Mary Fant Donnan | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week

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Mary Fant Donnan

Candidate for Labor Commissioner

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Name as it appears on the ballot: Mary Fant Donnan
Date of Birth: May 29, 1962
Campaign Web Site: www.maryfantdonnan.com
Occupation & Employer: Program Officer, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation
Years lived in North Carolina: 19 years



1. What do you see as the most important issues facing the Department of Labor and working people in North Carolina? If elected, what are your top three priorities in addressing those issues?

Leadership is the most important issue facing the department and job security, job safety, and a living income are three important issues facing working people in North Carolina.

As a Democratic candidate for the office of N.C. Commissioner of Labor, I seek to be a leader in three primary ways: (1) setting the highest-quality standards for carrying forward the duties and responsibilities of the office (workplace safety, workplace standards, and workforce development); (2) serving as a spokesperson for issues related to the department and developing and implementing good public policy; and (3) providing energetic leadership to bring workplace issues into the broader efforts of state government (such as economic development efforts, health care, public sector employment, etc.).

2. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective on the issues you’ve identified? Please be as specific as possible in relating past accomplishments to current goals.

My work history is one steeped in public service that prepares me for leadership as Commissioner of Labor. I have recent, relevant experience in the Department, where I served as Policy Analyst then Director of Policy and Research from 1994-2001. In that role, I helped launch the NC Individual Development Account (IDA) and Asset-Building Collaborative and oversaw creation of the General Assembly’s IDA program to help low-income working families buy their first homes, increase their education, and build small businesses. I helped support several interagency efforts, including the School to Work Initiative, the NC Alliance for Competitive Technologies, the Governor’s Workforce Preparedness Commission, and the NC Economic Development Board. I also oversaw the federal survey of occupational injuries and illnesses. My work gave me a broad overview of different elements of the department as well as its roles in the context of state government. I have a track record of being able to work well with others, of developing public policy, and of creating and overseeing programs (such as the IDA). In the policy arena, one effort was to develop a wage standard for economic incentive packages offered through the Bill Lee Act. Though the standards were not adopted in the Act’s amendments, it gave me a starting point to understand ways that public investments can better be used to benefit workers and all members of a community. In terms of workplace safety, reviewing the data from the annual census instills a deep sense of how important it is for people to go to work and leave the same day without accident or injury.

For the past seven years, I have worked as a program officer with the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, where I am the primary point of contact for the Foundation’s community economic development grantmaking. In this capacity, I have seen exciting community-based efforts to rebuild local economies devastated by plant closings. I have also come to appreciate the systemic impact that public polices make on creating opportunities for all. In particular, though I meet with many affordable housing programs and support strengthening the continuum of affordable housing available in our state, I also see that a living wage and affordable health care are fundamental approaches that have tremendous positive impacts on families – for families’ abilities to make their own choices about housing, for their abilities to pay their bills, for their abilities to be involved in their communities rather than juggling two and three jobs, and the list goes on. I bring to the Labor Commissioner’s office past work meeting with non-profit and government entities from across our state’s wonderful communities.

I started my work in North Carolina as director of development for the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research (1989-1994), where I was responsible for raising an annual budget of $400,000. As a political candidate, I have relied on my comfort in asking people for money that was developed in that period. Though it is a skill set that might not be most necessary in running the department, it is very important in our system of campaign finance.

I entered the workforce in 1988 as a public school music teacher, teaching over 800 students weekly in seven rural elementary and high schools. I have been interested in issues of education and have become more interested in adult education since those days. I think there are important roles that the registered apprenticeship program can play in helping implement the goal of engaging in solutions to our economic restructuring.

3. How do you define yourself politically, and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?

What defines me personally perhaps defines me politically. I grew up in a small, close-knit rural Appalachian community that instilled in me the importance of family, hard work, community pride, compassion, and fairness. I am a hard worker, and I stay involved with my community while also being committed to my immediate and extended family. I believe market forces create a competitive and lean economy that fulfills our country’s self-image of a land of opportunity; and, I believe that government has an important role balancing which interests gain most and lose from a market system. When I first read Das Capital, I was struck by how much Marx’s predictions seemed to be coming true in the early 1900’s in the absence of several important laws that intervened to balance the equation. I think my interest in the public policy framework around a living income, around asset-building, and around fair and safe workplaces reflect my core beliefs in work and fairness.

4. The Independent’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle and North Carolina. Please point to a specific position in your platform that would, if achieved, help further that goal.

I would speak to a living income. Some people think about a living wage. The wage element is fundamental. I believe work should pay. I also hear workers and employers talking about health care costs. I think the state can and should look at its ability to address what can be done about the various elements of our compensation system that make businesses struggle or thrive. At the top of this list is the cost of health care. What the General Assembly did last summer to create a high risk insurance pool is important to all of us – for our rates and access to health care as well as for the individuals who need help. None of us fully understands the impact rising health care costs and the absence of an affordable, widespread health insurance system has on our state. In the Triad, where I live, a study about three years ago indicated that the highest cause of personal bankruptcy was when a working person with health insurance encountered an unexpected health care emergency (and related costs) that pushed the person over the edge. Though health care is not overseen by the Department of Labor, I think it is important for the person in such a role to raise issues that are being discussed within the businesses and industries overseen by the department. I also think it is very important for the Labor Commissioner to speak out on issues specifically related to the department. The current commissioner abdicated that opportunity last summer when the General Assembly was debating the state minimum wage. It is important for the Labor Commissioner to oversee the specific duties of the department, and it is important for the Commissioner to tackle bigger public policy issues, bringing a workforce and industry perspective to the table with other executive and legislative entities.

