campaign “flush down Kate Brown” failed and departed from the state Republican Party’s own efforts to recall the governor.

“I’ve been what normal people face and it’s not always good,” Cross said in an interview. “I’ve never had an elected position before, and I think that’s a plus. I think people have had enough of politics for a while.”

Recently, Rosenblum’s office has been hit with a sexual harassment scandal involving senior staff. The incident was first reported in September by Willamette Week. A female attorney in the office said she was passed over for several promotions while her supervisor kissed her on two occasions, years apart.

“I’m just horrified when I hear that there are allegations against anybody, but certainly anybody who works in my agency,” Rosenblum said. “It’s simply not OK, not acceptable and we’re getting to the bottom of it.”

Rosenblum said all allegations are being taken seriously and outside investigators have been hired.

“I’m the first woman attorney general of this state. That’s about the last thing I want as my legacy is any kind of harassment or discrimination of that nature,” Rosenblum said.

This year, Oregon also became the last state in the country to scrap non-unanimous juries after a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. A constitutional amendment in Oregon had allowed criminal defendants in felony, non-murder cases to be convicted by juries of 10-2 or 11-1. The practice allowed convictions on juries where there’s doubt, and had racist and anti-immigrant roots dating back to the 1930s, when the Ku Klux Klan was powerful in Oregon.

Rosenblum opposed the practice and has not disputed the painful history, but she also defended the law before the nation’s highest court. Worried about the impact a court ruling could have on past convictions, Rosenblum believed voters should do away with the law through a ballot measure, but those efforts died in the state Legislature. In 2019, Rosenblum acknowledged her mixed feelings about the high court taking the case.

“If I could’ve not had to write this brief, I’d be very happy, and I would prefer to move forward, and change our law, change our constitution,” Rosenblum told OPB in August 2019 before the Supreme Court heard the case.

Since the high court deemed non-unanimous juries unconstitutional, the Oregon Supreme Court is reviewing cases, many disputed by the Oregon attorney general’s office, to determine how far the U.S. Supreme Court ruling applies — and ultimately how many cases will be dismissed or retried.

It was not the first time Rosenblum has faced accusations her office has not taken discrimination seriously.

In 2015, a person in Rosenblum’s office used a software program to monitor people tweeting the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. That person collected and reported surveillance data on the Rosenblum’s own civil rights director at the time, Erious Johnson. Johnson, who was one of the few Black attorneys working in Rosenblum’s office, ultimately resigned over the profiling. In 2017, Johnson won a $205,000 settlement. Through his attorney, Johnson said at the time, “The result is what it is. I wanted to move on.”

Though the case involved staff in her office, Rosenblum said she was appalled at what Johnson faced. Civil rights groups called it profiling at the highest levels.

Rosenblum has faced criticism during her time in office, but Cross will have his own major challenges ahead in this election, including one significant obstacle: He’s not a lawyer.

In fact, Cross' most significant experience in a courtroom was as a criminal defendant.

In 2006, Cross was convicted on two fourth-degree assault charges in Marion County. He said he was convicted by a non-unanimous jury and claimed the case was “politically motivated” by an overzealous prosecutor.

“I spanked my daughter on her pants, on her bottom with my bare hand,” Cross said. “I didn’t leave any marks.”

Cross said his daughter was 11 years old at the time.

As for not being an attorney, Cross said he considers the lack of formal legal understanding to be an asset.

“That’s the beauty of it, is you don’t have to be a lawyer,” Cross said. “Our founding fathers of Oregon wisely set it up to where a regular citizen can become the state attorney general. There’s a ton of lawyers in there already.”

Cross said he’s experienced aspects of law and the criminal justice system as an average person.

“In this country, doesn’t matter who you are, you’ve seen some area of law, either if you’re pulled over for a speeding ticket, something more serious, or family law,” he said.

Rosenblum has raised more than $489,000 and reported more than $229,000 cash on hand, according to campaign finance disclosures filed with the secretary of state.

Rosenblum supports independent investigation of police shootings. And, while it’s not yet defined, she supports her office having some role in that process.

Her pitch to voters:

“Oregon really needs an AG who’s really going to stand up for the most vulnerable in our state against threats, threats to our rights, threats to our well being, to our environment, and who will lead with experience and strength and progressive values. And I think I have all of those,” she said, adding that she has “the energy and enthusiasm” for a third term.

Rosenblum didn’t commit to serving out all four years of the term if she wins, but said she’s focused on the job.

“I’m running for a four-year term,” she said. “You never know what might happen during that four-year term, but that is my plan right now.”

Rosenblum is one of the names that comes up frequently on a short list of gubernatorial candidates. In January 2023, Gov. Kate Brown’s final term in office will end, opening the door for a potential candidacy from long-serving public officials like Rosenblum.

“If something else were to come up during the course of these four years, I don’t think anyone who is in politics would want to say they’re going to rule something else out,” she said.

“But like I said, I think it’s really important when you’re running for office to be focused on running for that office.”

Cross has raised slightly more than $7,200 and has $1,192 in cash on hand, according to campaign finance disclosures filed with the secretary of state.

He said he takes exception with how Rosenblum is dealing with the fallout of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on non-unanimous juries. Cross said he believes the cases should be dismissed, rather than retried. However, the decision to retry any cases ultimately would be up to district attorneys in counties where those cases were originally tried. Still, Cross points out that in other states those trials would have resulted in mistrials.

“What are we going to do?” Cross said. “Are reparations in order?”

Cross has also said he’s interested in addressing the region’s homeless and housing crisis.

“Our homeless situation is just getting worse and no one has any solutions on the horizon,” he said. “I have one.”

Cross said he would use the office of attorney general to bring groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous together with trade-based jobs, like plumbing and electricians, to help homeless people experiencing addiction and homelessness issues avenues to employment. Cross admits it’s not clear what powers the attorney general would have to address issues like housing and unemployment.

“It’s not in the normal job description, no,” he said.

Cross also recently encouraged residents in areas hard hit by Oregon’s devastating 2020 fire season to take the law into their own hands by supporting false rumors that “antifa” and other outsiders had started the fires.

“It defies common sense and logic” with so many fires going on at the same time, Cross told OPB in September as the fires raged, “both large and small, [that] this is some kind of random occurrence.”

Rumors like those led to several documented cases of people pulling guns or harassing Oregonians evacuating areas hit by wildfires.

When pressed repeatedly, Cross couldn’t provide evidence of those antifa cases.

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