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Race for Oregon labor commissioner attracts candidates with legal, government experience

Ballots have been mailed in preparation for the Oregon Primary Election taking place on May 17, 2022.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Ballots have been mailed in preparation for the Oregon Primary Election taking place on May 17, 2022.

Commissioner Val Hoyle's decision to run for Congress left an open seat atop the state's Bureau of Labor and Industries.

Labor commissioner isn’t usually a headline-grabbing post.

The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries may be best known as a civil rights watchdog that enforces anti-discrimination laws in housing, jobs, and places that serve the public. One past commissioner, Brad Avakian, made national news in 2015, when BOLI fined a Gresham bakery $135,000 for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple — a penalty that resulted in years of litigation. Many Oregonians still think of the Sweet Cakes by Melissa case when they think of BOLI.

But much of the agency’s work is more technical in nature. BOLI investigates wage and hours violations, for example. It trains employers on relevant laws, including civil rights protections for workers.

The agency also oversees registered apprenticeship programs — some of which will get a boost from $20 million out of the governor’s Future Ready Oregon package approved by the Legislature earlier this year.

Commissioner Val Hoyle, who succeeded Avakian, is leaving the office to run for Oregon’s 4th Congressional District, a U.S. House seat opening created by the retirement of fellow Democrat, Rep. Peter DeFazio. During her one term, Hoyle prioritized increasing BOLI’s funding and staff in an effort to better handle the bureau’s various priorities of investigating civil rights, supporting businesses and workers, and expanding workforce opportunities.

Among those who filed for the race to fill Hoyle’s shoes are a county commissioner, a former state representative, a civil rights lawyer and a truck driver.

If a candidate gets more than 50% of the vote in the May primary, they win the non-partisan position. If not, the top two candidates would face each other in a run-off in November.

The winner will lead an agency with a budget of more than $30 million, will help supervise an ambitious new apprenticeship program and will take responsibility for a growing number of civil rights investigations waiting to be completed.

OPB sent questionnaires to the seven people who filed to run for BOLI commissioner, giving each candidate an opportunity to describe their views, experience and priorities.

Cheri Helt

Helt co-owns the Bend restaurant Zydeco Kitchen & Cocktails with her husband. She served on the Bend-La Pine School Board for nearly a decade and as a Republican state representative for two years.She lost her 2020 reelection bid to now Rep. Jason Kropf, D-Bend.

Helt said her combination of business, education and government experience makes her the best-qualified candidate to be labor commissioner. She has called BOLI a “troubled agency,” pointing, for example, to thehigh volume of potential civil rights cases waiting to be assigned to an intake officer.

Cheri Helt, candidate for Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries, 2022.
Courtesy of Lynn Howlett
Cheri Helt, candidate for Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries, 2022.

She told OPB the backlog of unassigned cases would be a top priority.

“On my first day in office, I will order a comprehensive review of agency performance, and make the findings of that review public,” Helt wrote. “I will also request an official, outside audit by the Oregon Secretary of State.”

BOLI officials acknowledge an increase in the number of cases in need of investigation; they say it’s in part because the public is more aware of the bureau’s investigative function.

Helt said she would also work to increase training opportunities for skilled, high-paying jobs, create a “pipeline” from high school to skilled labor force, and work with lawmakers to address the workforce housing crisis.

“Much of my agenda for serving as the labor commissioner is rooted in sticking with the basic duties and responsibilities of the office – and executing them well,” she said.

Helt said her highest priority would be reinforcing BOLI as a non-partisan agency.

“It was designed to be an office that enforces labor laws with neutrality and an even hand. We don’t need an activist with a partisan political agenda managing the bureau,” Helt said.

Among the people who have endorsed Helt are former state Rep. Knute Buehler and former Secretary of State Bev Clarno, both of whom served in Salem as Republicans.

Casey Kulla

Casey Kulla said he paid his way through college working as a plumber’s assistant. He credits that experience with teaching him the value of mentored training opportunities.

Today, Kulla is a Yamhill County Commissioner with a master’s degree in forest ecology. He and his wife started an organic farm southeast of McMinnville in 2007.

“BOLI needs a leader who knows government, who knows business, and who knows work-life,” said Kulla, a registered Democrat.

Kulla first threw his hat in the governor’s race. He pivoted to the BOLI contest after Hoyle announced her run for Congress.

“My overriding commitment is to building a responsive, responsible Bureau, a fully-staffed and fully-supported agency, so that BOLI can be the effective, high-profile civil rights watchdog that Oregonians expect,” Kulla wrote.

Casey Kulla, candidate for Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) Commissioner, 2022.
Josh Kulla /
Casey Kulla, candidate for Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) Commissioner, 2022.

In addition to boosting hiring, Kulla said he planned to work with staff to reshape agency culture, “so that women and staff of color feel safe and supported.” He has promised on-site child care.

Looking outward, Kulla is prioritizing accountability for what he calls “historic levels of funding for training and apprentice support” in the state’s Future Ready Oregon program, emphasizing “we have to get this right.” As a county commissioner, Kulla has served on the Willamette Workforce Partnership’s jobs council, which he says has made him aware of both the pressing timelines and significant opportunities of the millions of dollars coming available.

