Labor Commissioner
Incumbent Commissioner of Labor Leslie Osborn, term-limited state Rep. Sean Roberts and 2018 commissioner of labor candidate Keith Swinton will be on the GOP primary ballot for the position Tuesday, June 28, 2022. (NonDoc)

The Republican primary election for Oklahoma commissioner of labor will have three candidates on the ballot, which itself made headlines after a hearing with the Oklahoma State Election Board regarding one candidate’s requested nickname.

Incumbent Commissioner of Labor Leslie Osborn is being challenged in the primary election by 2018 commissioner of labor candidate Keith Swinton and term-limited state Rep. Sean Roberts (R-Hominy).

The Oklahoma labor commissioner’s job is to preserve, protect and promote the “welfare of the wage earner,” and the office oversees workplace rights and safety issues.

“It’s just a great agency,” Osborn said. “It’s one of the smallest agencies. It’s 80 employees, but almost everything we do is about safety for citizens and safety for the workforce.”

Roberts originally filed to run as Sean “The Patriot” Roberts, but his request was rejected in April by the Oklahoma State Election Board in a 3-0 vote to strike “The Patriot” from his declaration of candidacy.

Osborn had filed a petition contesting Roberts’ candidacy owing to his use of the moniker, arguing that Roberts has never officially gone by the nickname.

The primary election is slated for Tuesday, June 28. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, an Aug. 23 runoff will be held. The GOP winner will face Democrat Jack Henderson and Libertarian Will Daugherty in November.

‘Everybody that goes to work deserves a safe workplace’

Leslie Osborn
Leslie Osborn speaks at a GOP commissioner of labor primary debate Wednesday, June 6, 2018, at the Tower Theatre in Oklahoma City

Osborn is wrapping up her first term as commissioner of labor and previously spent a decade in the Legislature as a representative, leaving her position two years early to run for her current role. During her time in the Legislature, she helped change the worker’s compensation system.

“We were the last state in the nation that still had a judicial workers’ compensation system, which really wasn’t working anymore, because everyone just lawyered up,” Osborn said. “We got that changed to an administrative system, and since then the worker’s comp rates have done down 55 percent for businesses and less people are being injured on the job.”

During her time leading the Oklahoma Department of Labor, Osborn said she has helped ramp up the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Consultation Service Program and has implemented cross-training of employees so that, for instance, those who do inspections on amusement park rides in the summer can be doing boiler or elevator inspections in the winter.

“We run a program where we will go out to any small business in the state, 500 employees or below, and draw them a safety plan to help train their employees to make sure they’re doing everything they can to keep their employees safe,” Osborn said. “It’s our belief that everybody that goes to work deserves a safe workplace and to get to go home to their families at night.”

Swinton is an inventor and entrepreneur who believes his 30 years as an employee with the United States Postal Service’s National Center for Employee Development gives him the hands-on experience needed by a labor commissioner.

“As a person that has worked with [the Postal Service] daily for the past three decades, I think a lot of the policies at the Postal Service that are over-regulating safety cause more problems than they solve,” Swinton said. “I have experience from that standpoint, to apply safety (policies) to work toward saving money instead of lip service like the other candidates. If you see them in a hard hat and protective gear, it’s for a photo op. For me, it’s just another day.”

Swinton said his previous campaign for labor commissioner gave given him a better understanding of what to expect throughout the election process. If elected, he thinks could help make the office run more efficiently.

“I’m uniquely qualified to do this,” Swinton said. “One thing I can do is organize and get a lot of the things that are in their licensing — the whole process is so difficult and time consuming —  streamlined.”

Swinton also said he’s considered a question raised during a debate in the last election cycle regarding incarcerated individuals’ qualifications for certain licenses issued by the state.

“At the time, I didn’t have a really good grasp on how to answer with what my solution would be,” Swinton said. “As labor commissioner, I can start with using that models and methods approach to get a good idea of who could be disqualified for what licensing the state can provide, and let’s all be notified before they’re released so that it won’t be a problem afterwards for someone who paid their debt and can’t get a job and go back into the field.”

Osborn has also emphasized the importance of contending with the state’s labor shortage.

“We decided to be proactive last year and reached out to some schools and said, ‘Hey, did you know there’s a critical shortage in Oklahoma of people in the trades like plumbing, electrical, construction and those kinds of things?'” Osborn said.

Osborn said she and her team met with school superintendents from around the state to ask if they would consider implementing a pilot shop-class program.

“These are great professions with huge shortages, and you can go straight to Career Tech or to an apprenticeship out of high school and have no student debt,” Osborn said. “We’re really excited because we have a school that I believe is going to start that this fall. Instead of just reporting the shortages, we’re actually doing something about getting kids into those careers.”

Sean Roberts declines interview about campaign

Sean Roberts
Rep. Sean Roberts (R-Hominy) listens to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt deliver his State of the State address Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. (Michael Duncan)

Roberts, who did not respond to multiple interview requests from NonDoc, is term-limited in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. In 2018, he was one of a handful of legislators who voted against funding for a historic teacher pay raise. Unlike several of his colleagues, he survived efforts to unseat those who had voted against the revenue package.

Roberts also made headlines in July 2021 after he requested, unsuccessfully, that the State Election Board complete a forensic and independent audit of the 2020 election results in Oklahoma County and two other counties at random. He also authored a bill this legislative session that would have required every Oklahoma voter to re-register to vote.

According to Roberts’ Twitter page, his campaign for commissioner of labor has been endorsed by Gov. Kevin Stitt.