He jolted the state’s staid political establishment with a meteoric rise to attorney general in 2008.
He pledged to turn the Oregon Department of Justice from a drowsy law firm into an aggressive weapon for the state’s citizens.
He declared war on scam artists, corrupt public officials and polluters. He continued to act like the prosecutor he once was, even when the job often called for a softer touch from the state’s top counsel.
Kroger’s actual record has been mixed: modest achievements with public embarrassments over high-profile cases. Still, nothing seemed able to halt his continued rise, or his willingness to paper with state with press releases. Despite a growing list of political enemies, he had an easy path to re-election in 2012.
That’s why Kroger’s announcement Tuesday that he won’t seek re-election because of an undisclosed health problem has interrupted one of the most compelling storylines in recent Oregon political history.
“I was shocked,” says Trent Lutz, Democratic Party of Oregon executive director. “He was somebody that came in unexpectedly and was ambitious and won in a dramatic fashion. He has been actively involved in building the party at the local and county levels.”
Kroger, 45, declined to answer questions Tuesday, announcing his decision in a press release from his campaign office.
“I was recently diagnosed and am under the care of a physician at OHSU for a significant but not life-threatening medical condition,” Kroger’s statement said. “It will not interfere with my legal work or prevent me from completing my term, but I will need to reduce my hours, travel less, and be careful about my health.”
The announcement raises more questions than it answers.
If Kroger won’t tell citizens what’s wrong with him, how do they know he’s healthy enough to serve out his term? How can the most ambitious politician in Oregon be so ill that he cannot continue a campaign but still be able to serve for the next 14 months? What ailment would be sufficiently private that the man whose favorite word is “transparency” declines to say why he’s giving up?
A skilled and prolific communicator, Kroger has now created a vacuum which his many critics and enemies will fill to overflowing.
Kroger acknowledged in an interview with the Salem Statesman Journal editorial board Sept. 21 he had already angered many people while doing his job. “The way for someone in American politics to stay out of trouble is to do nothing,” he said. “Every time you try to do something, you’re either going to anger some people or you’re gonna run a risk that you’re not going to achieve what you set out to do.”
Kroger had already raised $350,000 for his re-election campaign, and no serious candidate seemed ready to take him on. Most people thought he had a good shot at the governorship or the U.S. Senate someday.
In 2008, Kroger, then a little-known professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, stormed into office on the strength of a life story he told in his brisk and compelling memoir, Convictions. After growing up in Houston, he joined the Marines, then graduated from Yale and Harvard Law School.
He learned politics as a campaign aide to Bill Clinton and staffer for Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). As a federal prosecutor, Kroger went after mobsters, drug runners and Enron executives. He came to Oregon as a professor at Lewis & Clark in 2002.
Kroger campaigned for attorney general in 2008 on a pledge to shake up the Oregon Department of Justice. Heavily funded by public-employee unions angry at his opponent, former state Rep. Greg Macpherson, he won 56 percent to 44 percent.