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Democratic candidates for commissioner of labor Fred Dorrell and Sam A. Mis-soum debated Friday night at the Trolley Stop Record Shop in Oklahoma City. The candidates were cordial and jovial as they answered 10 questions that distinguished nuances in their visions for the Oklahoma Department of Labor.

Much like last week’s GOP commissioner of labor debate, there was a good amount of consensus among the candidates, but a contrast between the parties was apparent.

Both Dorrell and Mis-soum demonstrated full-throated support of unions, though Dorrell discussed his UAW membership while Mis-soum said he has never been a union member. Both Democrats favored reversing recent legislation that re-directed Department of Labor fines from the department itself to the state’s general revenue fund, something GOP candidates had said they supported.

Oklahoma’s primary elections will be June 26, and NonDoc’s entire coverage can be found at #election2018.

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Fred Dorrell, left, and Sam A. Mis-soum, right, debated Friday, June 15, 2018, at the Trolley Stop Record Shop in Oklahoma City. Democratic and independent voters will choose between the two men for the 2018 commissioner of labor Democratic nomination on June 26. (Michael Duncan)

What does Oklahoma’s commissioner of labor do?

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Along with only Georgia, North Carolina and Oregon, Oklahoma elects a commissioner of labor every four years. In other states, the executive branch appoints someone to the position.

During their respective debates, both Democrats and all three Republicans seeking the office in 2018 said they support maintaining commissioner of labor as an elected position.

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.

Fred Dorrell: ‘It takes business to have workers, it takes workers to have business’

commissioner of labor
Fred Dorrell, a Democratic nominee for commissioner of labor, speaks during a debate Friday, June 15, 2018, at the Trolley Stop Record Shop in Oklahoma City. (Michael Duncan)

Fred Dorrell told a full room that he was born and raised in Oklahoma and worked for decades at Ford Motor Company’s Tulsa glass plant. In recent years, he has been a human resources labor specialist with Spirit AeroSystems. He also has been an adjunct professor at Tulsa Community College teaching human resources and business courses.

A fiery speaker, Dorrell railed against misconceptions about unions and discussed other topics that frustrated him. He apologized multiple times for his passion, though the audience appeared appreciative.

“They’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Dorrell said. “I’ve been in this state my entire life, I’m a native Oklahoman, and it just pisses me off when I see irresponsibility that comes out of so-called legislators and leaders of this state to do the silly things they’ve done under the banner of Republican, Democrat, I don’t care what you are. I want to represent the people of this state, not just the select few.”

In his opening remarks, Dorrell, 63, emphasized the need for both strong businesses and strong workers in Oklahoma.

“It takes business to have workers, it takes workers to have business,” Dorrell said. “It’s got to be a balance, a win-win. I don’t see a win-win.”

Both candidates responded to questions from Aaron Brilbeck (News 9), Claire Donnelly (KGOU) and Brianna Bailey (The Frontier). In doing so, Dorrell emphasized workplace safety, living wages and education as imperatives for workers. To help minimize employee injuries, Dorrell advocated several times for a culture change in regard to workplace safety.

“How you change that is you monitor the company, the business, and I think there should be incentives for those good corporate players,” he said, criticizing lawmakers who have cut taxes and provided tax incentives. “When you invest back into your people, then we’ll give you a tax incentive.”

When Brilbeck asked the candidates to look at one another and explain why they were better than their opponent, Dorrell touted his experience, never uttering a bad word against Mis-soum.

“What you need to do is follow the old dog a little bit and learn from him,” Dorrell said. “Because at 30, sometimes, we think we’re invincible.”

Sam A. Mis-soum: ‘It’s a matter of perspective and vision’

commissioner of labor
Sam A. Mis-soum, a Democratic candidate for commissioner of labor, speaks during a debate Friday, June 15, 2018, at the Trolley Stop Record Shop in Oklahoma City. (Michael Duncan)

Mis-soum told attendees that he has embarked upon multiple business ventures after his employment in the oil and gas industry ended.

Mis-soum, 30, did not shy away from his youth as he emphasized his experience in a modern economy.

“Age and generation-wise, looking at things from my end (…) This economy is more of a service economy than a goods economy,” Mis-soum said.

An engineer, Mis-soum said he possesses the analytical skills to be commissioner of labor.

“It’s a matter of perspective and vision, something that is not affected by length of experience,” he said.

Mis-soum advocated for a return to the Department of Labor model that allows the agency to self-fund using dollars levied from fines. Acknowledging that this manner of self-funding could lead to corruption, he advocated for a “third party” both to keep the system clean and allocate the money.

Mis-soum also identified the lack of institutional knowledge among the work force when it comes to correct safety practices. As commissioner of labor, he said he would explore a phone application that allows workers to take a picture of a potential safety hazard and send it straight to the Department of Labor for reconciliation.

“I feel like we need to speak to the people we serve in a language that they understand,” Mis-soum said. “Whether it’s social media or YouTube (…) Letting people know what we do, what we can do, what we are doing on their behalf.”

Sponsors and partners make this possible

Friday’s Democratic primary debate was held in partnership with Let’s Fix This, Women Lead Oklahoma and Generation Citizen. Financial sponsors included Women Lead Oklahoma, Freedom Oklahoma and the Oklahoma AFL-CIO.

NonDoc and its partners are hosting two additional primary debates among statewide candidates:

  • 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 20, at Trolley Stop Record Shop (1212 N. Pennsylvania Ave., Oklahoma City)
  • 2 p.m. Saturday, June 23, at the Tower Theatre (425 N.W. 23rd St., Oklahoma City)

(Update: This story was updated at 5:45 p.m. Monday, June 25, to include video of the debate.)