Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry’s Speech at UNC
by: Timothy Bame
Freshman, Political Science and History
Mill Spring, NC
A few days before the November election, I was discussing recent developments in the campaign with a friend of mine who is a Democrat. The conversation shifted to the statewide offices. She told me that she would be voting a straight party ticket except for one Republican candidate: Cherie Berry for Labor Commissioner. My friend was not alone in her actions. Many Democrats chose not to vote in a straight ticket in order to elect Berry. In fact, my friend is not the only Democrat I know who has a positive opinion of Berry’s job performance.
Cherie Berry has in many ways gained great popularity for reasons other than politics. She is so well-known to many North Carolinians because her picture is displayed inside the elevators across the state. It is her department’s job to inspect and certify every elevator in the state. Therefore, to many she is known as the “Elevator Lady” or to those who read her popular parody Twitter account, “Elevator Queen”. In fact, an elevator is the first place I ever heard the name Cherie Berry. My uncle, who was riding the elevator with me, pointed out that her name can be incorrectly pronounced as “Cherry Berry”.
Commissioner Berry is well aware of many of these amusing nicknames. In fact, she stated that she enjoys reading the “Elevator Queen” Twitter account, jokingly saying “It sounds just like me.” She has a very gregarious and contagious personality. That, with her southern accent and attitude, gives her the all-important characteristic of a successful politician: someone you “want to have a beer with.” The UNC students who came to hear her speak on campus on March 5th were treated to a very entertaining yet informative speech about both Berry’s job as the Labor Commissioner and her opinion on many important political issues.
While the Department of Labor in North Carolina is most well-known for its inspection of elevators, Berry said that it is just one of the two most important services that her department provides for the people of North Carolina. Along with elevators, escalators and amusement park rides are also inspected. Berry said of attending the Carowinds amusement park, about half which is under her jurisdiction in North Carolina, “Guess which rides I ride.”
The second role the Labor Department serves is the operation of OSHA, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. North Carolina is one of 22 states across the country that is a state plan state. This means that North Carolina makes its own occupational safety program and enforces its own regulations. Berry takes pride in her positive relationship with the businesses she is tasked with regulating. In fact, she says the reason she ran for Labor Commissioner in the first place was how rude and unhelpful the OSHA inspectors were to her. She sees her relationship with North Carolina businesses as a partnership to ensure that the workplace is as safe as possible.
Despite the success of her OSHA program, Berry has come under fire from liberals both in the media and in the Obama Administration. When the Obama Administration mandated a much higher fine for major workplace safety violations, Berry refused to increase fines from their current levels because she said that it would be better for companies to spend that money on actually fixing the violation. Therefore, companies will not be unfairly punished and the problem will be solved quickly, ensuring employee safety. She said that with a higher fine, it would be more likely the company would fight the violation in court, costing valuable time and money while continuing to put workers in danger. She said that this system has worked well considering that workplace fatalities have dropped since she was elected in 2000.
Berry knows what it is like to work in an environment where partisanship has made it difficult for her to accomplish her goals. When she first took office she was the only Republican on the Council of State. To this day, it is still dominated by Democrats. Berry said that when a second Republican was elected to the Council in 2005, “It was nice to have a second for my motions.” Berry has also had problems with the General Assembly, even now that it is controlled by the Republicans. Her main complaint is that her budget proposals are largely ignored with cuts being made across the board rather than cuts mainly for programs that are not effective.
Berry related this discussion about budget cuts to the recent Sequester. She stressed that these “cuts”, as they are being called by the media, are not cuts at all. In fact, they are actually reducing the rate of the increase in spending. She places much of the blame for the failure of Congress to reach a compromise on President Obama. She claims that Obama is spending all of his time campaigning and not leading. She said it was up to young people like those of us in the audience to stand up and lead because this debt is going to be ours to pay. She encouraged the audience members to be willing to run for office if that is what they want to do.
Many questions have been raised recently about whether Commissioner Berry will enter the race against Kay Hagan for the U.S. Senate in 2014. Berry dodged the question at UNC, saying that she does not have to make a decision yet. With her great speaking skills and personality that are so important in campaigning, her experience, and her name recognition compared to other Republican contenders, don’t count the “Elevator Queen” out from making it all the way to Washington.
This article’s pictures can be found at: https://twitter.com/ElevatorQueen, http://www.nclabor.com/commish.htm, and http://elonlocalnews.com/2012/11/eln-cherie-berry-interview/.