On the day I was scheduled to interview Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian about his candidacy for the First Congressional District, this Avakian interview with the AP’s JJ Cooper was published in the Oregonian and at the KATU website. That interview offers up some of Avakian’s key policy positions and approach to leadership which is best summed up by the profile’s headline, “Avakian stands liberal ground on war, health care”. This naturally gave me an excuse to delve further into his experience and leadership style.
Avakian is the grandson of Armenian immigrants, who were fleeing genocide and oppression in their own country. They came through Ellis Island, where Avakian’s grandfather, a carpenter, moved his family to Fresno, California. Avakian’s own parents moved to Oregon when Brad was just nine years old, and he grew up in the heart of Washington County. Brad and his wife live just a few miles from each of their childhood homes. After going to high school in Hillsboro, Avakian attended Oregon State University and then went on to Lewis and Clark Law School.
Avakian says that one of the main reasons he chose to go to law school to become a civil rights attorney had to do in great part with his family heritage. Their struggle with oppression and having to flee their homeland made a deep and lasting impression. As an attorney, Avakian prosecuted state and federal civil rights cases in his law practice. And now as Labor Commissioner, he says he’s very proud of the fact that he is in charge of Oregon’s Civil Rights Division.
In 1998, Avakian had decided that state government wasn’t meeting the needs of the people. “I didn’t think that the legislature really had a clear understanding of what its role was relative to citizens.” Avakian said that they weren’t paying attention to health care programs, which he witnessed firsthand as a juvenile counselor. Funding was unavailable for homeless or emotionally disturbed kids whose families couldn’t provide for their needs. Avakian also noted that in the early 90s, public schools began to make cuts to key arts, music and vocational programs. “To me that was a clear sign that the legislature was not setting policy, nor funding the kind of programs that develop well-rounded human beings.”
Avakian ran in 1998 against Oregon Senator Tom Hartung in what at the time was a very Republican district. Avakian lost, but came surprisingly close to a win. Four years later, he ran a successful campaign for the Oregon House. Avakian says his two sessions in the House were served in the minority under Republican House Speaker Karen Minnis. It was difficult at that time to get progressive legislation out of the House. But he and Jeff Barker did pass a bill that increased penalties for drunk driving. More importantly however, Avakian says he stopped a number of terrible education bills for vouchers and charter schools. Further he was able to rally the House Dems in to not compromising on the school budget and because of that tough stance, $200 million more went to Oregon public schools.
In the Oregon Senate, Avakian chaired the Environment and Natural Resources Committee. He wrote and passed Oregon’s Renewable Energy Act which puts Oregon on a path to have 25% of our electricity generated from renewal sources by 2025. “It’s the most effective renewable energy act in the country,” he said. “That was also the year I wrote and passed the first expansion to Oregon’s Bottle Bill in four decades.” He also worked closely with then Oregon House Speaker (now US Senator) Jeff Merkley to crack down on predatory payday lenders. “They were ripping off our low income families and seniors with 500% interest rates. We wrote a bill that pushed them out of the State of Oregon.”
Avakian also passed the a law that gives local communities grant money to design and build new systems of water for farmers in Eastern and Southern Oregon. He was also the chief sponsor of the passage of the Clean Indoor Air Act and carried through the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. The latter precludes discrimination based on sexual orientation. A lesser known piece of legislation (but Avakian says has had an enormous impact) he passed is a law that enforces against ballast water dumping along the Oregon coast from ships outside the territorial waters. Much of this ballast water is tainted with non-native species that can become invasive in Oregon–and previously had allowed species such as Zebra Mussels to invade and cause huge damage to water structures and native ecosystems.
The main thread that runs through this laundry list of progressive legislation: consensus. Avakian was named Oregon League of Conservation Voters ‘Consensus Builder of the Year’ for 2007. “One of the things I have been able to do quite uniquely as both a legislator and as Commissioner of Labor & Industries is to bring very diverse groups together in order to pass progressive legislation. On a number of the bills I’ve discussed I was able to bring industry and labor together, environmental and industry, the Democrats and the Republicans. Not groups you generally see coming together to move progressive legislation forward. But I was able to do it on a number of those bills and actually pass the bills into state policy.”
“If there’s anything Congress needs right now, its the ability to do that. But at the same time, you’ve got to know that when you can’t do that, you have to be able to throw the knock out punch and just win,” he said. Avakian noted that the Employment Nondiscrimination Act had some GOP sponsors and floor votes, but he knew that they had to “just win” in order to gain passage. “Just like in Congress today, we want to be on the same page and moving forward for the good of the country. But if there comes a time when you can’t, you have to be able to have the ability to win the day. During my time in the legislature I had the ability to do both when either was needed.”
A Labor Commissioner, Avakian is responsible for four primary areas under the Bureau of Labor & Industries. First is the enforcement for wage and hour laws, child labor laws, prevailing wage laws and farm worker laws. Second, the civil rights division, which makes him the state’s chief law enforcement agency for protecting the civil rights of Oregonians– and not just on the job. This includes housing and public places as well. “We do about 5000 investigations a year. Since I became Labor Commissioner, we’ve put more than $11 million in the pockets of Oregon workers who have been unfairly treated on the job”, said Avakian. Third, is the Apprenticeship and Training Division, which certifies and oversees all of the state’s apprenticeship and training facilities. These facilities at any given time are training 5-10k workers, mostly in the construction trades. Finally is the state’s Technical Assistance Unit, which gets about 20,000 calls per year from Oregon businesses seeking confidential help in navigating Oregon’s unemployment law. Avakian sets the policy and budget for the agency, answering for everything that the agency does and doesn’t do.
