Oregon News

Stephenson leads Helt in BOLI race

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From left, Cheri Helt, Casey Kulla and Christina Stephenson.
Portland labor lawyer Christina Stephenson has a large lead in the race for commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries, according to vote returns late Tuesday.

Stephenson had 47% of the just over 493,000 votes cast, with former Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, in second with 19%. Yamhill County Commissioner Casey Kulla was third with just over 14% of the vote in early returns.

The rest of the vote was scattered among four other candidates.

Stephenson was running just short of receiving more than 50% of the vote to win the office outright. If under 50%, the top two finishers would go to the general election on Nov. 8.

“I’m encouraged by the early results,” Helt said in a text. “I was outspent 2-to-1 by handpicked candidate of Salem leadership. Count all the votes, but looking forward to vigorous campaign to bring change to Salem.”

Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries is the only statewide office on the ballot besides governor. It’s the least known of the five elected statewide offices, with secretary of state, treasurer and attorney general holding higher profiles.

The position is often still referred to by its old name, labor commissioner. The office enforces labor law, civil rights on the job and in housing, promotes job training programs, and acts as a clearing house for businesses seeking to keep up with shifting workplace rules.

The commissioner is elected to a four-year term. Unlike governor, treasurer and secretary of state, there are no term limits. Unlike those three offices, and the attorney general, it is an officially non-partisan position.

The ultimate winner may not be known until Wednesday or later because of drawn-out vote counts.

But whether the race goes to November or ends Tuesday should be known early. It’s a quirk of Oregon election law.

Democrats and Republicans hold closed primaries — party members only — to vote for their nominees for governor, congress, and the Legislature.

The over 1 million unaffiliated voters, the state’s largest group, are blocked from taking part.

But BOLI is on their ballot.

Under Oregon election law, any candidate that gets more than 50% of the vote, wins the entire election based on Tuesday’s vote, with no November run-off.

That’s what happened with incumbent Val Hoyle in 2018.

The BOLI job became a political wild card on Dec. 1 of last year when U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, announced he would not seek another term in Congress.

The same day, Hoyle announced she would shut down her re-election bid for BOLI to run for DeFazio’s 4th Congressional District seat. Soon after, DeFazio endorsed Hoyle.


Into the BOLI race vacuum jumped Kulla, who switched from the Democratic primary for governor to the BOLI race.

Stephenson, a Democrat, filed to run and quickly won backing from labor unions.

Helt had been mulling a bid in the newly aligned 5th Congressional District seat. On March 8, just before the deadline, she filed to run for BOLI.

The trio were the most visible on the campaign circuit and raised the bulk of campaign funds. Four others were on the ballot.

Stephenson, who has drawn major support from labor unions in her first bid for office, was the biggest fundraiser in the race. Her only previous bid for office was a second place finish in the 2020 Democratic primary for House District 33.

Like all offices, the BOLI will have to wait until January to assume office.

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