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Challenger looks to remove Cherie Berry from elevators

Berry, the state’s labor commissioner since 2001, is renowned for her peculiar name, which is commonly mispronounced.

The correct pronunciation of her first name is “shuh-REE,” not that it bothers the labor commissioner.

“I love to hear (people) say it,” Berry said. “They just love ‘Cherry’ Berry.”

But Berry’s name and photo in elevators statewide has become a campaign issue, as the Republican incumbent faces re-election in November.

Her Democratic opponent is Charles Meeker, the former mayor of Raleigh. Meeker has pledged to remove the labor commissioner’s name and photo from elevators if elected.

“The photo is really just a self-promotion by a career politician,” he said.

Meeker said under Berry, the Department of Labor has failed to protect and serve workers in the state. He said he would take steps to emphasize worker safety, require that employers pay full wages on time and ensure workers are correctly classified as employees rather than contractors so they receive benefits.

“(Berry) has been there now 16 years, and her approach has been very laissez-faire in nature,” he said. “She just hasn’t done what the Department of Labor ought to be doing.”

Berry said she will campaign on her record of lowering the injury and illness rate of workers statewide. The 2015 rate of 2.7 cases of injury and illness per 100 workers in private industry — down from 5.3 in 2000 — is among the lowest in the nation.

“That’s fewer people who experienced injuries or illnesses and pain and suffering,” Berry said.

But name recognition might trump the issues in the labor commissioner election, according to Ferrel Guillory, a UNC journalism professor specializing in North Carolina politics.

“There are some voters who vote for someone whose name they generally recognize,” he said. “The state has a small number of swing voters and having had a name that people will recognize gives an incumbent an advantage.”

Berry’s name recognition has already resulted in a parody Twitter account, @ElevatorQueen, and several music videos.

“It surprised me, first of all,” Berry said. “There were about 250 people at an event I attended, and a lot of them came up afterwards and wanted to have a selfie done because their husband or wife didn’t believe they met ‘Cherry’ Berry.”

Berry remembers a story about a family who moved from North Carolina to Chicago. The family’s 4-year-old daughter refused to ride the elevator at their new apartment because it didn’t have Berry’s photo in it.

“It’s just been surprisingly a lot of fun,” Berry said.

Meeker is trying to elevate his political profile by criticizing Berry’s elevator photo, Guillory said.

“It’s obviously not a big issue; it doesn’t change the safety of the mechanics of an elevator,” Guillory said. “He’s making a symbolic point.”

And while Berry acknowledges Meeker’s point, she thinks some North Carolinians would take issue with the removal of the photo.

“It’s just an angle he’s using,” she said. “I don’t think there would be some little kids that would be very happy with that, but if that’s the route he wants to go, that’s fine.”

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