October 25, 2022

John Thompson: Critical Oklahoma Elections

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John Thompson reports on some critical choices that will affect the future of public education in Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma fight to defend our democracy, and draw upon our strengths to get our system on track, is being led by seven dynamic women. Since the reelections of the two Republican women are virtually assured, this overview will focus on the unexpected ways that the five Democrats have become models of how we can defeat MAGA-ism and build a 21st century state that our families deserve.

The first is State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who was endorsed by the Network for Public Education (NPE), which cited her rescue of public schools from corporate school reforms, and who laid a foundation for science-based holistic, humane programs, such as early education, reading for comprehension, and mental health services.

Hofmeister says, “I’m running as an Oklahoman … [who] values “common sense, respect for one another.” She has listened to Oklahomans who are tired of the chaos and the divisiveness sown by Gov. Kevin Stitt, who “is a reckless governor … burning bridges, burning relationships.” For instance, Hofmeister explains that Stitt is committed to vouchers that are “rural school killers.” Without planning and often without respecting legal guidelines, he has rushed a privatization agenda that has been incredibly destructive during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stitt has “churned through four state epidemiologists” and refused to listen to experts.

Stitt’s deadliest debacle was the undermining public health responses to the COVID pandemic, ranging from anti-masking to encouraging doubt about vaccinations. In October 2020, he spread havoc by moving the State Health Laboratory from Oklahoma City to Stillwater; even now the lab isn’t completely operational. The Commonwealth Fund ranked Oklahoma 50th in the pandemic responses and among the highest in death rates. Stitt replied, “Nobody trusts the death rate at all … and the estimate of 15,000 to 17,000 deaths is untrue.”

Three weeks ago, Stitt supposedly illustrated his commitment to students by rushing down school halls with a semi-automatic rifleTwo weeks ago, the latest controversy is about Stitt, who lives in a $2.7 million mansion and often rides helicopters to the Capitol, having a $6 million dollar secret plan for a new mansion.

Second, Stitt appointed Ryan Walters as the head of the Education Department, and now Walters running against former Teacher of the Year Jena Nelson for State Superintendent. Walters followed Stitt in pushing privatization plans of dubious legality. He remained the Executive Director of Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, an Oklahoma education non-profit funded by Charles Koch and the Walton Family Foundation. And Walters was paid approximately “$120,000 a year by Every Kid Counts Oklahoma compared to his state salary of $40,000.” Federal auditors are investigating the distribution of COVID relief money in the Bridge the Gap program that was “implemented with few safeguards to prevent fraud or abuse.”

Stitt defended Walters, “Secretary Walters is doing a great job fighting for parents’ right to be in charge of their child’s education and advocating for funding students, not government-controlled systems.”

Since then, Walters has grabbed headlines while seeking to decertify a teacher who posted a QR code for the Brooklyn Library. He claimed, There is no place for a teacher with a liberal political agenda in the classroom.”

And as retired Superintendent Craig McVay explains, Stitt’s and Walters’ voucher plan “has nothing to do with school choice. This is about rewarding their donors who want to kill public education.”

Moreover, Walters now says he has begun “phasing away” the acceptance federal funding that makes up nearly 10% of the total current revenue for Oklahoma school districts, and nearly 1/3 of the budget of some rural schools.

Jena Nelson, who also was endorsed by the NPE, comes from rural Oklahoma where she was inspired by another Teacher of the Year and “discovered a new purpose in school” by taking drama, speech and debate classes. These programs “took Nelson and other Broken Bow students across the state for competitions.” She earned the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy’s  Lauren Choate Resilience Award, and as the Oklahoma Teacher of the Year she learned from some of the nation’s top education experts. Nelson’s campaign stresses career readiness and trauma awareness in schools. She also spoke on the need for a “revolution of morale” among educators in the state.

Democrats have been winning in urban areas, but they must minimize the Republican majority in rural areas. And that requires extensive listening and the building of trusting relationships. A rural background helps candidates overcome the “alt facts” that have been flooding areas with MAGA majorities. The majority of these Democratic women come from rural Oklahoma.

Third, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, Madison Horn, grew up in an area known as “the early death capital of the world.” She “worked her way from a place where 68% of women are unemployed” to become a global cybersecurity expert. In 2018, Horn’s hometown, Stilwell, became known for its “Third World level” of life expectancy. Stillwell and the area around it have a life expectancy of 56 years. Horn draws upon her experience growing up in such a challenging environment in order to push for compassionate investments. And her “scrappy, resourceful approach” leads to better communication with the people in Trumpland who are suffering so much.

