Former Raleigh mayor seeks to unseat Cherie Berry as labor chief

Cherie Berry is seeking her fifth term as N.C. labor commissioner.
Cherie Berry is seeking her fifth term as N.C. labor commissioner.

The incumbent

Republican Cherie Berry is running for her fifth term as North Carolina labor commissioner.

The challenger

Former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, who won the Democratic primary, hopes to unseat Berry in November.

About the office

The commissioner leads the state Department of Labor, which is responsible for protecting the health and safety of more than 4 million North Carolina workers. The department oversees workplace safety, inspects elevators, mines and amusement rides, and administers the state’s wage-and-hour law.

Why this race matters

The November election will be a referendum on Berry’s 16-year tenure as labor commissioner. Berry has long argued that the labor department is most effective when it partners with business.

Where the candidates stand

Berry says that under her leadership, North Carolina’s workplace injury and illness rates have declined to their lowest levels in history.

As commissioner, she says she has helped lower worker’s compensation costs.

She maintains that her office can do more to protect workers by cooperating with companies than by penalizing them.

“We’ve developed good relationships with the business community, and that’s what you have to do,” she said.

Firms sometimes contest large penalties, which can lead to long delays in fixing safety problems, she says. For that reason, she said, regulators often reduce fines in exchange for a company's promise to address hazards.

Berry has spoken out against special interests who push for “redundant, job-killing regulations.”

Berry has become one of North Carolina’s most recognized elected officials because her name and photo appear on the certifications posted inside every elevator. That has also earned her a nickname: “The Elevator Lady.”

Meeker contends that the labor department isn’t doing its job. He has referred to stories, published in the Observer and The (Raleigh) News & Observer, detailing Berry’s aversion to regulations – and to stories showing how the improper classification of employees as independent contractors has hurt workers.

A lawyer by profession, Meeker has also criticized Berry for accepting “improper contributions” from corporate executives who have cases pending before her agency. He has said he will not accept such political contributions.

Meeker says his top priorities include placing greater emphasis on workplace safety, ensuring that employees receive the wages they’ve earned, and making sure workers are properly classified so that they can receive the benefits they deserve.

“The department of labor needs to be energized so that it helps employees and is fair to employers,” Meeker said.

He maintains that labor commissioners shouldn’t use the elevator inspection placards to raise their profiles. If elected, he said, he would not include his photo on the certificates.

Meeker has been endorsed by a number of influential groups, including the North Carolina Police Benevolent Association, the State Employees Association of NC, the North Carolina Association of Educators and the AFL-CIO.

Cherie Berry

Age: 69

Education: Graduate of Maiden High School in Catawba County. She attended college classes, but did not graduate from college.

Professional experience: Served as N.C. labor commissioner since January 2001. Founder and former co-owner of LGM Ltd., a company that made spark plug wires.

Political experience: Served for eight years in the N.C. House of Representatives.

Family: She and her late husband had four children and many grandchildren

Website: cherieberry.com

Charles Meeker

Age: 66

Education: Graduate of Yale University and Columbia University Law School

Professional experience: A partner in Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, Meeker has practiced law since 1975.

Political resume: Raleigh mayor, 2001-2011, and on the City Council for eight years before that. He and former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot also led an effort to oppose gerrymandering in North Carolina.

Family: Married, two grown children, one grandchild

Website: www.charlesmeeker.org