N.C. Labor Commissioner: Former Raleigh mayor, Greensboro minister vie to replace Cherie Berry

The incumbent

Republican Cherie Berry has no primary opposition in her bid for a fifth term as N.C. labor commissioner.

The challengers

Mazie Ferguson, a Greensboro minister who has worked on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged, is running against former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker for the Democratic nomination to oppose Berry in November.

About the office

The commissioner leads the N.C. Department of Labor, which is charged by state law with promoting the “health, safety and general well-being” of more than 4 million North Carolina workers. The department is responsible for overseeing workplace safety, inspecting elevators, mines and amusement rides, and administering 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, who previously owned a company that made spark plug wires, has long argued that the labor department is most effective when it partners with business. Critics, including the two Democrats now vying for the job, contend that Berry’s department has been too easy on companies that mistreat their workers.

Where the candidates stand

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

Meeker says his top priorities include: strengthening the state’s 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.

Ferguson also contends that Berry has failed in her mission to look out for workers. Her priorities include pushing for a living wage, ensuring that employees are paid for all the hours they work, and serving as an advocate for the state’s workers.

She said she would work to repeal “right to work” laws that weaken the power of labor unions. She would also try to support workers who lose their jobs because of technological advancements, she said.

Mazie Ferguson

Age: 71

Education: Graduate of South Carolina State University and the University of South Carolina School of Law

Professional experience: She has worked as a lawyer, as the head of a S.C. legal services agency, and as a pastor of Baptist churches in Greensboro and Siler City. She has also served as president of the Pulpit Forum of Greensboro, an association of pastors who advocate for the poor and the disenfranchised.

Political resume: She served in the 1970s as the executive director of the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus. More recently, she has worked as chair of religious affairs for the N.C. NAACP. In 2010, she ran unsuccessfully as a write-in candidate for the U.S. Senate seat that was occupied by Jim DeMint.

Family: Divorced, two adult children, two grandchildren. Her youngest sister, Ella Scarborough, serves as a Mecklenburg County commissioner.

Website: www.mazieferguson.com

Charles Meeker

Age: 65

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