When Jessica Holmes announced her campaign for North Carolina Labor Commissioner, I wondered if she’d picked the right race. Her presumptive opponent, Cherie Berie, would be bolstered by years of ill won notoriety. The Republican incumbent has ridden name recognition to five straight victories–a record better than Roy Cooper’s success as a Attorney General. With the possible exception of Steve Troxler, Berry might have entered as the most forbidding favorite on the entire 2020 ballot.

Berry’s announcement that she will not run for a sixth term, then, is a game changer for Democrats. Holmes now has an opening to win a council of state seat that Republicans have held for twenty years. A Democratic pickup could give a major boost to North Carolina workers, as Berry has entrenched an anti-labor stance in North Carolina’s approach to labor regulation. The labor commissioner race should immediately jump toward the top of the Democratic priority list.

In Holmes, Democrats have a strong candidate. Only in her late twenties at the time, Holmes won a county commission seat in our second-largest and, arguably, most important county. She ascended to commission chair at the age of 33, becoming the most powerful person in Wake County government. With the potential backing of national labor organizations, she’ll have the resources to go with her clear political talent.

And she will need both assets to compete in this race. As promising as this opportunity is for Democrats, the party can no longer count on winning council of state races as a matter of course. Republicans broke through a century-old tradition of Democratic control in 2016, picking up three seats they had never held before. Labor policies matter immensely to the reactionary wing of the business community, which provides Republicans with lucrative backing, so the GOP can be expected to put up a hard, hard fight for this seat. The race for labor commissioner will be as competitive as any downballot election in years.

Republicans have directed labor regulation for far too long. As commissioner, the departing Berry failed to enforce worker protections and too often deferred to the wishes of bad corporate actors. Democrats finally have an opportunity restore the labor department to its proper purpose. Holmes’s task is to make the most of this opportunity, as she has for her entire life.

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