North Carolina's Problematic Elevator Queen
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North Carolina's Problematic Elevator Queen

Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry made herself a household name to preserve her position.

North Carolina's Problematic Elevator Queen
North Carolina State AFL-CIO

Her face is familiar to all North Carolinian elevator passengers, and she likes it that way. In 2005, N.C. Commissioner of Labor Cherie Berry, now in her fifth term, instituted a rule requiring each elevator's Certificate of Operation to include the labor commissioner's portrait and signature. According to an N.C. Labor Department spokesperson, the measure aims to "put a face on state government." However, this policy does not exist in other states. In a 2009 Q&A, Berry was asked whether having her likeness in every elevator was an effective campaign strategy. Her response aligned with that of her spokesperson, but Berry admitted to being "sure the photo does help with name recognition."

I believe there is more to the story of her elevator portraits, and that it speaks to the importance of name recognition in state elections. This rule was a politically-motivated act of self-promotion, and it secured Cherie Berry's reign as North Carolina's Elevator Queen.

When national politics are at the forefront of public attention, we sometimes lose sight of the importance of state elections. Voters enter the polls prepared to select a presidential candidate but are generally less knowledgeable about races farther down the ballot due to a lack of interest and media attention. While voter drop-off is a problem, arbitrarily selecting candidates is also troubling. Since few voters enter the polls fully informed about every candidate for each office, they rely on heuristics to complete their ballots. These heuristics, which are essentially cognitive shortcuts, help voters decide based on cues such as party affiliation, endorsements, and name recognition. These shortcuts are not necessarily detrimental to democracy, but a baseless heuristic can mislead voters. Cherie Berry is widely recognized because of her elevator photo rule; however, this cue does not relate to her actual merit.

Cherie Berry's elevator photo rule is an effective method of generating renown and harnessing the recognition heuristic's electoral power. Her name and likeness are so well known that she has become a "niche celebrity" in the state. Berry inspired the parody twitter account @ElevatorQueen as well as a few undeniably catchy songs.

According to the recognition heuristic's classic definition, "if one object is recognized, but not the other, then infer that the recognized object has a higher value on the criterion." A study published in the journal of American Politics Research examined whether the elevator pictures helped Cherie Berry win reelection, and found "strong evidence that she would have faced a much closer race in 2012 and might possibly have even lost re-election without the elevator effect." This effect on her electoral success was especially notable in cities with high concentrations of elevators.

Because Cherie Berry is well-known within the state due to her incumbency and elevator presence, she has an automatic advantage over challengers regardless of her fitness for office. Despite being highly qualified, her 2016 Democratic challenger Charles Meeker lost by over ten percentage points. His campaign promised to eliminate the rule requiring the commissioner's photo to be featured on the elevator placards. Meeker said, "in 2014, 128 North Carolinians were killed in the workplace and many more were seriously injured... my focus will be on fixing [the Department of Labor], not on self-promotion through an elevator picture."

Although Cherie Berry defeated him by a landslide, Charles Meeker highlighted an important point: just because she penetrated the North Carolinian consciousness one elevator ride at a time does not mean she is the most qualified person for the position. Under her leadership, the Department of Labor failed to hold employers accountable for not paying their workers. She has been criticized for accepting campaign contributions from executives of companies under investigation by her department. Any left-leaning voters who voted for Berry based on name recognition will be disappointed to learn that she is ultra-conservative. She supports the state's ban on collective bargaining rights for public sector employees, and she served as a co-chair of North Carolina Women for Trump. Cherie Berry may be a familiar face, but her politics are unsettling.

The Elevator Queen's electoral success demonstrates the potential of the recognition heuristic to shape public policy. Although state races are less high-profile than presidential bids, we should never underestimate the implications of down-ballot elections. Berry's actions as leader of the Labor Department impact the lives of everyday North Carolinians. A seemingly innocuous thoughtless vote based on name recognition may wind up hurting your neighbors. Accountability is fundamental to our democracy, but how can we hold our elected representatives accountable if we choose them arbitrarily rather than purposefully? If you must vote for Cherie Berry in 2020, please let it be because you agree with her policies and ideology, not because you see her picture in the elevator.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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