PORTLAND, Ore. — The two candidates for Oregon labor commissioner have spent months asking voters for support in the election this May. So they were a bit surprised to find out recently that the election won't actually happen until six months later, in November.
State elections officials say a quirk in an obscure 2009 election law requires them to alter the election schedule, but only for this one office and only for this year. Republican Bruce Starr filed suit Tuesday, asking a judge to order that candidates for labor commissioner appear on the ballot in May, as they historically have.
Starr said he found out about the change on Friday, when a campaign staffer made a routine call to be sure everything was in order with his statement for the voter pamphlet. Democrat Brad Avakian, the incumbent, found out from a reporter Monday night, an aide said.
"I was honestly shocked, surprised, stunned, when I learned," Starr said.
The dispute adds intrigue to what is already shaping up to be a peculiar election year in Oregon. There are no races for governor or U.S. senator this year, and President Barack Obama is widely expected to win comfortably. None of the five congressional incumbents drew big-ticket opponents, and Republicans didn't field candidates for attorney general or state treasurer.
Starr, a state senator from Hillsboro, accused Democratic Secretary of State Kate Brown of playing politics with the election to help a fellow Democrat. He argues that Avakian might have an easier victory in November if he shares a ballot with Obama, who remains popular in Oregon.
"They don't want their candidate to lose, and we're confident we are in a position to be very, very competitive in May," Starr said. "I believe the cohorts who run our state basically said they want to give their candidate an advantage."
Brown fought back against allegations she called "outrageous and unfounded," saying her office is enforcing a "very clear" law.
"This is an issue of election law, not politics," Brown said in a statement.
In most years, candidates for nonpartisan offices like labor commissioner appear on the May primary ballot, and if nobody gets a majority, the top-two candidates face each other in November. With only two candidates on the ballot this year, the candidates and other political observers widely assumed the race would be decided in May.
"I think everybody was surprised about the election date," said Hiram Sachs, a consultant to Avakian.
Sachs said Avakian's campaign would not get involved in the litigation.
The legal dispute is the result of an improvised solution to a problem that began when Dan Gardner resigned as labor commissioner in the second year of a four-year term in 2008, touching off a special election later that year to replace him. Lawyers said then that the election would be for a full four-year term, not to finish Gardner's term. But as a result, labor commissioners would be elected in presidential election years despite historically being chosen in midterm elections.
The Legislature voted in 2009 to get the cycle back on track, approving House Bill 2095 to limit the labor commissioner elected in 2012 to a two-year term. But the words in the bill leave room for disagreement. The measure said that the term of the labor commissioner "elected at the general election held...in November 2012 shall be two years."
Now, a Marion County Circuit Court judge will have to decide whether that language means a labor commissioner cannot be chosen in November this year, as Brown's office argues, or whether the standard election law applies, as Starr's lawyer argues.
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