Brad Avakian, Oregon’s labor commissioner and a regular in state politics for two decades, announced Tuesday that he will not seek re-election and will step down when his term ends in January 2019.
By declining to run for another term, the 56-year-old Democrat leaves a second of Oregon’s five state elected offices up for grabs in 2018, along with governor.
Avakian, a former legislator from Beaverton who worked as a civil rights lawyer in private practice before being appointed labor commissioner in 2007, said he is “keeping his plans open” for what he will do after leaving office.
He said he doesn’t plan to run for governor, which is not surprising, as he twice suffered defeats when trying to move up the electoral pecking order. In 2011, Avakian ran in the Democratic primary for Oregon’s 1st Congressional District, losing to Suzanne Bonamici. In 2016, he became the first Democrat in more than a decade to lose a race for state office to a Republican, when he was bested by Dennis Richardson for secretary of state.
Avakian said his greatest achievements as Oregon’s top labor official included securing record-setting settlements against companies that violated Oregon civil rights and labor laws. Those cases include a $2.4 million settlement against Daimler Trucks North America after complaints of racial discrimination, a $2.5 million settlement for hundreds of workers not fully paid for labor on two Southern Oregon University construction projects and a $1.25 million settlement against a Beaverton strip club that forced a teen to work as a prostitute.
One notable case he left off his list of his most important wins: his handling of the Sweet Cakes by Melissa dispute, which tested whether Christian bakers Aaron and Melissa Klein could refuse to bake a cake for a lesbian couple’s wedding.
The case garnered national news media attention, which only grew after Avakian ordered the Kleins to pay newlyweds
Oregon’s labor commissioner is charged with enforcing state wage, employment and civil rights laws that require fairness in the workplace. The commissioner also heads a division promoting apprenticeships and workplace training opportunities.
In an interview Monday at the Bureau of Labor and Industries’ Portland office, Avakian spoke of his tenure, which included being elected to two four-year terms after then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski appointed him to succeed Dan Gardner.
“We’ve advanced civil rights. We broke down barriers to achieve equal pay for equal work,” he said. “We’ve had more apprentices graduating programs than ever. Expanded our reach to support employers. And I look forward to whatever the next chapter is going to be.”
Avakian said that he has always sought to use an even hand in applying the law and keep his office free from partisanship. The labor commissioner job is nonpartisan, but officeholders have been open about their political affiliations.
Avakian first sought elected office in 1998, when he ran for a state Senate seat but lost. He won a seat in the state House in 2002, and won election to the Senate four years later.
It’s not immediately clear if there will be any Republican candidates for labor commissioner.
Jack Roberts, a Republican who was labor commissioner from 1995 to 2003 and head of the Oregon Lottery until last year, said Tuesday he will not run and is unaware of any conservatives exploring a run.
— Gordon R. Friedman