Oregon Secretary of State says 2009 law changed election date for nonpartisan office

State Sen. Bruce Starr is suing the state in Marion County Circuit Court to put the election of the commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries to the May ballot.

Starr, a Hillsboro Republican, filed the lawsuit Tuesday in Salem. He wants to unseat incumbent Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who is seeking re-election after a four-year term.

Until last Friday, both campaigns were charging hard for a May 15 election date. That's when Starr's campaign manager, Matthew Dobler, heard from officials at the Oregon secretary of state's office that the election would occur in November instead of May.

The cause of the confusion is an obscure Oregon law passed by the Legislature in 2009. The measure, House Bill 2095, was supposed to re-align the BOLI election with that of the governor's race by reducing the term set to begin in 2013 from four years to two years. That would set up a 2014 ballot feature the statewide offices of governor and labor commissioner and a 2016 ballot feature the other two statewide offices: secretary of state and attorney general.

But the bill also included language describing the 2012 election of the BOLI commissioner as being scheduled for the 'first Tuesday after the first Monday in November 2012.'

Starr voted against the bill in 2009, and said Tuesday morning that Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown, a Democrat, was twisting the intent of the law to aid Avakian, also a Democrat.

While the BOLI commissioner is a nonpartisan office, Starr and Avakian are the only candidates, making it a de facto partisan clash. No public polling has been conducted in the race, but past voting practices indicate that more Democratic voters will turn out for the November election, when President Barack Obama will face his Republican challenger.

In the lawsuit filed Tuesday, Starr's attorney John DiLorenzo, argues that the section of the bill describing an election date in 2012 applies a one-time reduction in the term of office, but doesn't set an election date.

'There is no discussion in the history of the adoption [of the bill] of the legislative assembly's intent to change the date of the nominating election,' DiLorenzo wrote.

Andrea Cantu-Schomus, a spokesperson for the Oregon Secretary of State's office, said because of the litigation, she couldn't comment.

Dobler, Starr's campaign manager, said conversations with the Secretary of State's office indicate that the May ballot was certified without the BOLI race on it. Now, Starr's campaign hopes that the courts act fast to resolve the dispute before it's too late to change the ballot.

'That is our hope, that they will move quickly,' Dobler said.

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