Should the commissioner of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries be elected or appointed?
On May 15, voters will select the state’s 10th labor commissioner since the position was created in 1903.
While technically a nonpartisan position, some critics argue that elections politicize the office, lead to partisan policies and detract from the professionalism of the office.
After Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian announced last year that he would not seek another term, Eugene’s Register Guard published an editorial arguing that state lawmakers should make the position appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
Four states – Oregon, Georgia, North Carolina and Oklahoma - have elected labor commissioners. The vast majority of other states appoint the labor commissioner.
The precedent for turning an elected position into an appointed one in Oregon has produced poor results, said Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden, who seeking the office.
Ogden, a Republican, is up against Val Hoyle, former Democratic majority leader of the Oregon House of Representatives.
In 2011, the Legislature changed the state superintendent of education from an elected to a position appointed by the governor.
“The people were told that we’d get people in these education roles with experience, and we’d get nonpartisan stability,” Ogden said. “What we got instead was a position split into two, a deputy superintendent and a chief education officer. Those positions have become revolving doors – we’ve had three chief education officers, Rudy Crew, Nancy Golden and Lindsay Capps.”
Capps is a former lobbyist for the Oregon Education Association with no experience as an educator. Three deputy superintendents also moved through the state education department: Ron Saxton, Salaam Noor and the current deputy, Colt Gill.
“The appointments of those positions have been no less political than an election, and the outcomes in education have gotten worse, not better,” Ogden said.
Hoyle supported the change make the state schools superintendent an appointed position.
“I felt that the best candidate for the job needed to be a strong administrator and wasn’t necessarily a good candidate for statewide office,” she said.
As for labor commissioner, “I can see the benefits and drawbacks of both sides.”
An election allows voters to fill the position with someone who reflects their values, she said.
Oregon is the only state in which the labor commissioner is responsible for protecting the civil rights of residents. An election “ensures that the commissioner must be responsive to the will of the people in order to keep the job,” she said.
Union County Commission Jack Howard, another candidate for labor commissioner – albeit not running an active campaign – says he’s an independent but was formerly registered with the Democratic Party of Oregon. Howard said changing the labor commissioner to a gubernatorial appointee would preclude Republicans from holding the office.
“You don’t solve the problem by making it an appointee,” Howard said. “Now, at least, you have a shot at making the office independent.”
However, Hoyle said having an appointed commissioner who required Senate confirmation also could protect against partisanship if senators felt the commissioner was too politicized, “but that isn’t a guarantee.”
Another downside of an elected labor commissioner is that “very few voters understand what the job is,” Hoyle said.