Three Republican labor commissioner candidates agreed on many issues during a GOP primary debate Wednesday night. But each comes from a different background, and their answers to 11 questions revealed slightly separate priorities if elected commissioner of labor.
In partnership with Let’s Fix This, Generation Citizen and Women Lead Oklahoma, NonDoc hosted Cathy Costello, Rep. Leslie Osborn (R-Mustang) and Keith Swinton for the debate at the Tower Theater, 20 days ahead of the June 26 GOP primary.
Asked about the topic of labor, their political beliefs and the duties of the Oklahoma Department of Labor, all three GOP labor candidates agreed on several premises: a need to reduce licensure requirements, a desire to keep labor commissioner as an elected office and the preservation of labor unions while keeping Oklahoma’s requirement that membership be optional.
What does Oklahoma’s commissioner of labor do?
Along with only Georgia, North Carolina and Oregon, Oklahoma elects a commissioner of labor every four years. In other states, the position is appointed, something Swinton said a friend from Wisconsin criticized as limiting “accountability.”
The primary duty of the labor commissioner is to head the Oklahoma Department of Labor, whose mission is “to foster, promote and develop the welfare of the wage-earner.”
The Department of Labor oversees worker safety regulations, negotiates worker compensation disputes and administers permits for regulated amenities, such as elevators, boilers and amusement park rides.
Labor candidates were asked an assortment of questions from within three rounds titled:
- Labor omnia vincit (labor conquers all)
- Bureaucracy: The Department of Labor’s duties
- Let’s talk politics
Cathy Costello: ‘Mental illness is a labor issue’
Cathy Costello, a former educator, is a businesswoman and wife to the late Mark Costello, an elected Oklahoma labor commissioner. She spoke many times about providing mental health care for Oklahoma workers.
“I will address mental health as the labor issue it truly is,” Costello said. “Within two years, the number one reason for disability claims will not be because of physical injuries. It will be because of mental health issues.”
In promoting policies that lend workers mental health assistance, Costello said Oklahoma could blaze the trail for mental health programs that promote job creation.
In an effort to increase job safety, she said she would be more proactive with the voluntary Safety Pays Consultation Program. As labor commissioner, Costello said she would “come knock on your door and invite you in so we can keep our workers’ comp rates low and keep people protected.”
In her closing remarks, Costello promised the audience she would be a proactive leader, if elected.
“Work, labor, brings dignity to who we are as people,” she said.
Rep. Leslie Osborn: “Grow this state with new jobs, better jobs”
A businesswoman turned lawmaker, Osborn has served in the Oklahoma Legislature since 2009. In 2017, she was chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee.
Osborn routinely referenced her legislative experience with issues affecting the Department of Labor, and she quoted Article VI, Section 20 of the Oklahoma Constitution that was adopted by voters in the 1970s, saying the duties of the commissioner of labor are to “foster and promote the welfare of the wage owner.”
“That means we want to make sure the wage earners are protected, that they’re paid the wages they’re guaranteed and that they’re safe in their work place,” Osborn said.
Osborn also discussed how, in the Legislature, she tried to increase the pay of public employees. She called them “drastically underpaid” when compared to other states and private sector workers.
In her closing remarks, Osborn emphasized her call for workforce development to be included within the purview of the Department of Labor.
“Nothing changes until we have more jobs, better jobs, and our kids educated to fill those jobs,” Osborn said. “That’s how you change the direction of the state.”
Keith Swinton: an employer and an employee
Swinton is an inventor and entrepreneur who works at the US Postal Services National Center for Employee Development in Norman. He trails Osborn and Costello in terms of fundraising and name recognition.
During the debate, Swinton emphasized his experience as both an employer and an employee, which he said gives him a broad perspective on labor issues.
“The number one goal for the commissioner should be to make [the department] accessible to the people who are working in that type of environment to be able to have some type of influence on their management team,” Swinton said.
As commissioner of labor, Swinton said he would ensure individuals with relevant knowledge would write the rules and regulations that govern industries.
“When you have people who are not qualified to do a job, you should not have them regulating it,” Swinton said.
Swinton was hesitant to suggest sweeping policy changes at the Oklahoma Department of Labor. Instead, he advocated for more efforts to enforce regulations that already exist before introducing new measures.
“Everyone seems to be talking over someone else and speaking on something they don’t really understand,” Swinton said. “That fosters mistrust.”
Democratic primary debate
NonDoc and its partners are working to organize a Democratic primary debate between labor commissioner candidates for Friday, June 15. Details are pending, but both Fred Dorrell and Sam A Mis-Soum have agreed to a June 15 date.
Wednesday’s GOP primary debate was held in partnership with Generation Citizen Oklahoma, Let’s Fix This, Women Lead Oklahoma and, of course, the Tower Theatre. Financial sponsors include Edwards Capitol Partners, Freedom Oklahoma, Jill Castilla, Oklahoma AFI-CIO, OKC Firefighters IAFF Local 157, Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association and Women Lead Oklahoma.