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Oregon reaches milestone as commissioner sworn in

January 8, 2019
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Oregon Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle shows her oath of office after she signed it after her inauguration at the state Capitol in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. The swearing-in of Hoyle marks the first time in Oregon history that most of the five statewide elected executive offices are held by women. (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon’s new labor commissioner, sworn in on Monday, has an ambitious agenda but an investigation pushed by her predecessor on sexual harassment in the state Capitol loomed, even as the report drew new criticism.

The swearing in of Val Hoyle by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum marked the first time in Oregon history that most of the five statewide executive offices are held by elected women.

At the start of the ceremony in the Oregon House of Representatives, Hoyle, Gov. Kate Brown and Rosenblum sat together under a mural showing Oregon pioneers — all men — at a historic meeting in 1843 when the provisional government was established.

“Now more than ever, leadership in our state is reflective of Oregon’s people, and that’s a really good thing,” Brown said, triggering applause from officials and well-wishers who packed the chamber.

Hoyle’s first order of business is dealing with an investigation, triggered by her predecessor Brad Avakian, and released Thursday that condemned top lawmakers for allegedly allowing sexual harassment to persist in the Capitol. But the investigators failed to interview them.

Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, who was named in the report though a rumor against him was unsubstantiated, said the investigation only furthered “a racially-motivated, defamatory smear” campaign against him, launched because of his strong stances on civil and immigrant rights.

“It also defies logic that in the course of the investigation conducted that they never asked to speak with me about my experiences - which have included racism, bullying, threats and harassment,” Hernandez said in a statement.

In an interview Friday with the Portland Tribune, Hernandez said “I feel thrown under the bus by Brad Avakian.”

Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, whose complaints about Sen. Jeff Kruse’s behavior prompted Kruse’s resignation last year, expressed regret Monday that the investigation by the Bureau of Labor and Industries, known as BOLI, furthered a “malicious rumor” about Hernandez. That rumor was shown to be without substance by an independent investigation commissioned earlier by the Legislature.

Gelser tweeted that the report raises real concerns that must be addressed, but emphasized that Hernandez “is not one of them.”

There was also worry that Hoyle, a former House majority leader, would give the investigation short shrift because she knows the leaders in the Legislature.

Rep. Julie Parrish, a Republican from a Portland suburb who was defeated in her re-election bid in November, asked if Hoyle will do something about sexual harassment in the Capitol or sweep it under the rug.

“Love to be proven wrong, but my gut says this report goes away w/Avakian,” Parrish tweeted.

But Hoyle told reporters that the investigation is a priority and that she wants to ensure the Capitol is a safe environment.

“The first thing I’m going to do tomorrow morning is sit down with the staff who did the report to come up with a plan of action on how we’re going to address it,” Hoyle said. Her first question to staff will be why they apparently didn’t interview key people like House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney.

Hoyle said she takes the issue personally, describing to reporters how when she was a 21-year-old waitress as a hotel, she and other women were subjected to harassment by a man. She filed a harassment claim.

“It was really difficult; it was not popular with all of my colleagues,” Hoyle said, but added that she was represented by a union and that the man wound up being transferred. There were also times when she wasn’t pay the full wages due her but didn’t speak out, fearing she could be fired.

“I’m not coming at this from a theoretical perspective,” Hoyle said.

Oregon is one of only four states that directly elect their labor commissioners. Hoyle was elected in the May primary last year, winning more votes than her two male challengers combined.

Three women previously held three of the five top statewide offices, but they were not all elected to the positions.

Oregonians elect five statewide officials to the executive branch: governor, secretary of state, treasurer, attorney general, and commissioner of labor and industries. The current secretary of state and the treasurer are men.

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Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky

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