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Helt endorsed in BOLI race by two candidates for governor

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Oregon Capital Bureau

The officially non-partisan race for commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries — known by its acronym as “the BOLI” — has split along partisan lines.

Former Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, was endorsed this week by two candidates for governor.

Former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, the Republican nominee, announced she was backing Helt.

Helt was also endorsed by former state Sen. Betsy Johnson, the Columbia County Democrat who resigned from the party and the Legislature to run as a non-affiliated candidate for governor.

The other candidate on the November ballot seeking the BOLI job is Portland attorney Christina Stephenson. She’s won the endorsement of former House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, the Democratic nominee for governor.

Helt said the endorsement by the Republican and non-affiliated candidates for governor underlined her desire to make the office less of a labor vs. business battleground.

“We cannot get our state back on track without working with Oregonians of all political parties, or no party at all,” Helt said in a statement. “Oregon’s working families and small businesses simply cannot afford more of the same failed policies out of BOLI, or any other state agency,” Helt said.

Stephenson has promised to retain the office — sometimes referred to as just “labor commissioner” — as a place where workers can raise issues about unfair or illegal practices by their employers.

The long official title of the job and its broad but at times obscure role in state government often makes it a backburner campaign that is perennially in the shadow of bigger races. The BOLI election every four years is timed to coincide with the vote for governor.

The labor commissioner is one of the five statewide elected offices. The governor, secretary of state and treasurer are barred in the Oregon Constitution from running for a third consecutive term. The attorney general’s office also has no term limits because it was originally an appointed office. The labor commissioner office wasn’t created until 1903.

The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries enforces civil rights laws, including allegations of discrimination in jobs, housing and services. It both educates and enforces employers about compliance with worker protections. It ensures compliance with laws on hourly wages. The office is in charge of state-registered apprenticeships, meant to pivot with changes in demand for new workers in Oregon.

Stephenson was the top vote-getter in the May primary that included all candidates for the office, regardless of party affiliation. Stephenson is a former Democratic candidate for the Legislature.

But Stephenson’s 46.2% of the vote fell just short of crossing the 50% mark needed to avoid a run-off. Helt was second with 19.3% of the vote. The pair advanced to the Nov. 8 general election.  

Stephenson has raised $776,425 for her campaign, paced by large donations from political action committees of labor unions.

Local 48 Electricians PAC has given $100,000, while the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union has given $80,000.

Stephenson has spent $642,110 through Sept. 8 and currently has $162,009 in the bank.

Helt has raised $365,075 and spent $324,276, with $53,247 left in the bank. Helt, who co-owns two restaurants in Bend with her husband, has received support from business groups and service industry organizations.

Contributions have included $40,000 from the Oregon Realtors Political Action Committee and $30,000 from Lyons-based Freres Lumber Co. 

THe winner of the race will succeed Val Hoyle, the former House majority leader who was elected labor commissioner in 2018 and had launched a re-election bid last year.

Hoyle switched to run for the 4th Congressional District seat that is open because of the planned retirement of U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield. Hoyle won the Democratic primary in May and will face Alek Skarlatos of Roseburg, the Republican who narrowly lost to DeFazio in 2022.

The Bureau of Labor and Industries is best known by many in Oregon for a 2015 action involving the question of whether refusing to bake a wedding cake was a violation of state anti-discrimination laws.

Then-Commissioner Brad Avakian levied a fine of $135,000 against Sweet Cakes by Melissa, a Gresham bakery, that refused in 2013 to make a cake for a lesbian wedding. 

Avakian, a Democrat, ran for secretary of state in 2016, beating Hoyle, and Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin. But the Sweet Cakes by Melissa fine was the centerpiece of the campaign of Republican Dennis Richardson, who held it up as a symbol of government overreach. Richardson’s victory gave the GOP the BOLI office for the first time in three decades. 

The Sweet Cakes case has led to years of litigation. Bakery owner Melissa Klein and her husband Aaron asked the U.S. Supreme Court this week to reconsider their objections to the state’s public accommodations law that Avakian said they violated when refusing the bake a cake because their religious beliefs objected to same-sex couples. The U.S. Supreme Court had sent the case back to Oregon courts in 2018, but the Kleins are seeking a chance to have their case argued again.


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