Making Trump Country Blue Again
In a special election on Tuesday, July 11, Oklahoma Democrats surprised political observers by winning two traditionally conservative seats in the Oklahoma Legislature.
Karen Gaddis defeated Republican challenger Tressa Nunely to become the new State Representative for Oklahoma’s House District 75. The district, which includes most of Tulsa, had been in Republican hands since the early 1990s, according to Tulsa World.
Gaddis lost in November to incumbent Dan Kirby, but ran again in the special election after Kirby resigned in February in the midst of a sexual harassment scandal.
More than 100 miles southwest, Michael Brooks-Jimenez, another Democrat, was elected State Senator in Oklahoma’s Senate District 44. The district encompasses southwest Oklahoma City and had previously been held by Republican Ralph Shortey, who vacated the seat earlier this year after he was charged with child prostitution.
Gaddis and Brooks-Jimenez’s improbable victories were covered in national news outlets like The Washington Post, and the pair was congratulated on Twitter by Tom Perez, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Just eight months ago Donald Trump won every single county in Oklahoma en route to an almost 40 point victory in the state.
The two new legislators are going to have a hard time making policy with Republican super majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, but Gaddis is hopeful the special election results will revitalize the Oklahoma Democratic Party as it prepares for the 2018 midterms.
Read my Friday, July 14 interview with Karen Gaddis below. It is lightly edited for clarity.
MR: You ran in November  originally and you received 40% of the vote and lost. On Tuesday, you received 52% of the vote. What did you do differently and what changed since November?
Gaddis: I credit my loss in November to the Trump avalanche. There were a lot of people who just voted straight party tickets in the November election, whether it was to their benefit statewide or not. They weren’t interested in that, they were only interested in the national picture. I think that was part of the problem in the November election. What we did differently in this election was I learned a lot of very important lessons in the first election. One of which is — it takes a lot of money to run a political campaign. I hired a professional political consultant to help me this time and she did a magnificent job. She took a lot of the pressure off of me. She did a lot of the work that I was trying to do myself. She had the contacts that I needed to have in order to raise the money to finance the run. That was probably the biggest change. I got a professional involved who pulled off a miracle.
MR: It definitely is a miracle because House District 75 had been under Republican control since the early 1990s. If national Democrats want to win back the House of Representatives and if Oklahoma Democrats want to be more competitive in 2018 they are also going to have to win some Republican districts. What advice would you offer to Democrats candidates in 2018 about winning red districts?
Gaddis: Personal contact, it just can’t be beat! You have to go out and you have to meet the voters where they are. You have to talk to them and you have to listen to them. It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of energy, it takes a lot of footwork, but that’s the way to do it. You have to do a lot of mailing to communicate to the voters what your stances are. You have to do a lot of mailing to get them out of their complacency to get out and vote. One of the problems with District 75 was that Republicans had held the district for so long. The Democrats had gotten out of the practice of voting. It took some effort on my part to get them used to getting out. I really think the primaries, even though they were costly, were good for me in that respect. It put voters in situations where they had to get involved for a long period of time. That worked to my advantage.
“As much as our Republican leadership hates to admit it, we are going to have to raise taxes. You can’t spend money that you don’t have, so that’s where you need to start.”
MR: Now that you are in office what are some of your top priorities as a state representative?
Gaddis: Well, in Oklahoma, we have a major budget problem. We are not able to finance anything. We can’t finance highways. We can’t finance education. We can’t finance public safety. We can’t finance social workers. It’s really really bad. We are not providing the kind of services government is supposed to provide. The first thing we need to do is come up with some money. As much as our Republican leadership hates to admit it, we are going to have to raise taxes. You can’t spend money that you don’t have, so that’s where you need to start.
“This is one of the things I learned as a teacher too. It doesn’t matter who gets credit for the job, it’s getting the job done that’s important.”
MR: I know education is also a top priority for you. Can you make any headway on these kind of reform packages in a legislature that’s dominated by Republicans? Do you see any opportunities for bipartisanship with moderate Republicans?
Gaddis: I certainly hope so. I am only one person and I am only one Democrat. There are certainly way more Republicans than there are Democrats in the Oklahoma legislature. If we are going to get anything done we are going to have to work together on this. This is one of the things I learned as a teacher too. It doesn’t matter who gets credit for the job, it’s getting the job done that’s important. We are going to have to work together in my opinion. Whether they’re willing to do that or not is something entirely different, but I am certainly willing to step out on the limb myself and I’ll work with whoever I have to work with in order to get the job done.
MR: In addition to your victory on Tuesday, Michael Brooks-Jimenez won a State Senate seat in Oklahoma City. Do you think these two victories are a sign of things to come for Oklahoma Democrats? Do you think the party is revitalized?
Gaddis: I would like to think so. I don’t think it’s so much the party that’s revitalized, but it is the citizens that are revitalized. The citizens are just fed up with poor leadership, no transparency, and not being able to have the nice things that our state needs to have. Even something simple like state parks. We had to close some of our state parks because we can’t finance them. You can’t have nice things unless you have the money to pay for them. I think the citizenry is seeing that. I think they are fed up with the direction the state has been going and they are ready to go in a different direction.
Karen Gaddis will be sworn in as the next representative for House District 75 at 10 a.m. on Thursday, July 20 at the Oklahoma State Capitol.
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