OKLAHOMA CITY – Governor Mary Fallin on Tuesday announced she will appoint Melissa McLawhorn Houston to be the state’s labor commissioner until January 2019. Houston, who has been chief of staff and policy adviser for Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, will serve the remainder of former Labor Commissioner Mark Costello’s term.
Costello, who was re-elected in 2014, was murdered in August. Tuesday (November 10) would have been Mark Costello’s 60th Birthday.
The commissioner of labor is responsible for the enforcement of labor laws that promote fairness and equity in the workforce, including state wage laws, workers’ compensation compliance, state Occupational Safety and Health Administration laws for public employers, child labor laws and various other duties.
The safety standards division regulates welding practices as well as the installation, operation and maintenance of boilers, pressure vessels, hot water heaters, amusement rides and elevators.
The licensing division issues alarm and locksmith, asbestos, welder, boiler operator, installer, elevator, certificate of competency, weld test facility, weld inspector, alternative fuels, and private employment agency licenses. The division also accepts payments for inspections and violations.
Before serving at the attorney general’s office, Houston served for nine years (2002-2011) as the chief of staff for the Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security.
Prior to that, she served as deputy director for the Oklahoma Sheriffs Association and as an attorney for the Oklahoma Truth in Sentencing Policy Advisory Commission. She has a law degree from the University of Oklahoma College of Law.
Houston has overseen and directed administrative operations in the attorney general’s office and she oversaw and managed federal programming and funds while chief of staff at Homeland Security.
In 2013, McLawhorn was unresponsive to written questions from CapitolBeatOK concerning programs which were enacted to provide alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, but were not at that time under implementation.
Announcing her choice for the Labor post, Gov. Fallin said in a prepared statement, “Melissa knows how to run a state agency and how to ensure the public is getting the most out of the dollars it invests. “I know she is excited to build on Mark Costello’s legacy of delivering a more efficient and effective state agency. Her expertise and experience in budget-management will be particularly important to the Labor Department during what is sure to be a challenging fiscal year for the state.”
Houston said she was honored to be chosen: “Throughout my career in state government, I have learned a lot about the challenges we face and the solutions that will help us overcome those obstacles. More importantly, I’ve developed a great pride for this state and its people, and I look forward to joining the very hardworking and qualified staff at the Department of Labor and to furthering its mission in this new role.
“It has been a privilege to work for Attorney General Scott Pruitt, but I am excited about this new opportunity to serve the people and the state of Oklahoma.”
Current law allows that Houston serve the remainder of Costello’s term. Houston said she is not going to seek election to the labor commissioner post in 2018. There has been some discussion of making the post appointive.
Houston will begin her new role by Dec. 1.
In the wake of Costello’s murder, his widow, Cathy Costello, had asked to be considered for the role of labor commissioner.
Fallin said she took that request seriously.
“Cathy is a wonderful woman and I am heartbroken for her loss,” said Fallin. “I wish Cathy the best and I hope she continues to be an important state advocate for mental health issues.”
Anna-Marie Costello, daughter of Cathy and Mark, posted a note on Facebook honoring her slain father, wishing happy birthday to “my beloved father. We have fought the good fight, we have finished the race as best as we could. We will continue your legacy. Your work in the labor department will be left as you being a legendary Oklahoma State Labor Commissioner.
“Your work was greatly appreciated by all. I am saddened we will not be able to continue the Costello name at the labor department. On your birthday we have heavy hearts.
“I love with you with my whole heart.”
NOTE: Pat McGuigan contributed to this report.