Republican Cherie Berry points to one chart to demonstrate why she believes she deserves a fourth term as the states labor commissioner.
Its a downward line graph that plots the occupational injury and illness rate for private companies per 100 workers. When she first took office in 2000, the rate was 5.3, federal labor figures show. In 2010, it fell to 3.1.
Berry (whose first name is pronounced Share-ree) contrasts her numbers against those of her Democratic opponent, former Labor Commissioner John C. Brooks, who held the office from 1977 to 1992. She said the average rate in her tenure is half the rate in Brooks term.
If (voters) compare our records, I think theyll see weve done a great job, Berry said. There is a dramatic difference in the illness and injury rate.
Brooks, 75, contends the numbers Berry cites are misleading. He said the states industries have changed and the department now has more inspectors. The figures also dont take into account the increased severity of workplace injuries. As an attorney for the states Industrial Commission until his retirement earlier this year, Brooks said he reviewed more than 40,000 workplace injury claims.
Weve seen the medical costs continue to go up, he said.
He held the office for four terms until losing to a fellow Democrat in the 1992 primary. His loss came amid the fallout from a deadly fire at a Hamlet food processing plant, where locked doors prevented workers from escaping.
If elected, Brooks said he would hire more investigators, and he promises to significantly reduce workplace injuries with tougher enforcement. Berry countered, saying theres no evidence increasing enforcement will increase workplace safety.
Brooks said the fines for safety violations are inconsequential, though he stopped short of embracing an Obama administration plan to increase the penalties. Berry opposes the federal effort.
On job creation
On the campaign trail, Brooks is also highlighting his experience as an attorney, saying he is better equipped to oversee and interpret the labor laws guiding the departments work. Berry, a high school graduate with no college degree, said its not an issue.
I hired a very good attorney, she said.
The states flagging economy also is an issue in the election. The Labor Department oversees the states apprenticeship program.
Berry said she hopes to work with Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory to enlarge the program, which dovetails with training at the states community colleges.
Brooks said he wants an even bigger expansion. He proposed creating an academy to teach advanced technical skills to workers, saying many specialized jobs are currently open.
This takes advantage of training in a lot of skilled areas where our community colleges do not offer training, he said.
To pay for it, Brooks said he would tap federal money for job training proposed by the Obama administration.
Berry said the idea of a new state agency or division is cost-prohibitive. She said she would work with private companies to help develop the apprenticeship programs.