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Candidates for Oregon labor commissioner offer contrasts

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By PETER WONG
Oregon Capital Bureau

Two women with different experiences and approaches are candidates for commissioner of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, also known as state labor commissioner.

If Christina Stephenson is elected Nov. 8, she would be the first person in the role in nearly 50 years without having held public office beforehand. She did run for the Oregon House in 2020 but lost a four-way Democratic primary for an open seat in Northwest Portland and unincorporated Washington County.

Stephenson, 38, is a partner in her own Portland law firm that specializes in civil rights — and one of the bureau’s main functions is to enforce civil rights laws.

“Regardless of political experience, I think experience with this agency is the most important characteristic I bring to the race,” she said.

If Cheri Helt is elected, she would continue a trend of officeholders leading the bureau. She was the successor to Republican Knute Buehler in the Oregon House — she lost to Democrat Jason Kropf in 2020 — and spent most of the previous decade on the Bend-La Pine School Board.

Helt, 52, has been a restaurant owner for the past 18 years.

“This position is the power of one,” she said. “It is so important that anyone who holds this position knows and has experience working with others. She has never been elected.”

In addition to civil rights, the bureau enforces Oregon’s wage and hour laws and oversees apprenticeships.

The incumbent is Val Hoyle of Springfield, a former legislator who is seeking the open 4th District seat in the U.S. House.

Of the five most recent commissioners, all of whom have endorsed Stephenson, four had been Democratic legislators and the fifth was Republican Jack Roberts, who was a nonpartisan Lane County commissioner when he unseated 16-year Democratic incumbent Mary Wendy Roberts (no relation) in 1994. The Legislature made the office nonpartisan in 1995, although it did not abolish it as an elected office, as Roberts once proposed.

Both candidates say they want the office to remain elected.

Helt has endorsements from two of the three major candidates for governor — Republican Christine Drazan and nonaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson — based on a theme of change. Stephenson has endorsements from the Oregon AFL-CIO labor federation and major unions.

What, but not how

Both candidates agree on what the next commissioner should concentrate on, but not necessarily how it should be done.

Stephenson said she is well aware of the backlog of civil rights complaints, which by law the bureau has one year to investigate and recommend action.

“We’re seeing a lot of them finishing on day 364, and sometimes, they’re not getting completed at all,” she said. “We know this backlog has been a perennial issue at the bureau, going back to previous commissioners. The work of this agency is never done, and there is always room for improvement.”

But Stephenson said the bureau got a 30% increase in its 2021-23 budget from the tax-supported general fund, and there are other steps she can take to help businesses comply with state laws and regulations, particularly technical assistance.

“This is not an agency that creates new laws or policies; it enforces existing laws,” she said. “I think it is important to have that background. A lot of people can think about ways it might be improved, but my experience is with the nuts and bolts in effectuating those changes.”

Helt would rely on her small-business experience to help businesses navigate the web of laws and regulations — and she said they deserve a break from so many changes, although not all of them can be attributed to the bureau.

As for the backlog of civil rights complaints, Held said, “we’re not even getting them assigned. I think that’s a pretty low bar, because when it’s assigned, then you have someone you can communicate with while you are working through your case.”

Helt also said she wants the bureau to do more to promote apprenticeships and connect them with public schools, based on her school board experience.

“I chose to run for this (office) on purpose. I think this agency can make the largest opportunities for Oregonians,” she said. “BOLI needs a leader, not a lawyer, for its commissioner.”

But a previous commissioner, Brad Avakian, ran into a political buzzsaw at the Legislature more than a decade ago, when he proposed a larger role for the bureau in career and technical education over the opposition of public schools and community colleges.

Under the Future Ready Oregon plan proposed by outgoing Gov. Kate Brown and approved by the Legislature earlier this year, the bureau is scheduled to get $20 million for pre-apprenticeship programs focused on construction, health care and manufacturing.

The state has had long experience with building and construction trades. Stephenson said the new money will enable the bureau to expand its outreach to the other fields and set up new school-to-career pathways.

No other office

Both candidates say they have no plans to seek other office, unlike recent commissioners. Mary Wendy Roberts ran for secretary of state in 1992. Roberts ran for governor in 2002. Dan Gardner considered a bid for Congress before he accepted a national union position in 2006. Avakian ran for the 1st District congressional seat in a 2011 special election, and for secretary of state in 2016.

Helt: “You fix what you can, put things in place, and then it’s time for someone else to come in and put their ideas in.”

Stephenson: “I think the agency needs stability. From what I have heard from others, it takes a couple of years to get to know things.”

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