Sen. Kruse Quits the Senate in Sexual Harassment Scandal

Finally bowing to months of public pressure, the longtime health policy leader resigned his state Senate seat, effective March 15, after four female lawmakers, along with female lobbyists and staff members, accused him of unwanted touching.

Roseburg’s Republican Sen. Jeff Kruse is out.

The longtime healthcare leader has ceded to mounting pressure from the public, lawmakers and Capitol insiders and resigned from his position in the state Senate, after being accused of sexual harassment and unwanted touching from almost a dozen women, including two senators who put their allegations on the record.

“In recent weeks there have been allegations that I harassed female colleagues while talking to them in public areas of the Senate. I continue to deny these allegations and I regret that I will not have the opportunity to defend myself before the Senate Conduct Committee,” Kruse said in a statement. “However, today I tender my resignation so my colleagues may focus on serving Oregonians without distraction and my constituents may receive the fullest representation they are due.”

Kruse has represented Roseburg for more than 20 years, first in the House of Representatives, followed by 14 years in the state Senate, representing Oregon’s far South Coast as well as the southern half of Douglas County.

His resignation doesn’t take effect till March 15 -- which will presumably allow Kruse to collect the additional $142 per diem, plus his base salary, for an additional $6,000. The money issue may have been the reason that Kruse held on for nearly five months after the scandal broke.

Allegations first came to public light in October amid the social media #metoo campaign after Jonathan Lockwood, the former Senate Republican spokesman, trolled Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, falsely accusing her of taking campaign donations from disgraced Hollywood filmmaker Harvey Weinstein.

Gelser shot back that she’d never taken money from Weinstein and that Lockwood had best make sure none of the Republican senators “inappropriately gropes or touches” female lawmakers. She later made public that Kruse had repeatedly touched her despite being told the attention was unwanted.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, responded to Gelser’s complaint by stripping Kruse of all his committee assignments, crippling his ability to advance legislation or represent his constituents. He lost his post as vice-chairman of the Senate Health Committee and was replaced by Sen. Alan DeBoer, R-Ashland.

Kruse’s hometown paper, the Roseburg News-Review, called for his resignation in November, but he refused to step down, pending the results of an independent investigation, which was made public Wednesday. A hearing on his fate had been set of Feb. 22.

“I think it was the right decision to make. It’s best for everybody involved,” said Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, who had worked with him more than perhaps anyone in the Capitol in her tenure as Senate Health chairwoman. “We have harassment training and any time a person feels their personal space has been violated than that person has to stop what they are doing.”

An independent investigator alleged that Kruse not only imposed himself on female lawmakers, but he fostered a hostile work environment in his Senate office, with female subordinates offended by his behavior but unwilling to speak up for fear they would lose their jobs.

“I am hopeful that the thoroughness of the independent investigation will empower other women to speak up when they are subjected to harassment,” said Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, who had accused Kruse of inappropriate behavior toward herself.

Calls had mounted for him to resign not only from Democrats, but members of his own party, including Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, who said he’d vote to expel Kruse if necessary.

Perhaps the most damning blow came from Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Cottage Grove, whose district abuts Kruse’s senate district in Douglas County.

"The people of his district, and Roseburg, a community we both represent, are being shortchanged," Hayden said. "Moreover, women in our Capitol – lawmakers, advocates, and the visiting public - need to know that the elected leaders in our state will not tolerate an environment where their safety is at risk."

But Kruse still didn’t immediately resign after the latest report, and his caucus leader, Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, initially seemed to accept his offer to simply stay away from the Capitol until his conduct hearing on Feb. 22.

After he resigned, Winters released a terse statement: “He has been a true advocate for his district and rural Oregon. As we move forward, we must work to provide a safe work environment for all.” 

Senate President Courtney said he had worked behind the scenes this week to secure Kruse’s resignation, and he told reporters last week that he was worried that the Kruse scandal would detract from other important work the Legislature needs to accomplish in the short, five-week session.

“The report of the independent investigator released earlier this week made it clear that his inappropriate conduct went far beyond what is alleged in the formal complaints. Just as I believed Senators Gelser and Steiner Hayward in 2016 and again last fall, I believed the report.”

Kruse, along with Winters, Sen. Alan Bates and Sen. Ben Westlund, helped save the Oregon Health Plan in 2003 by instituting a provider tax that could leverage the necessary federal money after a recession had depleted the state general fund.

Since that time, he had been a moderate conservative voice on healthcare issues -- staunchly opposed to abortion rights but helping to make the medical marijuana program workable and sponsoring legislation to expand the Oregon Health Plan to unauthorized immigrant children -- perhaps his last achievement in office before his career was overcome by scandal.

Reach Chris Gray at [email protected]