Former senator Jeff Kruse reflects on 22 years in office, smoking, and the sexual harassment allegations that ended his career
After giving a reporter a brief side hug — the only kind of hug, he asserts, he’s ever given any woman at the Capitol — and posing for a portrait, former senator Jeff Kruse sat down in the News-Review’s conference room Friday to talk about his legacy and his future.
Kruse resigned from the Legislature this month after 22 years in office. It was two years earlier than he planned, and he was under fire for allegations he had inappropriately touched women he worked with in Salem. He continues to deny that he did anything wrong. And he hopes the controversy isn’t what he’s remembered for.
“This ain’t the way I wanted it to end. I think I’ve done a really good job over the years, and to have this witch hunt be the end of my career is not good,” he said.
He’d have liked a different outcome. He wanted his day in court. But in the end, he stepped down because he had to put the institution ahead of himself, he said.
“My biggest concern with that is it almost sounds like I was admitting to guilt, which I never have and I never will,” he said.
While he’s angry, he’s also uncertain about his future. His voice dropped to a whisper at times as he considered what the coming years will be like without his work in the Legislature.
“There’s a hole in my life. I’m sure at some point it will fill up,” he said. “So what’s next? I don’t know.”
There’s one thing that’s always been there, all his life, and that’s Kruse Farms. He grew up on the farm, which was owned by his father and his grandfather before him.
In summer, they grew cantaloupe and watermelon. In the winter, they grew root vegetables and cauliflower.
Over his lifetime, the farm has expanded. Today, the Kruse family farms 700 acres and operates a popular fruit stand in Melrose. On Friday morning, before coming in to the News-Review for an interview, Kruse had been fixing equipment and clearing out greenhouses.
Kruse, 66, had expected to retire from both the Legislature and the farm in 2020, when his term expired. He had thought he’d like to travel to New Mexico to see the desert formations and New Orleans to taste the food.
For now, his travel plans are on hold. His father, Don Kruse, is in the hospital at Oregon Health & Science University. Every Sunday, Kruse makes the trip up to Portland to be with his father.
“At some point in time, everybody gets asked who their hero is. It was my dad. He was an amazing man,” Kruse said.
The elder Kruse was on the Roseburg School Board and on the Oregon State Board of Education. So Jeff Kruse followed in his father’s footsteps, in a way, by becoming involved in local politics. He first served on planning advisory committees and Farm Home Administration committees. For two decades, he was on the Soil and Water Conservation District board, becoming chairman of the local district and president of the state association.
That led to his appointment by another Roseburg politician, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, to a team that developed a plan for Oregon salmon recovery. So he had natural resource issues in mind when he first joined the state House in 1996.
As it turned out, though, the main body of his work would be in health and human services.
He worked on legislation for the Oregon Health Plan, which administers Medicaid for low-income Oregonians. He formed a group with Democratic Rep. Alan Bates and Rep. Ben Westlund, who was a Republican at the time and later switched to Democrat.
They became known as the “three amigos,” Kruse said. By the time they were ready to bring up their OHP legislation for a vote, Westlund was in the hospital getting cancer treatment. Kruse and Bates broke House rules when they introduced the legislation from Westlund’s desk.
It “really pissed the speaker off, but we didn’t care. We just thought it was appropriate,” Kruse said.
He’s also proud of obtaining secure funding for family resource centers and for coordinators for Court Appointed Special Advocates, who represent abused children’s interests in court. He also wrote legislation that ensured CASA advocates would have the right to appear in court to argue on the kids’ behalf.
Kruse moved up to the Senate in 2005, where he continued to work on health and human services issues, as well as education issues.
One of his biggest accomplishments, he said, was the development of the prescription drug monitoring program. It created a registry that doctors, pharmacists and other providers used to record all addictive drugs like opioids that were prescribed.
The registry was voluntary. Recently, Kruse had been working on closing the loophole by making the reporting mandatory for all health care providers. When it became clear he was going to bow out of his Senate role, he said, Gov. Kate Brown stepped up to push the legislation through.
“It’s probably the biggest thing we could have done at this point in time to deal with the opioid epidemic,” he said.
On a personal level, serving in the Legislature wasn’t too much of a hassle for Kruse, who was single for most of the time that he served. He rented at long-term stay hotels, which was easier than dealing with bringing furniture to an apartment.
“All I had to move was my clothes,” he said.
Fridays ended early, so he’d return home to the farm in the afternoon and take care of business there over the weekend. Sundays, he drove back up to Salem.
“That was basically it. Being a single guy, it’s a lot simpler,” he said.
It also meant he had more time to spend on the job.
“I was one of those guys, I was usually the first or second person in the building in the morning. Most people, in the Senate anyway, served on two or three committees, and I was either on four committees or five,” he said.
“I would spend an average of 12 hours a day in the Capitol doing work. My desire for a social life after that, no. At the end of the day, I just wanted to go back to my room and eat something,” he said. “There was no social life, not even going out to dinner.”
Just before his final legislative session, Kruse’s office door was removed because he smoked in his office, something he’d been doing many years before anybody complained about it. The first complaint, he said, was made four years ago by two staff members from Sen. Chuck Riley’s office. Kruse asserts they’d never actually been in his office. It was, he said, “a total lie.”
Kruse kept right on smoking. He said he always had the window open, and blew the smoke out the window and left the butt in a juice can on the windowsill. Nobody could have smelled smoke in his office, he insisted. Then, along with the first sexual harassment allegations about a year ago, the smoking issue resurfaced.
“I think at that point in time, I should have seen the writing on the wall, but I didn’t. Just because I thought we’d all be honest brokers about this stuff, but clearly that’s not what happened,” he said.
Kruse was a pack-a-day smoker. He’d been smoking since he was about 19. Now that he’s out of the Legislature, Kruse is making a stab at quitting. On Friday, he said it was the first day of week two on a drug that’s supposed to keep him from wanting to smoke.
“It is something I need to do and I know that,” he said. Although he has bronchitis, Kruse said he hasn’t got anything serious wrong with his lungs at this time. His definition of serious is lung cancer.
Kruse had three sessions with a therapist following the sexual harassment allegations. He said the therapist told him the times have changed and he’s not changing with them. Kruse isn’t happy about the way the culture’s changing. He said behaviors that were OK for 20 years suddenly aren’t anymore, and it’s hard to know where the boundaries are.
“It’s almost like it’s designed to separate men and women. Where something in my early days, kissing a woman on the hand, was a gentlemanly thing to do, now it’s incredibly offensive,” he said.
Kruse was accused by multiple women of more than a kiss on the hand. Some described incidents like a kiss on the cheek, a hand on the back below the waist, a hand on the thigh, or being hugged and pulled in close. A lobbyist said he cupped her on the buttocks. He denied those allegations.
Kruse asserted that his first and most prominent accuser, Sen. Sara Gelser, was seeking attention because she has designs on a higher office, maybe even a seat in Congress.
He’s also upset that Gelser and another senator who accused him of inappropriate hugging have both been seen hugging other men on the Senate floor. He feels that’s a double standard.
And he thinks that the independent investigator, as a women’s rights lawyer, was biased against him.
In the end, Kruse’s main hope is that the scandal that enveloped his final year in office isn’t ultimately what he’s remembered for.
He hopes, he said, that he’s remembered as “honest and straightforward.” He wants to be remembered as a legislator who worked in a bipartisan way to make things better for his constituents.
“I didn’t play politics with things, and I tried to do the best I could for the people of Southern Oregon, and the people in the state of Oregon,” he said.