MIAMI - Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Republican candidate Cathy Costello’s passion is obvious, real and heartfelt.
Running on a platform of promoting job creation, improving workplace safety and addressing workplace mental health, Costello made a campaign stop in Miami last week.
“I know that as an effective Labor Commissioner I must be committed to protecting both Oklahoma earners and employers,” she said in an interview.
The subject of mental health is an all too close issue for Costello who lost her husband of 34 years, the former Oklahoma Labor Commissioner from 2011 to 2015, Mark Costello, in a tragic event on Aug. 23, 2015, when their mentally ill son stabbed and killed her husband. Their son, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, had stopped taking his medication which led to the tragedy.
“My husband died in my arms. It’s been devastating,” Costello said. “It’s opened my heart, mind, and soul to other people. I’ve learned that everybody has a story, everybody has a cross, and I thinks it’s our obligation and responsibility to open our hearts to others, and to have compassion.”
Dealing with the aftermath, Costello has bravely picked up her late husband’s torch and carried on adding new ideas of her own to her campaign.
“I have a passion for what I want to do because passion is driven by purpose,” she said.
Leadership is key to the role of labor commissioner, and Costello feels her track record is a testament to her ability to lead.
“I think I’ve proven my leadership, about 10 weeks after my husband died I was testifying before a Senate Hearing Committee, and I got a Bill passed unanimously that assists people with mental health issues,” she said.
Asked why she chose to run for Oklahoma Labor Commissioner, Costello cited Oklahoma Statute 40 that lists the duties of the job, including fostering, promoting the development of the wage earner, keeping the wage earner safe in the workplace, and providing opportunities for the wage earner for profitable employment through job creation, and carry out legislative laws over the Labor Department.
She says her five years of experience at her husband’s side as he served gives her an edge over other candidates.
“We discussed and prayed together about major decisions every day,” she said.
Costello was born and raised in Overland Park, Kansas. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Kansas and is a classically trained singer. Costello met and married her husband at a church in Bartlesville, and they raised their five children in Edmond.
A successful entrepreneur, she started her first business to fund her college education, and shortly after her marriage invested her savings in a startup business. The Costellos worked together to develop and launch eight successful businesses in six industries. She has also worked in education in Texas and Oklahoma.
“I have signed the front and the back of a paycheck,” Costello said. “To me, there’s importance in having someone who has run businesses, not a career politician. In Oklahoma, 85 percent of the jobs are from private sector small businesses. I’ve run small businesses myself and understand that.”
Support of small businesses with less and more reasonable regulation and workers comp reforms are important to Costello.
“I saw a lot of small businesses as I went all over Miami. I ate breakfast at Buttered Buns, I went by KuKu’s, I’ve talked to people who have insurance companies here, small business, and so for me, a labor commissioner must understand and cultivate private sector businesses," she said.
Costello said Oklahoma’s State Motto “Labor conquers all things,” exemplifies her belief in the value of cultivating the workforce for Oklahoma’s future.
“Having a job means food on our table, a roof over our heads, but it’s something deeper, it’s something more spiritual," Costello said. “Working brings dignity to who we are as human beings. God has created us to be productive. ...There is no job that is too small or unimportant.”
Costello believes addressing mental health in the workforce is a crucial factor in employment issues such as disability claims, work performance loss, and is the second leading cause of absenteeism. Under her administration, if elected, she will spearhead a taskforce to examine the impact of mental health on workplace productivity.
“We have one in four Oklahomans suffering from mental health disorders, that’s very high,” Costello said. “That’s about 900,000 Oklahomans suffering, and it impacts the state.”
She said when those dealing with mental illness work they have dignity and pride.
“Work solves so many issues,” Costello said.
Since her husband’s death, she continues as a working partner and owner with the family businesses. Costello has become a national speaker on mental health issues and worked to pass state and federal legislation to address mental health needs.
She believes the state of Oklahoma can benefit from focusing funding on three areas, and cutting out other budget items, such as $30 million allotted for trinket and swag items.
“I think that no matter how much money we have or how little we have, the reality is we need to prioritize for mental health, substance abuse, and education,” Costello said. “We need transparency out of all agencies, and all agencies should be audited for duplication, bureaucracy.”
Costello says she is ready for election day and the challenge of being an effective Labor Commissioner committed to hard work, solid values, diligent planning and Biblical principles, just as her late husband.
“I can do something productive. I am still broken hearted, but I’m not broken,” she said. “This is what I know, this is where my heart is, and my passion, and this reflects my experience and expertise.”
Current Labor Commissioner Melissa Houston is retiring in 2018. The only declared candidates are Costello and Republican Leslie Osborn. The deciding primary is set for June 26, 2018.
Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.