Butler out, crowd of hopefuls in; the race for labor commissioner

Candidates for Georgia Commissioner of Labor: Republican Mike Coan, who had been deputy commissioner for current commissioner Mark Butler; Democrat Nadia Surrency, a lawyer and human resources executive; Democrat Nicole Horn, a former small business owner; Republican State Sen. Bruce Thompson; and Democratic State Rep. William Boddie.

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Candidates for Georgia Commissioner of Labor: Republican Mike Coan, who had been deputy commissioner for current commissioner Mark Butler; Democrat Nadia Surrency, a lawyer and human resources executive; Democrat Nicole Horn, a former small business owner; Republican State Sen. Bruce Thompson; and Democratic State Rep. William Boddie.

The open seat for state Labor Commissioner has triggered a free-for-all with nine hopefuls across three parties seeking to succeed Republican Mark Butler.

The hopefuls seek an office that was historically uncontroversial — until the pandemic triggered a tidal wave of unemployment claims, far more than during even the deepest previous recessions. The department’s handling of that crisis — and the vast new programs the federal government created — triggered complaints, protests, an unflattering audit and a few lawsuits.

But the candidates now vying to replace Butler differ wildly about what is needed.

Early voting for the Republican and Democratic primaries is underway. Primary Election Day is May 24. If runoffs are required in those primaries, they will be held June 21.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week attempted to contact all nine candidates— three Republicans, five Democrats and a Libertarian. Those who responded were sharply critical of Butler and the department’s performance during the pandemic.

In normal times, the Department of Labor handles jobless claims, judging whether the worker’s claim is valid under the law and — if it’s valid — how much the worker will receive in benefits. The department also lists tens of thousands of job openings and runs 41 “career centers” around the state where jobseekers can get help in their search.

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Mark Butler's decision not to run for re-election opened the field to candidates for his job.

Credit: con

Mark Butler's decision not to run for re-election opened the field to candidates for his job.

Credit: con

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Mark Butler's decision not to run for re-election opened the field to candidates for his job.

Credit: con

Credit: con

The department has about 1,100 employees and more than 300 others working as contractors, far fewer workers than during the Great Recession of 2007-09. Butler, who said he has personal reasons to step away, praised the staff of the agency he has led for three terms since 2010, and said that even with the strong post-pandemic recovery, the job will not be easy.

Butler has endorsed Republican Mike Coan, his former deputy commissioner, who took leave to run for the top job.

Coan said that criticism of the department does not account for the scale of the pandemic crisis. Within a couple weeks — jobless claims went from a weekly average of less than 5,000 to more than 100,000.

“Trashing the department is easy,” he said. “The commissioner has done the very best he could with what he had to work with. We are understaffed.”

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Mike Coan, who has served as deputy labor commissioner, is now running for the top job.

Credit: cus

Mike Coan, who has served as deputy labor commissioner, is now running for the top job.

Credit: cus

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Mike Coan, who has served as deputy labor commissioner, is now running for the top job.

Credit: cus

Credit: cus

Coan said he would work to boost funding, and reform operations.

“We need a culture change,” he said. “There’s no sense of urgency here.”

Other candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, have harshly attacked the department’s performance.

Democratic State Rep. William Boddie said he was inundated with sometimes desperate calls from constituents waiting for jobless benefits to be paid and unable to reach any department staffers.

The department needs more decentralized outreach, with deputy commissioners assigned to various regions and career centers in all but the smallest counties, he said.

Boddie said he would improve the labor department’s relationships with legislators.

“I can work across the aisle,” Boddie said. “I think everyone, regardless of party, wants to see the Labor Department succeed.”

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State Rep. William Boddie, candidate for labor commissioner

Credit: cust

State Rep. William Boddie, candidate for labor commissioner

Credit: cust

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State Rep. William Boddie, candidate for labor commissioner

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Credit: cust

Democrat Nadia Surrency said she has a much more diverse background than other candidates. An attorney and CEO of a human resources firm, she said the department should use mobile career centers to augment its offices.

“We need better customer service,” she said. “We need improved technology. And we need to make sure calls are answered on the first ring.”

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Nadia Surrency, lawyer and human resources executive, is running Georgia Labor Commissioner.

Credit: cus

Nadia Surrency, lawyer and human resources executive, is running Georgia Labor Commissioner.

Credit: cus

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Nadia Surrency, lawyer and human resources executive, is running Georgia Labor Commissioner.

Credit: cus

Credit: cus

Republican State Sen. Bruce Thompson said the department needs modernization and an aggressive, business-style emphasis on measuring performance.

“We have got to get them to answer the phones,” he said. “How many calls are you taking? What’s the disposition of those calls? Our triple-A bond rating is at risk and people are suing the government to get their unemployment benefits.”

Thompson said he has much better relations with legislators than Butler and would not face the same hostility over budgets. But he’s not sure they need more workers.

“I have no idea if they are properly staffed, because I have no idea what they do,” he said. “They are still not answering the phones.”

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State Sen. Bruce Thompson, candidate for Labor Commissioner

Credit: con

State Sen. Bruce Thompson, candidate for Labor Commissioner

Credit: con

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State Sen. Bruce Thompson, candidate for Labor Commissioner

Credit: con

Credit: con

Thompson said that while jobless benefits are important, programs should not be overly generous.

“If you get hungry enough,” he said, you’ll get back to work.”

In contrast, Democrat Nicole Horn, a former small business owner, wants to broaden the department’s role. She argues that it should be an advocate for workers, not only with a stronger safety net, but with protections against abuse of workers in unsafe conditions, stolen wages or discrimination.

“I think that is something we can do administratively,” she said.

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Nicole Horn, candidate for labor commissioner

Credit: cus

Nicole Horn, candidate for labor commissioner

Credit: cus

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Nicole Horn, candidate for labor commissioner

Credit: cus

Credit: cus

Horn wants to promote apprenticeship programs and add staff. If legislators won’t help, federal funds are available, she said.

The pandemic may be ebbing, but the Labor Department will face more unexpected crises, Horn said.

The erosion — or potential outright end — to abortion rights in Georgia puts added pressure on working women, and a more activist department would confront that issue, she said.

“Because we are looking at a post-Roe world, women are going to be facing questions about insurance and about time off so they can travel out of state,” Horn said.

Labor commissioner candidates

Republicans

Kartik Bhatt, https://kartikbhattforga.com/

Mike Coan, https://www.mikecoan.com/

Bruce Thompson, https://www.brucethompsonga.com/

Democrats

William Boddie, https://boddieforga.com/

Thomas Dean, no website found.

Nicole Horn, https://www.nicolehornforgeorgia.com/

Lester Jackson, https://lesterforlabor.com/

Nadia Surrency, https://surrencyforgeorgia.com/

Libertarian

Emily Anderson, no website found.

How to vote

Election day is May 24, but early voting for the Georgia primary election has already begun and will continue until May 20 at specified locations in each district.

The race for labor commissioner is among several statewide races on the ballot.

Voters can return absentee ballots through the mail or in drop boxes, but fewer ballot drop boxes are available this year, and there won’t be an option during the final days of the election. Absentee ballots can be requested until May 13. Completed ballots must be received at local election offices before polls close on election day May 24.

If runoffs are required in those primaries, they will be held June 21.

Voters can find voting locations, hours and sample ballots on the state’s My Voter Page at mvp.sos.ga.gov.

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