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DOJ inquiry likely led to downfall

Jackson County Commissioner Doug Breidenthal, who was soundly defeated by Bob Strosser in a bid for re-election during Tuesday's primary, says he will continue the work he's started on timber and other issues as he fills out the remainder of his term.

Breidenthal said Wednesday he also will assume the presidency next week of the Western Interstate Region, an affiliate of the National Association of Counties.

"There's some key pieces of legislation that are moving through the House and Senate right now that I was responsible for starting or instituting," he said. "I need to get those finished and finalized if we're going to get some of these fires slowed down in the summer."

The commissioner came in last in the Republican primary with 26 percent of the vote. Former Medford City Councilor Strosser garnered 46.5 percent for the nomination, and Medford businessman Gordon Challstrom received 27 percent in unofficial results with the Jackson County Elections Office.

Breidenthal blamed Mail Tribune coverage of his Oregon Department of Justice investigation and other issues for his loss in the election, though he did not elaborate. The DOJ is investigating campaign contributions Breidenthal received when he was seeking office with the WIR.

Ashland resident Cathy Shaw, who's been analyzing local politics for three decades, said the DOJ investigation itself likely led to Breidenthal's downfall.

"Irrespective of party, Jackson County voters do not suffer fools," she said. "They will not put up with anything that will bring shame to their elected officials.

"They take a great deal of pride in having representatives they can be proud of," she said, adding that Jackson County traditionally loves incumbents but likely rejected Breidenthal not only because of the DOJ investigation but because of the amount of money and time he spent outside the county.

"He was definitely handed his hat and shown the door," Shaw said of the results.

Jackson County Republican Party Chairman Ken Fawcett said he has "no doubt" that the DOJ investigation had a lot to do with Breidenthal's downfall, though Fawcett faulted coverage by the Mail Tribune and others for contributing to an anti-Breidenthal sentiment.  

"My sense is that Doug was doing a lot of good things but somehow this whole issue kind of took the initiative away from him," Fawcett said.

He said the Republican Party will get behind Strosser, who will be challenged by Democrat Jeff Thomas in the November general election. 

"He certainly has name recognition," Fawcett said of Strosser. "A lot of people know him ... he's probably a little more viewed as mainstream, and generally that'll work well for him."

Breidenthal remains under investigation by the DOJ and the Ethics Commission for activities related to the WIR account, for which he raised $12,500. A preliminary review by the Ethics Commission found Breidenthal may have violated Oregon law concerning the receipt of gifts valued at more than $50 from parties with interests before the Board of Commissioners, the use of an official position for financial gain and possible improper reporting of payments to cover trip expenses.

Breidenthal also was criticized by some for accruing more than $73,000 in travel expenses and missing more than 30 meetings since becoming commissioner in 2013. Breidenthal has said that all the conferences and meetings he attends outside the area have been approved by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, including his leadership position with the WIR.

Breidenthal said Wednesday that being the head of a lobbying group such as the WIR gives him access to federal officials that a county commissioner on his own wouldn't have. He hopes to work with key people at the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service in developing a prescription for local land management that is unique to Jackson County and meets its needs.

"This is the first time Jackson County has had any type of influence at that level," Breidenthal said.

Breidenthal will lose his presidency on the WIR once he's no longer an elected official, he said.

He said he will continue to work with the Department of Environmental Quality and the Oregon Health Authority in showing how unhealthy particulate levels from wildfires contribute to health problems among local citizens. He's hoping such data and other arguments will persuade the federal government to allocate more dollars from the Forest Service to emergency services, saying wildfires are "emergencies but are not treated as such."

Reach Mail Tribune Digital Editor Cathy Noah at 541-776-4473 or by email at cnoah@mailtribune.com.

Doug Breidenthal