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The civil rights lawyer could break the cycle of politicians using the state labor office as a launch pad for higher offices

The two women running for the "other" statewide office this year are not getting nearly the attention as the three women running for governor. Yet the dynamics are similar in that the ballot features a choice between traditional and unconventional. COURTESY PHOTO: CHRISTINE STEPHENSON - Christine StephensonAnd, as in the governor's race, we're advocating for change in business-as-usual and endorsing civil rights lawyer Christina Stephenson for commissioner of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.

Stephenson has never held elective office, though she made an unsuccessful bid for the statehouse in 2020, losing in a crowded Democratic primary. In some races, this lack of political experience would be a big concern for us. But in this matchup, we view it as an asset, particularly given her professional resume and the historical use of BOLI's top job as a political pit stop.

The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries has evolved from its founding in 1903 as a watchdog against child labor and other abuses of the nascent industrial revolution. It now includes a mandate to promote a competitive state workforce and guard against discrimination. But its focus remains on protecting employees, which is why Stephenson is the best choice for the job.

For the past decade, Stephenson, a lawyer who lives in Southwest Portland, has represented workers who have been harassed, injured, underpaid, wrongfully fired and retaliated against for raising workplace concerns. For most of that time, she's run her own firm, making her sensitive to the realities of being a small-business owner and employer.

Her opponent, Cheri Helt, is a former state lawmaker from Bend, where she runs a family restaurant and has served on the local school board.

Both candidates say they would work to reduce the number of unresolved complaints filed with BOLI, and both vow to improve the state's apprenticeship programs to help ensure that Oregon employers have the workforce they need.

Helt, rightly, is frustrated that even as a candidate for BOLI commissioner, she can't get any detailed information about the case backlog or apprenticeship placements. Her call for better communication and greater transparency is on the mark.

Stephenson, in turn, advocated for greater inclusion of Oregon's rural, tribal and BIPOC populations in job-training programs and the need to focus on an increasing need for workers in child care, K-12 education and health care — including mental health.

Helt argues that her experience as an elected board member and legislator is an asset. We're not so sure, as her resume is much like that of recent labor commissioners, stretching back four decades.

Mary Wendy Roberts, elected in 1978, ran for secretary of state while serving at BOLI. Her successor, Jack Roberts (no relation), ran for governor in 2002 and left BOLI the following year after failing to get the Republican nomination. Dan Gardner, as commissioner, openly considered a bid for Congress before taking a national union post and leaving the job early. Brad Avakian, as commissioner, ran (and lost) a campaign for secretary of state in 2016, and Val Hoyle, elected two years later, announced midterm that she would run for Congress this year and did not file for reelection.

This job is too important to be a political stepping stone, and that's one reason that Roberts, whom both candidates approached, endorsed Stephenson, who is a Democrat.

"In her conversation with me, Cheri was most interested in the politics of getting the job," said Roberts, who, as commissioner, backed the move to make it a nonpartisan post. "Christie wanted to know about the job itself and what kind of skills were needed. She didn't ask me any political questions."

In her interview with us, Helt said that although there are no term limits on Oregon's labor commissioner, she didn't view it as a long-term commitment, saying that agencies benefit from having fresh leadership at the top. Stephenson, by contrast, said she figured it would take some time to learn the job and would not rule out an extended stay if voters approved of her job performance.

Given the agency's current problems, we think Stephenson offers the best chance for some stability in the office from a BOLI commissioner focused on the challenges at hand, not the elections to come.

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