Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian Wants to Redefine the Secretary of State's Job

He's told supporters he’d audit private corporations, pursue polluters and police workplace pay.

Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian is making bold promises in his campaign to become secretary of state.

Avakian, 55, who's won the bulk of the endorsements in a three-way Democratic primary, has told supporters he'd audit private corporations, pursue polluters and police workplace pay.

Those are laudable goals. But none of them is a duty of the office Avakian is seeking.

The Oregon secretary of state's role is mostly administrative: overseeing elections and archives, auditing state agencies, serving on the State Land Board, and registering corporations that do business in Oregon.

Avakian is unapologetic about his expansionist view of the office.

"I view these offices not just for what they've always done but for what they have the potential to do," he tells WW. "Just because an agency hasn't done something before doesn't mean they shouldn't do it."

Avakian's view of what he might accomplish surprises many observers, including one who used to hold the job.

"It's not unusual for somebody who's running for county commission or the Legislature to stretch the definition of the job," says former Gov. Barbara Roberts, who served as secretary of state from 1985 to 1991. "But I can't remember recently hearing a recognized candidate with statewide experience who would be quite so loose or casual in their definition of the boundaries of the office they are seeking."

The Democratic secretary of state primary features three experienced politicians: Avakian, state Sen. Richard Devlin (D-Tualatin), and state Rep. Val Hoyle (D-Eugene). Each brings leadership credentials to the race.

Avakian, a former Washington County lawmaker, has been labor commissioner since 2008. Devlin is the longtime co-chair of the Legislature's Joint Ways and Means Committee, which writes the state's budget. Hoyle served as House majority leader from 2012 to 2015.

Avakian is an experienced campaigner. In 2008, he was running for secretary of state when then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski appointed him labor commissioner. He won re-election in 2008, 2012 and 2014, taking time out to run for a vacant congressional seat in 2011. (Then-state Sen. Suzanne Bonamici defeated him 65 percent to 22 percent.)

As labor commissioner, Avakian has zealously pursued high-profile cases. In 2014, his agency found Sweet Cakes by Melissa, a Gresham bakery, had discriminated against a lesbian couple that wanted a wedding cake. He also aggressively enforced laws that benefit veterans, and penalized a Portland nightclub for barring transgender patrons.

"He's put Oregon in the spotlight and shown that we're not going to tolerate discrimination," says CM Hall, chairwoman of Basic Rights Oregon's political action committee, which endorsed Avakian. "He's resolute and clear-headed, and he's really distinguished himself through his actions."

In his run for secretary of state, Avakian has seized the left lane in the Democratic primary by pitching himself as the progressive's progressive.

He says constituents are hungry for an activist secretary of state. "I'm the only one in this race who has spent a career investigating and prosecuting wrongdoers," says Avakian, a former trial lawyer. "That's part of the culture you'll see in my office."

He has won key endorsements from diverse groups, including NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon, the Oregon Education Association, numerous trade unions, and the Oregon League of Conservation Voters.

But Ryan Deckert, executive director of the Oregon Business Association and a fellow Washington County Democrat, says his former legislative colleague continually overstates the scope of the job he's seeking.

"If you are on his email list, you'll see that he's running for many different offices—including secretary of state," jokes Deckert, whose group issued a joint endorsement of Devlin and Hoyle.

He's pledged, for instance, to audit private companies that do business with the state.

"Avakian's plan calls for using the Secretary of State's Audits Division to hold corporations accountable," he wrote in a Feb. 11 fundraising email. "Auditing companies doing business with the state, Avakian will ensure employment laws and accounting rules are being followed, saving the state money and protecting workers."

Avakian acknowledges that auditing corporations is not within the established scope of the office's duties—but says it should be.

"The secretary of state has not done that before," he says, "and I think that's a mistake."

Avakian has taken a similarly broad view of the role he might play in environmental matters.

"As secretary of state, I'll fight for clean energy and forward-thinking climate policies," Avakian wrote in a Feb. 29 fundraising email. "I'll work to hold polluters accountable."

But other state agencies—the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the Oregon Department of Energy and the environmental enforcement unit of the Oregon Department of Justice—already handle such work.

Executive director Doug Moore of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters says his group, which endorsed Avakian, is encouraged that Avakian wants to beef up the secretary of state's role in environmental matters.

"The secretary of state is one of the three members of the State Land Board, which has enormous influence over state lands and what we are doing with a vast amount of state forest," Moore says. "A key part of what we look at is the desire to use the land board to advance conversation."

Last week, Avakian announced that if elected, he'd seek to ensure state agencies pay men and women equally for equal work.

"Avakian will use the Audits Division to audit the pay differential between female state employees and their male counterparts," he wrote in an April 12 fundraising email.

That pledge drew praise and an endorsement from Mother PAC, an influential women's group, which issued a statement applauding "Brad Avakian's ongoing commitment to equal pay."

Roberts, the second woman to serve as Oregon secretary of state and also the first to serve as governor, was less impressed.

"Enforcing equal pay is the job of the labor commissioner," Roberts says. "That's his job now. It would generally not be the job of the secretary of state."

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