Republicans currently dominate politics in Oklahoma: The Democrats lost the state’s governorship in 2010, granting power to Republicans in the state house, senate and governorship that they’ve held ever since. Trump easily won the state by over 36 percentage points. Although Republicans still dominate the state, since the 2016 election, political trends have favored Democrats, who won four state special elections in districts previously held by Republicans.
Democrats face an uphill battle in shifting Oklahoma back into a swing state, but former State Sen. Connie Johnson, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, has not allowed that fact to deter her from standing behind her unapologetically progressive stances on marijuana legalization and reproductive rights, her opposition to the death penalty, and her support for Sanders-style policies like free public tuition for community colleges.
In 2016, Oklahoma Democratic Party leadership sent a memo to party officials, instructing them to coordinate a central message focused solely on attacking Republicans instead of addressing progressive issues. Johnson has called this a “gag order” memo. “We need to stop trying to act like Republicans, thinking it’s going to gain us votes,” she told Truthout. “This practice over the years has ended up, I believe, in us having the Republican majority that we have.”
Instead, Johnson argues, Democrats should focus on educating constituents about the issues rather than allow Republicans to define the messaging. Her political record as a state senator and 24 years as a legislative analyst largely affirms these sentiments. In 2007, she was the first to introduce a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the Oklahoma State Senate, an issue she has continued to re-introduce and advocate for throughout the state, along with recreational marijuana and industrialized hemp. During her first campaign for the state senate in 2005, she ran to reform the prosecution of marijuana-related offenses that lead to high rates of incarceration. Johnson suggested that public opinion has gradually shifted in favor of marijuana reform as she’s pushed for it, and she’s making it a pivotal part of her 2018 campaign. “A petition was successfully circulated to put medical marijuana on the ballot and it’s going to be on the same ballot as me in the primary on June 26,” she said. “I believe this state question is going to pass and it’s going to help me win the Democratic nomination for governor.”
Her career in Oklahoma’s State Senate has been predicated on pushing progressive issues that had yet to gain favor with the majority of the public. She made national headlines in 2012 after introducing a counter-bill that would outlaw male masturbation in response to an anti-abortion Republican bill mandating that life begins at conception, which her efforts helped defeat. Through a background in criminal legal reform, with a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling, Johnson is intent on taking on mass incarceration, voter suppression, and racial and economic injustices rampant in Oklahoma and across the country.
“We’re first in things that are bad, we’re last in things that are good, and we are broke,” she said. She views the state’s funding issues, a near billion-dollar deficit, as a symptom of Republicans in power who have bankrupted the budget by privatizing public services through lucrative government contracts to allies and donors. “It’s very sad what’s happening at the Oklahoma capitol right now, but until we as Democrats can write our own message, and get that message out there, Republicans will continue to win,” she added.
Oklahoma has the highest death penalty execution rate per capita in the United States, a status that Johnson has worked to change as former chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “It takes away the object of forgiveness,” Johnson said. “As a Christian, that was the only way that I was able to overcome my brother’s murder … by forgiving the guy.”
Her 2016 efforts to keep the death penalty out of the state constitution came up short on the 2016 ballot, but support in the state favoring the practice decreased as a result. Oklahoma also has the highest incarceration rate of women in the country, and 1 in 10 kids in the state have a parent in jail at some point during their childhood. “We have generational incarceration in Oklahoma,” Johnson said. “There’s a disparity in sentencing under the war on drugs that is literally killing communities in Oklahoma.”
Not all Democrats in the state subscribe to Johnson’s stances on a variety of issues facing the state, with the establishment of the Democratic Party often finding itself at odds with progressives. Johnson was the only superdelegate out of eight in Oklahoma to support Bernie Sanders during the 2016 presidential primary, though Sanders won the state primary by more than 10 percentage points. “All of the things that Bernie stood for, I’m probably eye to eye with him, and have been for the last 30 years,” she said.
In the Democratic gubernatorial primary this year, she faces former State Attorney General Drew Edmondson, whose father and uncle were prominent Oklahoma politicians. If she wins the primary, Johnson would be Oklahoma’s first Black woman to run for governor on a major party ticket. No Black woman has yet held the governorship in any state throughout the country, and Johnson is one of only three Black women running for the position in 2018, the other two being Stacey Abrams in Georgia as a Democrat and Green Party candidate Veronika Fimbres in California.
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Michael Sainato’s writing has appeared in the Guardian, The Miami Herald, The Baltimore Sun, The Huffington Post, LiveScience, Buffalo News, The Plain Dealer, The Hill, Gainesville Sun, Tallahassee Democrat, Knoxville News Sentinel and the Troy Record. He lives in Gainesville, Florida. Follow him on Twitter: @msainat1.