He was educated in Oregon’s public schools and graduated as a Juris doctor from Lewis & Clark Law School in 1990.
He was appointed by Governor Ted Kulongoski on April 8, 2008 and subsequently elected statewide on November 4, 2008. He was re-elected in 2012 and 2014. While the Commissioner of Labor and Industries has been a nonpartisan position since 1995, Avakian previously served in both houses of the Oregon Legislative Assembly as a Democrat.
He is of Armenian descent.
Avakian was raised in Washington County, Oregon. He helped create the Young Men’s Christian Association"s Juvenile Restitution Program while in law school.
Avakian then worked as a civil rights attorney. He co-founded the Oregon League of Conservation Voters" (OLCV) Washington County chapter, and he was appointed by Governor Barbara Roberts to lead the State Board of Psychologist Examiners.
He serves as Honorary Chair of the Oregon Business Leadership Network, a coalition of employers committed to hiring the disabled.
Avakian lives in the Portland metropolitan area in the city of Beaverton. Avakian ran for the Oregon State Senate in 1998, losing to incumbent Republican Tom Hartung. Avakian was elected to represent District 34, on Portland"s west side, in the Oregon House of Representatives in 2002.
He defeated Portland police officer John Scruggs, the only Republican to lose in Washington County that year, with 53 percent of the vote.
Avakian was elected to the Oregon State Senate, representing District 17, in 2006. While in the legislature, Avakian was honored by both the Oregon American Federation of Labor-Congress-Chief Information Officer and the SEIU Local 503 for his work on behalf of working families.
In the state Senate he chaired the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, and in 2007 the OLCV named him the "Consensus Builder of the Year," recognizing him for passing an extension of the Oregon Bottle Bill and a renewable energy acting In 2008 he led a coalition to approve water supply development for rural communities.
In July 2007, Avakian announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for Oregon Secretary of State.
He later withdrew from the race when he was appointed by governor Ted Kulongoski to be Commissioner of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries in early 2008 after Dan Gardner announced his resignation. Gardner was the first Commissioner of Labor and Industries to leave mid-term for a new job. In April 2011, Avakian announced that he would seek the Democratic nomination for Oregon"s 1st congressional district in the United States House of Representatives.
The seat was held by fellow Democrat David Wu, who resigned from Congress before the end of his term due to allegations of sexual misconduct.
Avakian lost in the Democratic primary to Suzanne Bonamici, who succeeded him in both the Oregon House and Senate. On July 2, 2015, Avakian ordered the owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, a family-owned bakery in Gresham, to pay a lesbian couple $135,000 in emotional damages for refusing to make a cake for their wedding as well as a cease and desist order to stop speaking publicly about their motivation for refusing service.
The owners had cited their Christian beliefs against same-sex marriage.