Casey Kulla, a Yamhill County farmer, dropped his gubernatorial bid on Wednesday to run for labor commissioner. (Casey Kulla)
Casey Kulla decided to run for governor of Oregon a year ago, motivated by the Jan. 6 insurrection against the U.S. Capitol.
He believed that as a Yamhill County commissioner he had demonstrated an ability to work with Democrats and Republicans: He thought he was someone who could heal the political chasm.
But Wednesday the 42-year-old Democrat shelved a year’s worth of plans and work, switching from campaigning for governor to running for labor commissioner, a nonpartisan position. He hopes to replace Val Hoyle, a Democrat running to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio.
Kulla already has a website, a campaign team and $10,000 on hand.
“I hope to win outright,” Kulla told the Capital Chronicle on Wednesday.
That would mean getting more than 50% of the vote in the May primary, forgoing a general election contest.
The labor commissioner has narrower responsibilities than the governor, but Kulla said building strong state agencies has been one of his goals from the start.
The Bureau of Labor and Industries is tasked with protecting workers, including against discrimination and unlawful wages. It investigates complaints and runs apprenticeship programs, something that’s close to Kulla’s heart. He said he grew up on the trades, working as a ditch digger and plumber while in college.
“I deeply understand the incredible value of things like apprenticeships for mobility and having highly skilled jobs that can pay for a life in Oregon,” Kulla said.
A fifth-generation Oregonian, Kulla earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a master’s degree in forest ecology from Western Washington University in Bellingham. He has a vegetable, fruit, animal and state-licensed cannabis farm on Grand Island in Yamhill County – he said that gives him business experience for the job – and has been in government for three years.
Kulla started thinking about the switch about a month and a half ago after Hoyle announced her run for Congress.
He said his first thought was that Oregon needs another strong labor commissioner and felt he had the right skills and experience.
“I couldn’t get (the idea) out of my mind,” Kulla said.
Gov. Kate Brown’s $200 million plan to expand workforce training programs clinched his decision. He wants to oversee those programs.
“BOLI will be the one to put to use, really effectively, the apprenticeship programs,” Kulla said. “I want to do that.”
He said the job would allow him to flex the experience he has as a member of the Willamette Workforce Partnership, which is in charge of spending federal job training money in Marion, Linn, Polk and Yamhill counties.
The daunting list of competitors in the governor’s race also played a role in his decision, he conceded. Eleven people are now running, including Tina Kotek, who’s stepping down this week as speaker of the Oregon House, and Tobias Reed, the state treasurer.
“That plays into it,” Kulla said. “I definitely felt like it was going to be an uphill battle.”
Only two other candidates are running for labor commissioner, Chris Henry and Robert Neuman, who both filed in September. Henry is an Oregon City-based truck driver and member of the Teamsters Union, according to his campaign filing. Neuman’s filing lists his residence in Greenhorn, which straddles Baker and Grant counties, and says he’s been a general laborer, who graduated from Stayton High School.
“I like to win,” Kulla said, “to serve people in Oregon.”
He said he’ll keep KullaForOregon as his electronic face and will hold on to the same campaign team, which consists of four or five people he speaks with daily and another eight he talks with about four times a week.
They were among the first to know he was considering a change
“Across the board people were so excited,” Kulla said. “Every single person on the team said ‘Let’s do this.’”
In the past week, he’s done his due diligence. He spoke with Hoyle, asking her about the agency and her role. She told him it was in good shape, which he wanted to hear. He wants a solid foundation to build on. He learned that her job resembles his.
“I’m a county commissioner so in some ways what she does is what I do: support staff in their mission and advocate on the issues that are near and dear to heart and also the mission of the agency.” Kulla said.
He also talked to Kotek, Reed, Patrick Starnes, another Democratic contender for governor, and Nick Kristof, a Democrat who’s waiting on a decision from the state Supreme Court about his place on the ballot.
“I wanted to find out from them what they wanted to see in the labor commissioner and their hopes for that position,” Kulla said.
On Tuesday night, he made a campaign video for his new bid which he said would soon be on his website.
Kulla has not yet decided whether he will endorse another Democratic candidate for governor.
“One thing I need to see from the other candidates is their connection with people in communities,” Kulla said, “and taking a hard stance on issues that are important to their voters. Sometimes it’s hard to take a stand because you always offend somebody.”
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