“In addition to those general enforcement areas, there are a couple of things we’ve done that have really become national models,” Avakian said. “After passing the bill in the legislature that protects the rights of women to express milk or breastfeed in the workplace–which Senator Merkley passed at the national level using this model–we’re the agency that protects women in the workplace now.” Avakian went on to talk about his aggressive efforts working with the legislature to protect domestic violence victims. This legislation provides protection on the job for victims to make court dates, move their family to a shelter and meet other needs, similar to other types of family leave.
Avakian also created the Oregon Council on Civil Rights, a diverse group of individuals to advise the Commissioner or other government officials on important matters of civil rights as well as charting a proactive approach to addressing civil rights issues.”Their first task is equal pay for equal work. I want them to end wage disparity in Oregon forever. ” Avakian has charged the Council to develop a plan to end the practice.
Shifting to federal issues, Avakian says we need to seriously rethink how we’re managing resources, not the least of which includes Iraq and Afghanistan. “We need to bring most of those dollars back home and use them to invest in infrastructure in this country,” he said. Avakian says we want to provide a “helpful hand” to nations who need it, but the US has 14 million people out of work and another 14 million who are under employed. Avakian says we need to address crumbling infrastructure and old, inefficient transportation technology as well. “And we’ve got starving people here. And I don’t just mean in Appalachia. Go to downtown Beaverton and walk through some of the neighborhoods there. I’ve walked through neighborhoods there where you have kids with shaved heads and distended stomachs playing in their front yard and parents who are mentally ill or for other reasons can’t take care of their families. And they’re sitting right in the middle of Washington County without the kind of support network they need in order to stay healthy. We must refocus on the needs we have in this country. We’ve got to take care of our own.”
On the issues around the debt and unemployment, I asked Avakian how he believes we should be managing these problems. “When you’ve got 30 million people that can’t earn enough to take care of their families, you’ve also got 30 million people that can’t pump revenue to take care of the country. That is a huge factor in whether we can decrease the national debt.” Besides getting people back to work, Avakian says that we have to start making Wall Street pay its fair share. This includes not giving billions to bank bailouts, especially without requirements to loan to business. We also need to set up competition–by lifting the cap on lending by credit unions, to allow them to extend business loans that are competitive with banks. “There’s a stimulus package that will get money into small business and into paychecks”, he said. Avakian says that there needs to be a closing of the many tax loopholes for corporations.
On trade policy, Avakian says that “free trade” agreements are allowing foreign corporations to bring goods into the US with very low tariffs. In the meantime, the US can’t ship into other nations because the tariffs are so high. “We’ve got great corporations like Intel that do a lot of work in the US both in terms of manufacturing and research/design that also do work in foreign countries. You want them to have the ability to get their commerce back and forth. We need trade policies that put us on a level playing field and protect American corporations.”
On health care, Avakian says he’d have voted for the Affordable Healthcare Act, because it covered so many people and eliminated preexisting conditions. But he says its a very small step in an area that needs massive reform. He says we also need a strong public option as part of the next discussion, which should then lead to a discussion about single payer healthcare.
As a leader in Oregon, Avakian has worked to bring a shift of focus to progressive values in Washington County. “Its been about going door to door, meeting my neighbors and engaging them in a discussion to create a progressive agenda for this state. In my three legislative sessions, I knocked on 30,000 doors, mostly in Washington County, doing just that.” Avakian says they had 450 active volunteers in his first House race, also knocking on doors and talking with people. He also credits great leadership over the last 8 years by the Washington County Democrats, who’ve worked to reinvigorate progressives. “After I was elected into the House, I moved into leadership right after the first session. We began building a plan to recruit progressive candidates that could gain a majority in the Legislature so we could put our progressive values into law. That first team was Jeff Merkley, Dave Hunt, Diane Rosenbaum and me.” Avakian says that while knocking on doors in his community, he was also knocking on doors around the state to recruit good progressive people to run for office. Avakian says they pushed hard to get candidates in Washington County to win back the majority. Avakian is a founding board member for Emerge Oregon, he says he’s been honored to be a part of the organization’s presence in the state.
As the Congressman for Oregon’s First District, Avakian has two main agenda items. First, he says he wants to take his shop class bill from this past session from the state level to the federal level. “We should be second to none in providing employers the best trained workforce they can find.” Avakian also wants a 21st Century WPA Program that will put people to work rebuilding the national infrastructure: roads, seaports, airports, national rail and a new national smart grid that would support new and emerging energy sources.
Continue to Read Carla Axtman’s interviews with Brad Witt and Suzanne Bonamici — of the three most competitive candidates in the Democratic primary for the First Congressional District seat — at blueoregon.com. A place for news and original commentary. (And sometimes gossip.)