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8.12.22 – The Oklahoman –

In the upcoming Republican runoff election, Oklahoma’s labor commissioner will attempt to fend off an intraparty challenge from a term-limited state lawmaker who has questioned her conservative credentials.

First-term Labor Commissioner Leslie Osborn will face Rep. Sean Roberts in the Aug. 23 election.

Calling Osborn a liberal and a RINO (Republican in name only), Roberts has argued the incumbent labor commissioner isn’t conservative enough. He has also touted his legislative record of opposing tax increases, supporting pro-gun legislation and voting in favor of a bill to prevent transgender athletes from competing in women’s sports and a so-called ban on critical race theory.

Osborn says she’s running to continue her work as labor commissioner and expand new programs she initiated during her first term. Questioning whether Roberts knows the labor commissioner’s job duties, Osborn said her opponent is running solely on social issues unrelated to the position.

In the lead up to the runoff election, 20-year-old allegations from Roberts’ ex-wife that he abused and mistreated her while they were married have resurfaced.

The allegations led five female state lawmakers to call on Roberts to drop out of the labor commissioner’s race. Roberts dismissed their comments as a political hit orchestrated by his opponent, although Osborn has denied involvement in the release of public court documents from Roberts’ divorce. Roberts’ ex-wife endorsed his bid for labor commissioner.

In the June GOP primary, 47% of voters supported Osborn and 38% voted for Roberts.

What is the role of Oklahoma’s labor commissioner?

The labor commissioner leads the Oklahoma Department of Labor, which is in charge of ensuring workplace safety and protecting the welfare of workers. The agency is responsible for inspecting everything from elevators to amusement park rides, in addition to overseeing the state’s worker’s compensation programs.

Osborn, 58, served 10 years in the Oklahoma House before being elected to statewide office. While in the Legislature, she spent a year as chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee where she played a key role in writing the state budget.

She was removed from that leadership post after she publicly disagreed with House leadership on a state agency funding issue. Now, she touts the demotion as proof that she’s willing to stand up to “party bosses” and the “good ol’ boys.”

She graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and owned and operated a small business selling heavy-duty truck parts for more than two decades.

Roberts, 48, is in his 12th and final year representing Hominy in the Oklahoma Legislature. He has served as assistant majority whip and chaired several committees, including House Public Health and County and Municipal Government, according to his campaign.

He got his undergraduate degree from Southern Nazarene University and a master’s in physical therapy from the University of Oklahoma. Roberts and his wife own and operate a physical therapy business.

Osborn makes a pitch for four more years

The Labor Department is tasked with reporting to the federal government critical workforce shortages. Through that reporting, Osborn noticed many of the state’s skilled workers, such as plumbers and electricians, are nearing retirement without enough young workers lined up to go into those career fields.

That’s when Osborn pitched Oklahoma City Public Schools officials on the idea of bringing back shop classes. Now, they are working on a pilot program to do just that, she said.

“We’ve always just reported on (workforce shortages), but for the first time, we’re actually doing something about it,” Osborn said.

With another four years in office, Osborn said she plans to expand efforts to educate high school students on career tracks outside of traditional, four-year colleges. She hopes to connect more students to the state’s career and technology centers with the aim of getting more people qualified to work in high-paying jobs in the skilled trades.

“It helps the economy because we need the jobs filled,” she said. “It helps them because it’s a lucrative career path.”

Osborn said she spends a significant portion of her time promoting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Consultation Service Program, which provides free and confidential safety training for small businesses.

If re-elected, Osborn said she’d like to continue making headway on occupational licensing reform and working with criminal justice reform groups to help guide Oklahomans getting out of jail or recovery back into the workforce in appropriate job fields.

This fall, the Labor Department will roll out online renewals for occupational licenses, Osborn said. Now, Oklahomans have to renew in person or through the mail.

She also touted that the Labor Department has maintained a flat budget while she has led the agency.

At times, Osborn has been an outspoken critic of GOP state leaders’ desire to cut taxes and focus on hot-button social issues designed to motivate the Republican base. Citing low teacher pay, a shortage of certified teachers and underfunded state services, she said the state has bigger problems that need to be addressed.

“My belief has always been that government’s role is to provide the fabric that allows a society to function and its citizens to flourish,” Osborn said. “We often delve off into multitudes of social issue bills (and) cutting taxes so that we sound like we’ve been properly conservative instead of focusing on the real problems in the state.”

State lawmaker offers a second Republican option

Roberts’ campaign did not make him available for a phone interview.

In brief responses to emailed questions, Roberts touted his legislative experience and the nearly 10 years he spent working in management at UPS as qualifications to lead the labor department.

When asked how he would differ from Osborn as labor commissioner, Roberts said he would work with Gov. Kevin Stitt to make Oklahoma a top 10 state, a nod to the governor’s oft-used campaign slogan. Stitt endorsed Roberts in the statewide race.

“As Labor Commissioner, my most important role will be providing resources for a safe work environment so Oklahomans return safely home to their families,” Roberts wrote in an email.

Public documents have circulated recently showing Roberts’ ex-wife in 2002 filed for a protective order against him as they were on track to get divorced. In her request, Jennifer Roberts claimed her then-husband hit and disparaged her during their marriage.

Roberts’ current wife and ex-wife have both defended him in statements released by his campaign.

In a recent letter, Jennifer Roberts wrote she has nothing bad to say about her ex-husband, whom she characterized as a good man. She called Roberts a conservative Republican, and said she would vote for him if she lived in Oklahoma.

Roberts initially planned to run for Congress this year, but said he changed course after his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. He touts endorsements from the Oklahoma Second Amendment Association, Oklahomans for Health and Parental Rights and the Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee.

Osborn has been endorsed by the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, Oklahoma Associated Builders and Contractors, Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association and Oklahomans for Public Education, among others.

Osborn has raised more campaign cash than her opponent, but both candidates have relied on personal loans. Osborn loaned herself $15,600 and Roberts loaned his campaign $10,500, according to campaign finance reports.

The winner of the runoff election will face Democrat Jack Henderson and Libertarian Will Daugherty in the general election.