By Gordon R. Friedman, The Oregonian/OregonLive
Former Democratic House Majority Leader Val Hoyle has positioned herself as all but certain to win one of Oregon’s top political offices half a year before the election is held.
Hoyle, 53, so far has only nominal opposition in the run-up to the 2018 race for commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries, elected to enforce Oregon labor and civil rights laws. And she has lined up substantial money and endorsements.
With the candidate filing deadline less than four months away, she’s the only politically connected candidate for the highly technical job, which comes with tremendous power and a salary of $77,000.
Her only opponent is a Jack Howard, a Democratic Union County commissioner and a relative unknown in statewide political circles.
That no conservative or Republican has stepped into the race may signal the Oregon Republican Party’s continuing atrophy in a Democrat-dominated state. A party spokesman declined to comment about candidate recruitment.
The deadline for candidates to declare for the race is in March. If no one else joins in, Hoyle would likely avoid a costly campaign.
Despite being the immediate frontrunner, Hoyle said she’s readying for a strong challenger to emerge.
“I’m not taking anything for granted,” she said. “It’s an open seat and I don’t have the expectation that it’s my seat.”
Until recently, Hoyle was a political bigwig: Majority Leader of the Oregon House and after that, a heavy hitter in the Democratic caucus, representing Eugene. But she gave up her House seat in 2016 for an ill-fated bid for secretary of state. Then, Lane County commissioners passed over her for what seemed like a shoe-in appointment to the Oregon Senate.
Out of office, Hoyle found work as a policy fellow at the University of Oregon’s Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics. She declared her labor commissioner bid in July, when the current officeholder, Brad Avakian, announced he would not run again.
Since then, Hoyle has netted $133,000 in campaign donations and scooped up valuable endorsements from public and private employee unions and business groups. Howard, her opponent, hasn’t raised any campaign money.
An attorney and freelance writer, Howard acknowledged that Hoyle is connected, well-funded and will be tough to beat. He puts his odds of winning at 20 percent at best.
When it comes to raising money, he said there’s no way he can compete. “I just can’t swing that and I’m not even going to try,” he said.
For her part, Hoyle said that if another big name jumps into the race it could get expensive quick. “Could be $2 million, $3 million,” she said.
Hoyle’s run isn’t the first time that a Democrat has sought statewide office as the presumptive winner. On multiple occasions Republicans have not put forward candidates for state treasurer and attorney general, said Jim Moore, a Pacific University professor who studies Oregon politics.
“It does mean that the two-party system is kind of limping here in Oregon,” Moore said of Hoyle’ early domination of the race. “The Republicans complain about it but don’t come up with the candidates to do anything about it.”
Moore said a lack of big name liberals jumping in to challenge Hoyle doesn’t signal a shallow bench for Democrats. Instead, it speaks to the limited upward mobility that may come with being labor commissioner.
“It’s the least political position,” Moore said. “People don’t go from being labor commissioner to being governor. It just doesn’t work that way in the past at all.”
The office of labor commissioner was last seriously contended by two major party candidates in 2012, when Avakian, a Democrat and the incumbent, earned 52 percent of the vote against former Republican state Sen. Bruce Starr.
Hoyle and Howard say they want voters to focus on the issues — and that they’re the better-suited person for the job. Hoyle said her background as third-generation union member and experience in the private sector makes her “uniquely qualified.” Howard said he’s the best choice because he would review state labor laws top to bottom with a focus on helping the poor.
Voters will have an opportunity to weigh in during the May 2018 primary election. Because the labor commissioner position is nonpartisan, any candidate who gets more than 50 percent of the primary vote wins the job by default.
— Gordon R. Friedman