Horn’s opponent, Sen. James Lankford, has taken a typical Mitch McConnell approach to Trumpism. During the Jan. 6 insurrection, he voted to certify the 2020 election, promising “to set a peaceful example.” But Lankford did not have the courage to resist Trump’s demands and now pretends to be full MAGA.

Fourth, voters seem to be belatedly learning about the election that is as important as the Senate or Governor’s races – the Oklahoma County District Attorney race. It had been assumed that Kevin Calvey, who may be the most reckless of the MAGA candidates, would win by default. Few seemed to be concerned that “the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation is still looking into allegations against Calvey” about campaign expenditures. Calvey claims that “the OSBI told him ‘they are done with their investigation.’” But, when asked if the investigation was over, an OSBI spokeswoman said, ‘Nope.’”

Calvey previously said, “If I were not a Christian, and didn’t have a prohibition against suicide, I’d walk across the street and douse myself in gasoline and set myself on fire!”  He would do so in protest against “our state Supreme Court [which] has killed every law going before it that is designed to protect women and babies from the predatory abortion industry.”

Now, Calvey – without evidence or a rational explanation – pretends that his highly respected opponent, Vicki Behenna, is complicit in the disappearance and possible murder of two people.

Behenna, however, has demonstrated her skills when investigating the internationally disastrous 1980s Penn Sq. Bank scandal, and prosecuting Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the Oklahoma City Murrah Building. Now, she is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project.

Fifth, I’m mostly neglecting the long respected Republican State Auditor Cindy Byrd, whose latest high-profile investigation of the notorious EPIC Charter Schools led to felony indictments of its two founders. She won the primary, thus the election, despite a flood of “Dark Money” against her, that was likely related to EPIC.

Sixth, Secretary of Labor Leslie Osborne deserves more credit for her history of pushing back against Republican ideologues. She defeated a primary opponent (who had been charged with domestic violence) and who was backed by Gov. Stitt. In a recent presentation to the Oklahoma Institute of Child Advocacy, I was especially impressed with her explanation of how she worked with the Oklahoma City Public Schools helping schools team up with local businesses, nonprofits, and mentors (including those from union apprenticeship programs). But, despite Osborne’s history of building bridges, her presentation concluded with two stories that illustrate the nature of the crises we face.
After Osborne refused to comply with her aunt’s demand that she put up a MAGA sign, her aunt, who watches Fox News nonstop, cut all ties with her niece.
Then, while getting her hair done, a longtime friend kept insisting that the Ben Shapiro podcast explains how to cure Osborne’s daughter’s homosexuality. Osborne had to cut ties with her former friend.
Finally, that leads to the campaign of ex-Congresswoman Kendra Horn which stands as a bookend to Joy Hofmeister’s story at the beginning of this post.  Her opponent for the U.S. Senate, Markwayne Mullin, received national attention for his clownish behavior and false statements. Examples include his grabbing of a person who shouted at Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo), and his “much-ridiculed attempt to enter Afghanistan in the company of a private US security team,” and lying about his professional martial arts record, and entering the congressional “chamber’s secure intelligence facility, known as a ‘SCIF,’ to break up the deposition of an official who was testifying as part of Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into then-President Donald Trump’s contacts with Ukraine.”
Horn has focused more on Mullin’s hypocrisy in receiving about $1.4 million from the Paycheck Protection Program,  And then Mullin voted against a second round of payments around the time he bought a Florida mansion for $4 million dollars. He “also voted against the TRUTH Act (H.R. 6782), a bill that would have required public disclosure of companies that received funds through the bailout program.” Horn says that Mullin’s businesses were worth about $3 to $9 million when he was first elected to Congress in 2012. Although Mullin claimed that serving in Congress hurt him financially, his businesses are now worth $31 to $76 million.
Horn, who is known for being a great hugger, focuses the most on empathy and listening to all sorts of people, and getting things done. Even so, when she recently spoke at an Oklahoma Observer event, we saw something I had never seen her do before when Horn concluded her presentation. She said she couldn’t stay around conversing as much a normal because she was going to a rally for Iranian women. Horn first cried when she described their suffering, and then she cried again when introducing her primary role model, her mother.
Kendra’s stories became intertwined when giving credit to her mom, her grandmother, and great grandmother, and their lives in impoverished rural Oklahoma. Then she returned to the hardships faced by Iranian women. And then, it became even more obvious that she is driven by a deep commitment to all types of people.
I could go on and on describing these candidates’ qualifications. In this time of crisis, we are so fortunate to have leaders such as these seven amazing women.
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