Kulla gives a mixed reviews to current commissioner Hoyle, saying she’s done a good job reestablishing housing discrimination investigations, boosting staffing at the agency and opening up apprenticeships to serve more women and people of color. But he accuses Hoyle of not taking responsibility for the “failures of her agency” and for the bureau “failing at their basic duty to enforce state law.”

Kulla says he wants a bureau on which the public knows it can rely.

“Nearly all people that I hear from do not know their rights or where to go for help,” Kulla said in a response to OPB. “And those folks who know where to go often have had the experience of going to BOLI and not getting help. That is a basic failure that must be corrected…”

Kulla has been endorsed by former Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, among others.

Christina Stephenson

Christina Stephenson has spent much of her professional career as an employment and civil rights attorney in regular contact with the Oregon agency she hopes to run. While she hasn’t held elected office like Kulla and Helt, Stephenson has the support of the last five labor commissioners, including Hoyle and Avakian (both Democrats), as well as Jack Roberts (a Republican).

“At its core, the Commissioner’s job is to make sure that as Oregon’s economy grows and changes, the workers, employers, side-hustlers, and dreamers who drive our economy know they have someone looking out for them,” Stephenson said in an emailed response to questions from OPB.

Like other candidates, Stephenson acknowledges BOLI’s history of having too much to do without adequate staff, calling the agency “consistently and woefully under-resourced.” However, she says she’s grateful for Hoyle’s efforts to address the problem.

Christina Stephenson, candidate for Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries, 2022.
Courtesy of Christina Stephenson for Oregon /
Christina Stephenson, candidate for Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries, 2022.

Stephenson presents herself as someone with a sensitivity to both employers and employees — as an attorney who has represented workers and as the owner of a small law firm.

She says her top priority would be to protect workers’ rights and wages, while simultaneously confronting a widespread employee shortage, which she says “is already a worker crisis” in some industries. Her solution is to prioritize expansions of apprenticeship programs, including through BOLI’s connection to the Future Ready Oregon program.

“My top priority will be ensuring that BOLI provides the guidance and oversight to ensure that these dollars are getting where they need to go to make a difference in the lives of Oregonians,” Stephenson said.

She also acknowledged the need for “wraparound support” - such as transportation and childcare - so that workers can access employment opportunities. She points again to the Future Ready Oregon program as an opportunity to fill those gaps for people trying to get established in a career.

Brent Barker

Brent Barker, candidate for Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries.
Courtesy of Brent Barker /
Brent Barker, candidate for Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries.

A self-identified small business owner and commercial broker, Brent Barker told OPB that educating and training “a qualified workforce with marketable skills” would be his top priority if elected commissioner. He also emphasizes the need for a supportive infrastructure in helping people get employed, calling for government and business entities to help provide “affordable housing, shelter, rehabilitation options, education and training that focuses on the individuals marketable skills for employment.”

Barker has not previously run for office and under “government experience,” he lists several roles, including being named a 2009 US-Asia Ambassador for Arizona by the Phoenix Economic Council.

Barker also mentioned attracting businesses to Oregon as a priority, and he was the most vocal in his criticism of Avakian’s approach to the Sweet Cakes case.

“Oregon has one less baker and fewer taxpayers,” Barker said in response to an OPB question about Avakian. “A person has the right to locate goods and services that reflect their values.”

Robert Neuman and Aaron R. Baca

Robert Neuman and Aaron R. Baca have also filed to run for labor commissioner, but neither submitted a statement to the voters pamphlet nor did they respond to the questionnaire OPB sent. In his filing for office, Neuman calls himself a “general laborer” who graduated from Stayton High School. Baca says he’s an electrician with a bachelor’s degree from Oregon State University.

In response to a follow-up email from OPB, Neuman said that one of his main reasons for running for labor commissioner is to make it easier for people to apply for available jobs.

“Many employers are stating that they cannot find applicants, qualified or otherwise, to apply for the jobs which they are posting vacancies for,” Neuman wrote. “However, many people are saying that they are unable to find jobs to apply for.”

Chris Henry is a truck driver who said he was so excited to run that he launched his candidacy while hauling freight.

“I pulled my truck to the shoulder on the icy highway just after midnight and registered to run for office using my cellphone and very little fanfare other than a sky full of stars,” he said.

But according to a post to his campaign website, Henry is stepping out of the race and endorsing Christina Stephenson.

“Thank you everyone for your kind support, however, after careful consideration I have decided to step back from campaigning for health and family reasons and have endorsed Christina Stephenson’s campaign in her run for BOLI,” reads the statement on Henry’s website.

Henry’s withdrawal came too late for his name to be removed from the ballot or from the voters’ pamphlet.

Henry had said his focus in the race was on improving workers’ rights and in his words “creating democracy in the workplace.”

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Rob Manning is a JPR content partner from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Rob has reported extensively on Oregon schools and universities as OPB's education reporter and is now a news editor.