The primary runoff to choose a Democratic nominee for state labor commissioner was rough on North Carolina’s taxpayers but good for last night’s winner, neophyte candidate Mary Fant Donnan. The first-place finisher in the initial primary on May 6 by a narrow margin, Donnan used the subsequent six weeks to build her support and a stronger campaign team. She won the runoff by a better than 2-to-1 margin over former labor commissioner John C. Brooks.

Especially telling were the results in Wake County, where Donnan, who lives in Winston-Salem, defeated Raleigh resident Brooks by 3 to 1, with 4,494 votes to Brooks’ 1,745.

Donnan was endorsed by the other two candidates in the May 6 primary, Raleigh lawyer Robin Anderson and Ty Richardson, a Wendell machinist. She retained the endorsement of the state AFL-CIO’s political committee, the trial lawyers association, the teachers association, and Equality N.C., a gay advocacy group. The four newspapers that endorsed in the primary also backed Donnan, including the Charlotte Observer and the Independent.

Donnan’s opponent in November is the Republican incumbent, Cherie Berry, who won renomination without opposition.

Workplace safety, especially in slaughterhouses, promises to be a major issue between the two. Donnan’s been pointing to the Charlotte Observer‘s investigative reporting on worker injuries in poultry plants to buttress her contention that the state’s OSHA inspections program is understaffed. Berry denied any problems.

Donnan has called for “focused inspections” across the meat-packing industry to identify common problems and come up with worker-training and ergonomic improvements to address them, with the industry sharing the costs.

A program officer with the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, Donnan is a former labor department official who was a top advisor to Democrat Harry Payne when he held the commissioner post. Berry was elected in 2000 when Payne didn’t seek re-election.

Eight years earlier, Payne ousted Brooks in the Democratic primary.

The State Board of Elections estimated that conducting a statewide primary for this one nomination cost taxpayers between $3.5 million and $4 million. While there were a handful of runoffs in local elections around the state, in most countieslike Wake, for exampleprecincts stayed open all day only for the purpose of the Democratic race for labor commissioner.

And the race had few takers: Statewide, just 63,662 votes were cast for Donnan or Brooks. That’s about 1.6 percent of the voters who were eligible, including 2.6 million registered Democrats and another 1.2 million unaffiliated voters.

Of the total, Donnan received 43,217 votes, or 68 percent, to Brooks’ 32 percent.

In the initial primary, 1.2 million voters cast ballots, and Donnan led Brooks 27 percent to 24 percent in a four-way contest that saw the third- and fourth-place finishers, Richardson and Anderson, also draw about 24 percent.