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Two women rise to top: U.S. attorney says past shaped career

PORTLAND – Barring a dramatic upset in the attorney general’s race in November, two women will occupy the top two places in Oregon law enforcement by early next year, an unprecedented feat for women in a state with a good track record of putting women in leadership positions.

Ellen Rosenblum handily won the Democratic primary for state attorney general in May, and her competition in the November general election will be a write-in Republican candidate.

Her federal counterpart, U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall, has held her seat since October. But does it matter that two women are in this position?

“Of course it matters,” said Marshall, 43. “It would be ungrateful of me to say it doesn’t matter. I think for girls growing up right now in Oregon, they look at Ellen and I and they think, gee, what do I want to be when I grow up? I want to be the U.S. attorney, and I don’t think it’s just girls (that think that).”

Marshall, who moved often in her childhood, said frequent changes helped shape her as a person and an attorney.

“It’s not just the fact I’m a woman,” she said. “It’s also, I didn’t come from a position of privilege.”

She’s had a job since her first paper route at age 11, later working as a waitress in a retirement home to earn money in high school.

After graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in rhetoric and communication and earning a law degree at Willamette University, Marshall began a career that would span the gamut of Oregon’s criminal justice system, beginning with tribal justice and including prosecuting major crimes in Coos County, working as a litigator in the Department of Justice and finishing as the department’s lead child advocacy attorney.

It would serve her well before a 13-member selection committee convened by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden in 2009 to select three nominees for Oregon’s U.S. attorney.

“The idea that your two chief law enforcers are going to be women is really out of the box in some ways,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “But if you were going to tell me it happens in a state, Oregon would be one of the states.”

While Marshall thought her experience with state law enforcement gave her an edge in the run for U.S. attorney, she said Portland-area legal and political observers almost immediately cast doubt on her candidacy’s viability.

“The media, the press was so different. I was criticized for being too young and too inexperienced,” said Marshall, noting she graduated from law school a year before one of the other people under consideration. “I think being a woman, you get a whole different set of criticisms.”

Walsh said it’s not uncommon for women in leadership to face uneven scrutiny, and managing the work-life balance sometimes requires masking personal obligations in order to avoid seeming distracted by them.

“It’s the kind of thing where it sounds like the man should get the Nobel Prize for going to his kid’s soccer game,” Walsh said. “For women, if you have a kid responsibility, you tell people you’re going to the dentist.”

The combination of females as U.S. attorney and attorney general isn’t unprecedented nationally. California’s attorney general is female, as are two of its four U.S. attorneys.

When Kate Pflaumer was picked to be U.S. attorney for Western Washington in the early 1990s, women were picking up federal and state leadership positions. A woman led the Washington State Patrol and the FBI in the state, and now-Gov. Chris Gregoire was the attorney general. Pflaumer was nominated by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.

“At the monthly gatherings of FBI (Special Agents in Charge), we used to joke that we were going to bring in cloth napkins, make it a proper luncheon,” Pflaumer said.

Marshall said her time at the state level gave her needed preparation for the job of managing some of the most complex cases in Oregon’s federal system. When she took office, she kept the same management team in place that preceded her, went personally to each employee’s office and spoke with them privately, including those in Eugene and Medford.

It was, she said, some of the best early training for the job.

“That’s the best lesson for a lawyer, is learning who to listen to,” she said, “and they’re usually not people above you, they’re people below you.”