Berry claims victory for labor chief

Republican Cherie Berry won a third term as N.C. Labor Commissioner early this morning, eking out a narrow margin over a political newcomer challenging her for the job.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting unofficial returns, Berry had just over 50 percent of the vote. Challenger Mary Fant Donnan had 49 percent.

The two candidates had offered sharply opposing views about the best way to protect workers. Berry, 61, contended she has accomplished more by cooperating with companies than by levying large fines.

She pointed to declines in reported workplace injuries and deaths as evidence that her approach is working.

Donnan, 46, a program officer for the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation who previously worked as a top official under Democratic labor commissioner Harry Payne, had cast her opponent as a friend to businesses rather than workers.

She had pointed to Observer investigations, which found that fines for serious workplace violations in N.C. manufacturing plants are less than half the national average, and that some poultry processing plants haven't been inspected in more than five years. The newspaper also found that Berry had collected much of her campaign money from companies her office regulates.

The commissioner is charged by law with promoting the “health, safety, and general well-being” of more than 4 million N.C. workers. With about 420 employees and a $30 million-plus budget, the labor department is responsible for overseeing workplace safety, inspecting elevators, mines and amusement rides, and administering the wage-and-hour law. The job pays about $120,000 a year.

Berry, a Catawba County native whose photograph adorns inspection certificates in every elevator in the state, had raised about $213,000 for her campaign – about 65 percent more than Donnan. She formerly owned a company that manufactured spark plug wires. First elected to the office in 2000, she subscribes to Thomas Payne's philosophy that “the government is best which governs least.”

She laid out few plans to change the department, and has said that one of her key goals is to help businesses remain profitable.

In 2000, Berry narrowly won to become the first Republican in a century to serve as N.C. labor commissioner.

Donnan pledged to strengthen enforcement of worker safety rules.

The Associated Press contributed.