Republican incumbent Mark Butler, left, is facing Democratic challenger Richard Keatley in the race for labor commissioner. Submitted photos.

Former congressional candidate challenges incumbent labor commissioner

Taking another shot at public office, Democrat Richard Keatley is hoping to unseat the state’s two-term incumbent labor commissioner.

Keatley said while he agrees that Georgia’s economy is doing well and the unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in decades, he believes Mark Butler isn’t doing his best to serve the state’s workforce.

The Department of Labor provides services to job seekers and employers, including running Georgia’s unemployment insurance program and overseeing child labor issues.

Butler said he’s proud of the work the department’s done to make more Georgians employable through the GeorgiaBEST program, which focuses on teaching students “soft skills” such as problem solving, appropriate work attire and teamwork.

“Employers say what a lot of these individuals lack isn’t specific training for a job, and it’s more life-skills issues,” Butler said. “That’s one of the No. 1 factors keeping people from getting a job and also from keeping a job.”

This is Keatley’s second attempt at running for public office. The former Georgia State University French professor ran in last year’s special election in the 6th Congressional District. He finished 16th among 18 candidates, garnering 229 votes.

Keatley said the state needs to expand the number of career centers available across the state, noting that several centers in rural areas such as Cordele and Newnan have shuttered in recent years. State-run career centers help businesses and job seekers connect as well as assist those who are unemployed apply for benefits.

“Those areas have the highest unemployment rates,” he said. “They like to brag about (statewide unemployment) coming down. But those rural areas are struggling.”

Butler said since the bulk of the agency’s funding comes from the federal government, and is determined by the number of unemployment claims, it makes it difficult to square spending $1 million a year to keep a career center open when maybe only four people come in for help.

“I’m operating today with 50 million fewer dollars than I had eight years ago,” he said, adding that many of the services are available online.

A Carrollton native, Butler graduated from Auburn University and worked with his family’s real estate appraisal and consulting company for about 20 years. He served eight years in the state House before being elected labor commissioner in 2010.

Keatley served in the Navy before earning a doctorate in French from Yale University. He initially considered getting back into the 6th Congressional District race, but he said after learning there were several qualified Democrats running, he opted for the less crowded labor commissioner race. He defeated Democrat Fred Quinn in the primary.

Keatley said a main issue he wants to address is quality of life for the state’s workforce. That includes working with lawmakers to pass laws that benefit the working class, including raising the minimum wage and offering housing that workers can afford.

“It’s important we take into consideration projects for affordable housing,” he said. “If all the workers in Midtown are forced to move to Henry County, that commute reduces the quality of life for workers.”

An Ohio native who moved to Atlanta in 1998, Keatley has outraised the incumbent, pulling in almost twice what Butler reported.

According to campaign finance reports, Butler had raised a little more than $74,000 as of the Sept. 30 filing deadline. Keatley reported receiving about $130,000 in contributions.

Seeking his third term, Butler said he’s found his past eight years as labor commissioner to be gratifying.

“Quite frankly, this is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my entire life when it comes to occupation or public service,” he said. “Being able to connect the dots when it comes to the workforce and helping either individuals or businesses find the right fit, it’s incredibly rewarding.”

OUR REPORTING

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is covering the issues and candidates up and down the ballot in a busy election year. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.

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