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The Race for Oregon Labor Commissioner Is Suddenly Heating Up

In early April, several dozen voters filed into a private room at a Beaverton brewery to hear from candidates vying for one of Oregon's most powerful elected positions.

On hand were Val Hoyle and Lou Ogden, the two main hopefuls in what's become a tense race Oregon labor commissioner.

The candidates were crossing paths for the first time on the campaign trail and itching to talk about the finer points of labor apprenticeships and technical education in Oregon high schools - mundane matters that are the stock-and-trade of the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) they're hoping to oversee.

The audience, meanwhile, wanted to talk about the current head of BOLI. Time and again at the forum, Hoyle and Ogden were asked whether they'd differ from current Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian. It's a sign of the big impression Avakian's made.

In the last 10 years, he's overseen multimillion dollar settlements that shattered bureau records - including a $2.4 million settlement over racist harassment at Daimler Trucks North America. He's personally initiated more complaints against businesses than all the labor commissioners who came before him combined.

Probably most famously, Avakian issued a $135,000 judgment against Sweet Cakes By Melissa, the Gresham bakery that in 2015 declined to bake a wedding cake for a same sex couple. The judgment is currently being appealed before the Oregon Supreme Court.

"Brad Avakian's been pretty active in a lot of areas as labor commissioner - more than the previous two people before him" one man said at the Washington County forum. "I'm just curious if you get elected if you'll continue like a Brad Avakian."

It's a question the candidates are approaching in notably different ways.

Hoyle, 54, is a longtime Democratic politico who from 2009 to 2015 represented a district spanning parts of Eugene and Junction City in the state House of Representatives. That stint included three terms as House Majority Leader.

Hoyle stepped down to pursue a failed bid for Oregon secretary of state (she wound up losing to Avakian in the Democratic primary). Then in late 2016, she sought appointment to a Eugene-area state senate seat, but the Lane County Commission chose current state Sen. James Manning instead.

Now Hoyle wants to be labor commissioner - the post she insists she wanted all along.

"The BOLI position wasn't open when I looked at what I wanted to do," she said. "Had it been, this is the job that I've always felt fit my profile and my passion the best."

In all of her runs for office, Hoyle has been quick to tout her labor background. Her father and grandfather were union members, she often points out, adding that their fights for better wages were part of the reason she became the first person in her family to attend college.

That narrative - and Hoyle's existing ties to organized labor - are huge advantages in this statewide, downballot race. Unions tend to pay more attention to labor commissioner races than others, and labor groups have provided the bulk of the more than $500,000 Hoyle has raised this election cycle - a sum that dwarfs the $163,000 Ogden has attracted.

Hoyle insists she's also got the support of businesses, but she's not shy about where her sympathies lie.

"I'll just be perfectly clear: I'm a labor Democrat," she said. "All things being equal, I'm going to see things through the lens of somebody that wants to protect workers and protect people's civil rights. Having said that, I will not put my finger on the scale."

If elected, Hoyle would be just the second woman to hold the seat in its 115-year existence.

Like Hoyle, Ogden, 63, aspired to another job before entering the labor commissioner race.

After 24 years as the mayor of Tualatin, Ogden announced his candidacy last year for Washington County Chair. Then some of his supporters - including state Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, and former state Sen. Bruce Starr - suggested to Ogden that he scrap those plans and run to oversee BOLI.

"Some folks came to me and said, 'This is a great message, it's a great thing. Lou, you need to step up and do that at the state level, not the county level,'" Ogden said.

That was in late February, but there was a problem with the idea: Ogden didn't know much about BOLI.

"I don't want to be labor commissioner. What's that?" Ogden recalls responding at the time. "As I started to drill down into what BOLI has as its responsibilities… and also the role it could play being a real partner to industry and helping expand industry, I go, 'Yeah, this is all about what I love.'"

If you can't tell, Ogden's campaign is centered on being a friend to business. In the two months since he filed to run against Hoyle, he says he's heard stories of BOLI being overly punitive to business owners. He's pledging to change that.

"It seems like… it's guilty until proven innocent, and if someone files a complaint you must have done something wrong and we're going to figure out what you did wrong," Ogden said.

There's a third candidate for BOLI commissioner, a Union County commissioner named Jack Howard. Howard didn't respond to requests for an interview and hasn't reported raising any money.

The Labor Commissioner position is nonpartisan, but it's been increasingly hard to tell that from the tenor of the race.

Hoyle is a Democrat, with broad support from left-leaning groups and officials. That includes all six Democratic members of Oregon's Congressional delegation and a wide array of her former Democratic colleagues in the state Legislature.

Ogden is a Republican, and even though he's raised hundreds of thousands of dollars less than Hoyle, he's got buy in from timber companies and manufacturers who like the message he brings. Ogden also has the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, the state's lone Congressional Republican, and an array of Republican state lawmakers and local mayors.

And he's got the assistance of Parrish, the state representative and political strategist who in 2016 helped Secretary of State Dennis Richardson become the first Republican to win statewide office in Oregon since 2002.

Since Hoyle and Ogden first crossed paths in Beaverton on April 2, the rhetoric of the race has ramped up dramatically.

Ogden recently took issue with a Facebook page created by Hoyle supporters, titled "Lou Ogden: Unacceptable." It recalled a 2008 incident in which a man who lived in Ogden's home as a tenant had his laptop seized by law enforcement, who were investigating a child pornography case. Detractors say Ogden didn't evict the man until he was eventually arrested more than a year later.

"There are times you really have to think about who to vote for... but not in the case of Labor Commissioner candidate Lou Ogden," reads the Facebook page, which Hoyle told Willamette Week had been created by the AFL-CIO, a labor group, and not her campaign. "His record completely disqualifies him from even being considered."

A political party is getting involved in this nonpartisan race, as well. On April 19, the Democratic Party of Oregon filed an elections complaint against Ogden. The party says he insinuated he's the sitting labor commissioner in a television commercial, not merely a candidate for the office. Ogden has called that accusation laughable, noting that he explicitly identified himself as a candidate in writing during the TV ad.

Ogden is not the only one being targeted. Hoyle has said she's heard from people who received robocalls she believes spread misleading information about her voting record.

Despite all this, Ogden and Hoyle agree on a lot. They both want to better prepare Oregon's workforce for jobs in emerging industries. They both tout the importance of labor apprenticeships as the state grows. And, asked about Avakian's tenure in office, they both vow to enforce state laws against discrimination as he has - though they also say they'd do things differently.

Ogden says steep penalties issued under Avakian seemed targeted to break businesses, rather than ensure compliance with state law. Hoyle says she doesn't have enough information to say whether she'd issue the same penalties as Avakian, and that she's interested in partnering more with the Oregon Department of Justice on civil rights cases.

As for Avakian, he's supporting Hoyle. And he says he's perfectly at ease with the job he's done.

"This office can be used to do great good for Oregonians," he said, "and I would look forward to any future labor commissioner approaching that in the same kind of way that I have and I know other commissioners have."

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for OPB. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.