It is a belief in the dignity of work that helped inspire Cathy Costello to run for the position of Oklahoma Labor Commissioner.
Costello, the widow of former Labor Commissioner Mark Costello, said she made the decision to run at the end of July of last year.
"In the very end of July I had friends and family saying 'you need to consider running for Labor Commissioner so I sat down and studied what the constitutional duties are. I knew them from my husband but I really studied the duties as Cathy Costello, not Mark Costello. I understand the challenge for some people might be 'well she's a widow, but why should she be the labor commissioner?" she said. " I don't want anyone voting for me as a pity vote."
Costello said, "I don't want anyone's vote based on my tragedy but after reading the constitution and looking at my life I realized I'm qualified, I have the knowledge, the expertise and the passion. Passion cannot be underestimated. If you don't have passion for what you're doing, you won't be effective."
Per the state constitution, Costello said the Labor Commissioner is "is called on to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earner, to protect the wage earner in the workplace, to advance opportunities for profitable employment and carry out the laws of the legislature."
Costello believes she's more than up to the task.
She said she's been working since she was 15-years old. The daughter of a stay-at-home mom and a post office employee, her parents could not afford to send her to school.
Costello said she worked, opened a savings account and went to school.
"I pursued a degree in classical music and opera. I still sing today. One of my favorite things to do is sing to veterans with PTSD. I have a deeper understanding and appreciation of PTSD now," she said. "My husband was killed in front of me and died in my arms. It's something I never really understood before. It really opened my eyes and my heart to veterans and police officers and firefighters and what they deal with. If you haven't been through it, you don't always understand. And music is a great joy to me, and hopefully I can bring some joy to others."
Costello said she started her own business as aw ay to fund her education but later started several businesses with her late husband, Mark.
"I opened a business with my husband right after we were married. We worked hand-in-hand and started eight businesses in six industries around the world. We had a business in Manchester, England. And I am running some of those businesses now in his absence," she said.
She said this is important to her and plays directly into the Labor Commissioners duty to protect the workforce.
"I have an understanding of the challenges of what it's like to try to run a business, to try to feed your family, to try to feed other families—what it's like to reach into your own pocket to make payroll when you weren't having a good month," she said.
The state constitution says the Labor Commissioner advances opportunities for profitable employment.
"I thought about what that means. I think we want profit for two reasons—we have a temporal need. We have to eat. We have to put a roof over our head and clothes on the backs of our children. But there's a deeper element, though, to work. Work brings dignity to who we are as human beings. I believe we were created by almighty God to be productive. And when you use the talents that God has given you, you are productive and you care for your family and neighbors. So you kind of carry out the golden rule of loving God and loving and serving your neighbor."
In addition to being a business owner, Costello has become a mental health advocate and educator, speaking all over the country.
Ten weeks after her husband's death, Costello said, she testified before a senate hearing committee and was ultimately instrumental in the passing of a bill named in her husband's honor, which helps those in an ongoing mental health crisis.
She said her family's story was instrumental in getting the Helping Families With Mental Health Crisis Act passed in Washington D.C.—despite its failing in committee three years in a row.
"Sometimes you have to have tragedy before people wake up," she said. "I could stay home, pull the covers over my head and feel sorry for myself the rest of my life… I don't want to see another family go through what we've gone through."
Costello, a committee member for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, said she believes mental health is a labor issue.
"I studied the data in Oklahoma. Here's some shocking statistics. We are the second worst state in the union for mental illness. We are consistently one of the lowest-funded. But here's what's even more shocking. The number one reason for low productivity in the work place is actually mental health issues. It's the second leading reason for absenteeism, 30% of our disability cost and our employers are spending an additional $600 million each year on claims for mental health issues and in two years the number one reason for disability will be mental health issues," she said.
She added, "Life is precious and time is short. We only have so much time to do things on this earth and I know that in a real, deep way. I know that I can be an excellent Labor Commissioner. I know that I understand the importance of the dignity in work. All you have to do is talk to a man who has been out of work for six months with kids to feed—it's soul crushing. They feel hopeless and useless."
In officer, Costello said she wants to work to promote job creation, improve workplace safety and address workplace mental health. She wants the Department of Labor to be known as a user-friendly department.
"As Labor Commissioner I will apply the same formula that allowed Mark and me to succeed in business: Hard work, solid values, diligent planning and biblical principles," she said. "As Mark once said, 'I have an old-fashioned belief that the fruits of your labor belong to you; not to be taken and redistributed by some bureaucratic program.'"