By Aimee Green | The Oregonian/OregonLive
Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill, in office for the past 6 1/2 years, announced Wednesday that he won’t seek a third term.
Underhill, 58, will retire at the end of 2020 after spending his entire career as a Multnomah County prosecutor.
In an email to his staff, Underhill said he made the decision after “much careful thought, consideration and conversations with family and close friends.”
“I have been with the office over 30 years and have had the tremendous honor and pleasure to be our community’s District Attorney since January 2013. I am proud to work side by side each of you,” he told his staff.
“There is a lot more work that we need to do together over the next year and a half in service to our community so I will, for now, keep these remarks short. I look forward to continuing our shared vision of an open and balanced administration of justice, one that honors and respects diversity in all of its forms as we provide fair, equitable and unbiased prosecution services.”
Underhill’s announcement opens up the race for the county’s top prosecutor position. The district attorney is responsible for setting office policy and has enormous power to steer how Oregon’s most populous county addresses crime and how it tries to deter it.
Three lawyers, all currently working outside the DA’s office, have expressed interest in the job. Underhill told The Oregonian/OregonLive that he called all three Wednesday morning to tell them he had decided not to run for re-election:
- Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight said he’s planning to run. He previously worked as a Multnomah County deputy district attorney. As a federal prosecutor since 2007, he’s worked high-profile cases such as the prosecution of Mohamed Mohamed, who was sentenced to 30 years for the Pioneer Courthouse Square tree-lighting bomb plot, and the prosecution of Ammon Bundy and six others in the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016.
- Assistant U.S. Attorney Donna Maddux said she’s planning to run. She started her career as a higher education administrator, went to law school and worked in the criminal division of the Oregon Department of Justice for 10 years before becoming a federal prosecutor seven years ago. She has prosecuted an array of crimes, including those committed by people who refused to pay taxes or offenders who have swindled private investors out of millions.
- Mike Schmidt, executive director of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, said he’s “seriously considering” running. Schmidt previously worked as a Multnomah County deputy district attorney for six years. For more than four years, he’s been at the commission, which coordinates the use of millions of dollars in state money in “justice reinvestment” programs across Oregon. Those programs aim to connect offenders with housing, mental health treatment and drug treatment so they don’t end up back in the criminal justice system.
Underhill graduated from the University of Oregon’s law school. He landed his first job in 1988, as a 27-year-old in the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office and has prosecuted most every type of case. He was elected as the county’s top prosecutor in 2012 and took over in 2013, following in the footsteps of Mike Schrunk. Schrunk held the office for a record 32 years.
Underhill was elected in 2016 for a second term. He makes about $195,000 a year.
He has focused his office’s efforts in various areas, including gangs, human trafficking, reducing disproportionate prosecutions of racial minorities, crime victims’ rights and alternatives to prison, such as treatment courts and probation programs that aim to help offenders stabilize their lives.
Among the challenges his office continues to face, he said, is handling thousands of cases with reduced staff. In the past two decades, his office has lost close to 20 deputy district attorney positions. Today, the office’s 77 or 78 deputy prosecutors report heavy caseloads and evenings and weekends spent voluntarily working to give their cases the time they believe they deserve.
“I am constantly pushing a very talented staff,” Underhill said. “It may sound cliche, but it’s true. … I continue to push them to do more with less.”
Underhill also said another challenge is working to better address people with mental illness who come through the criminal justice system.
“It’s a very complicated task,” Underhill said. “We want to do better in that area.”
Underhill is a married father of three, now in their teens and 20s. In retirement, Underhill is looking forward to spending more time with family and friends. But he emphasized his work isn’t done yet.
“I’m glad that I’ve got another year and a half of good, hard work ahead, that I’m going to be doing with good people,” he said.
— Aimee Green