5. Identify and explain one principled stand you would be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some popularity points with voters.

I have mentioned the minimum wage in my answer above. I know that mentioning a minimum wage evokes a strong negative reaction in many. However, I hope to have a chance to debunk some of the myths about a minimum wage, for example, an increased wage rate causes inflation. Not true, especially when other factors, such as the use of technology, increase worker productivity far beyond the rise is wages. What an increased wage does cause is an adjustment that allows working people, in the economies in which we all live, to secure the most basic necessities to thrive as human beings.

6. If these issues haven’t been addressed above, would you please comment on:

  • Workplace health: Recent reports have identified serious problems in some of North Carolina’s poultry- and hog-slaughtering factories. What changes would you make to the Labor Department’s practices in this area? What policy changes would you advocate at the General Assembly? What is the best way to ensure that these plants quickly come into compliance? What is the role of financial penalties in forcing companies to comply with the law? What dollar amounts do you think would incent companies to comply?
  • First, the current commissioner abandoned efforts on an ergonomics standard. We need to revisit both the complicated science of ergonomics issues as well as ways to bring the best technologies into workplaces to ensure as few injuries as possible. It is equally important to empower workers with knowledge about their work stations and the best ways to prevent injuries. Though I am not sure what policies I would put forth to the General Assembly in the first year, I think it is worth revisiting the current financial penalties. I am not sure what the best amount is, but the general schedules of fines seem to be somewhat outdated. At the same time, a key to setting a tone of responsibility of the Commissioner is to enforce the fines on the books. Failing to be vigilant with the bad actors is unfair to workers and unfair to other businesses that are doing the right thing.

  • Migrant labor: What more should the Labor Department be doing to assure decent working and living conditions for migrant workers, including farmworkers?
  • The strong farmworker advocacy efforts in the General Assembly last session made significant steps in the right direction. It will be important to make sure these protections are being overseen well. It is also important to help both growers and farmworkers understand their roles in providing and protecting decent and safe housing. I think it would be important for me to meet with growers and with farmworkers as well as advocacy groups to better understand what improvements still need to be made.

  • Jobs: Are there steps your department should be taking to help the working people of North Carolina “move up the ladder” —i.e., secure and retain better jobs at better pay?
  • Yes, and the registered apprenticeship program at the department is exactly the kind of program needed to help with that transition. Part of the strength of the program is that it lays out a training wage that increases to a journeyman’s wage at the end of the program. I have also learned through work at the Foundation how important it is to help people connect to programs at the community college that help identify skills required for various jobs and what skill level they have coming in. I think there are opportunities to better connect the kinds of services different state agencies offer to help North Carolinians “move up the ladder.”

7. Should public employees have the right to bargain collectively in North Carolina?

I support the right to bargain collectively in the public sector. Many of the state’s frontline workers are also working below a living wage, despite the difficult and important roles they play for all of us. Because so many of the public sector’s employees are essential workers in times of emergency of in providing important benefits to North Carolinians, I think it is important to consider when or if collective bargaining goes along with the right to strike. I think state government should be a model employer and able to manage the kinds of work issues that arise in the private sector with collective bargaining. The important point related to this question is what does it take to create fiscal modernization in a way that allows for workers, who might have an increased voice in their compensation, to meet with a state that has sufficient resources to bargain for better pay? I think fiscal modernization is very important, and I am willing to put energy into helping other North Carolinians understand this complex but important topic.

8. Turnover and short-staffing in the compliance division and wage and hour bureau continues to be a problem for the department. How would you address these personnel issues? What are the ramifications of the turnover and short-staffing? What funding would be necessary and how would you make the case for a larger appropriation from the legislature? If no additional funding is appropriated, how would you keep up with the caseload?

I would need to know more about the current issues within this bureau. It is hard to know if the salary is not competitive, is there something about the pressures of the job or the work environment, etc. I would address these issues by listening first and reviewing data. The ramifications for all employers in a high turnover rate and short-staffing are that high rates cost money in terms of productivity and training. I would have to make a funding recommendation after reviewing what work is taking place and how technology might be more helpful in containing costs while increasing productivity.

9. As member of the Council of State, you would have input on the issue of the death penalty, including the execution protocol, which was taken up by the Council last year. Do you feel qualified to vote on such issues? If so, how would you vote on the execution protocol and other death penalty matters that may come before the Council? And is the Council of State an appropriate body to deliberate these issues?

As long as the death penalty is legal within North Carolina, wrestling with the complex levels of issues, such as protocol, will be important. Do I feel knowledgeable or qualified? No. I know only what I’ve read in the papers or heard on the radio. How would I vote? I would do the best due diligence possible and be willing to make decisions as vested in the office I hold. Is the Council of State the best body to deliberate? I have heard that other states appoint a panel of criminal justice experts to review these kinds of topics. Though the Council of State might be an imperfect body for making such decisions, it is not a bad idea to have an elected group of officials administering such a controversial topic in the state.

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