Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian may be the toughest candidate to beat in the 1st Congressional District special election to replace U.S. Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.).
Avakian brings a robust political résumé to the contest—five years in the Oregon Legislature and nearly four more in statewide office enforcing civil rights and wage laws. The 50-year-old lawyer had already declared his intention to take on the seven-term incumbent Wu in the 2012 Democratic primary before Wu resigned last month.
Avakian's aggressive stance has given him an edge over his two principal opponents, state Rep. Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie) and state Sen. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Beaverton), who later joined the race. Avakian—in his initial fundraising report—raked in $195,000, a strong showing.
Allies say Avakian has done well as labor commissioner, a low-profile political office charged with overseeing apprenticeship programs, pursuing deadbeat employers and enforcing civil rights laws.
"Brad has done a superb job," says former Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, who's endorsed Avakian. "He has done a marvelous job of paying attention to all of those issues."
But Avakian also faces questions about his personal finances and his ethical judgment.
While a legislator in 2005, Avakian asked lobbyists to help him find a job, sending them an email request with his résumé attached, according to records obtained by WW.
Records show Avakian twice failed to pay his taxes, in one case incurring a $13,000 federal tax lien. The Oregon State Bar briefly suspended his license when he failed to pay his bar dues. And four creditors have sued him over unpaid bills—including a creditor who took him to small claims court last year after he failed to pay a medical bill.
Avakian tells WW he doesn't recall writing the email to lobbyists. But he does recall telling lobbyists and Portland lawyers he was closing his law firm and looking for other opportunities, and he says he sees no problem with doing so. He says he doesn't recall the details of the court cases but acknowledges running into financial trouble in the past—including when he had his wife, Debbie, on his legislative payroll at $4,500 a month, as he did in 2005.
He says he's made good on all his past debts.
âDebbie and I have had some really good times and struggled at some times,â Avakian says. âA lot of people Iâve helped have hard times, too.â
An Eagle Scout, Avakian grew up in Aloha and wrestled at Oregon State (as a svelte 151-pounder), where he earned a psychology degree. He counseled juvenile offenders for four years before enrolling at Lewis & Clark Law School. He practiced law in Portland for 15 years, for a time as partner with ex-Portland City Commissioner Jim Francesconi. Avakian lost a 1998 state Senate race but then won a House seat representing Beaverton in 2002. He claimed a vacant Senate seat four years later.
Avakian chaired the Senate Environment Committee and led the passage of Oregon's nationally recognized renewable energy standard, which calls for 25 percent of electricity to come from renewable sources by 2025.
He says his candidacy is a logical step in a career characterized by an ability to bring diverse groups together for a common goal—whether pushing through Oregon's renewable energy standard or finding common ground on civil unions, both of which he helped do in 2007.
"The 1st Congressional District is my home and where I grew up," Avakian says. "Currently in Washington, campaigns never end. What I've shown throughout my career is when the race is over, I have the ability to forget campaigning and govern."
Avakian considered running for governor and attorney general before launching a campaign for secretary of state in 2008. He was running far back in a four-way primary race when Labor Commissioner Dan Gardner resigned. Then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski named Avakian to fill the post.
As labor commissioner, Avakian has had a few high-profile cases, including an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against John Minnis, a former legislator and chief of the state's police training and standards agency. And he has taken on the Typhoon! restaurant chain for allegedly mistreating Thai chefs.
His agency also chases down deadbeat employers who have failed to pay their workers. The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries conducts more than 5,000 workplace investigations a year, and on Avakian's watch has recovered more than $11 million for workers who got stiffed.
Avakian hasn't always paid his own bills promptly, however. Records show a collection agency sued Avakian in Washington County court last year over $461 he owed to the Portland Clinic.
In 2005, creditors sued Avakian in small claims court: twice in Multnomah County and once Marion County. No claim was for more than $800. In each case, the bills had gone unpaid for so long they had been turned over to collection agencies.
In 2003, the Oregon State Bar briefly suspended Avakian's license for failing to pay his bar dues. A spokeswoman for the bar declined to say how frequently that happens, but lawyers say the bar sends numerous requests for payment prior to suspension.
Avakian was outspoken in his support for higher funding for K-12 education as a lawmaker. In 2010, he supported Measures 66 and 67, two state tax increases voters passed.
Records show Avakian hasn't always paid his own taxes on time. In 2005, the Internal Revenue Service filed a $13,120 lien against Avakian for unpaid federal income taxes.
Avakian says the lien dated back to 2002, when he was focused on politics rather than his law practice. He fell behind on a payment plan, the IRS issued a lien, and he refinanced his house to pay it off.
Washington County records show that Avakian failed to pay his property taxes of about $4,000 in 2006. He paid them seven months late, incurring interest charges of about $500.
Avakian says he has no recollection of that omission but thinks it might have been related to a snafu at his mortgage company, which was supposed to include his taxes in his monthly payment. "As soon as we found the taxes weren't being paid, we made sure the balance was made up," he says.
Jim Moore, a Pacific University political science professor, says Avakian's repeated failure to pay his bills is concerning.
"It looks like a pattern," Moore says. "And the pattern becomes troubling because he is holding businesses and taxpayers to a standard that he has trouble meeting himself."
Moore notes Avakian is hardly the first politician who has struggled financially. The danger, Moore notes, is that cash-strapped politicians have often leaned on lobbyists and others for financial favors.
"It may be that he's just somebody who has trouble making his private finances work," he says.
Avakian says the difference between his current BOLI salary—$72,000—and a congressman's $174,000 salary was not a factor in his decision to run. As a lawmaker, Avakian was vocal about the hardship of serving in Salem; legislators now get about $21,000 annually, plus $105 per day when in session.
At the end of the 2005 session, he sent an email from his personal account seeking lobbyists' help in landing a job.
"Now that the session has ended, I have decided not to return to my employment/business law practice," Avakian wrote in August 2005. "Instead, I am looking to make a transition now to something else, legal or administrative. If you come across any opportunities, please give me a call at [Avakian's phone number]. Attached is a résumé which you may feel free to pass on."
Oregon ethics law prohibits using one's public office for private gain. Avakian defends his job-seeking request to lobbyists.
"I think the email was appropriate," he says. "It would be inappropriate to use my public position for personal gain. That was not the intent, nor was it the result."
Now Avakian is in the biggest race of his life. And while he got in earlier than Bonamici and enjoys greater name recognition than Witt, neither of his competitors has made a habit of winding up in small claims court.
Avakian says the totality of his public service—including his management of his agency's $24 million biennial budget—far outweighs a few unpaid bills.
"In the end, I've always paid my obligations," he says. "I think constituents are much more interested in the jobs and training programs I've created, and the work I've done for them."