When Joy Hofmeister announced last year she would run for governor in 2022, it wasn’t a surprise. Her name had been tossed around for the last couple years as a potential opponent for incumbent Republican Kevin Stitt.
But what did come as a surprise for some was that Hofmeister, a lifelong Republican, was running as a Democrat. Many wondered what that meant … would she govern as a Democrat? Was she running as a Democrat merely in order to avoid a costly primary battle with Stitt? And where does she fall on topics like abortion access?
On today’s Listen Frontier podcast, I talk with Hofmeister about these topics and more.
This is Listen Frontier, a podcast exploring the investigative journalism of the Frontier and featuring conversations with those on the frontlines of Oklahoma’s most important stories. Listen to us Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.
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Dylan: Superintendent, thanks for taking the time to talk to me, I know it’s a busy time of the year for you, so I really do appreciate it. We can just get right into the interview. You’ve been the state superintendent for a pretty trying period for public education in Oklahoma, with the teacher walkout, everything with teacher pay raises, and now ongoing pandemic and everything that has taken place in the classroom. You’re term-limited, so regardless there was always going to be something for you after 2022, but why governor? Was there a particular thing or something that happened that led to your decision to run?
Joy: It’s great to be with you Dylan and I really appreciate the chance just to catch up. You just laid out the reasons, a lot of the reasons. We have had a focus in our state on really catching our kids up with funding that’s needed to have committed caring teachers in classrooms at a time where we have been enduring a teacher shortage. That’s been going on at a time where cuts came with general revenue failures, where our economy was in free fall right as I took office. And we saw extraordinary cuts to a well-rounded education for our kids. There’s so much that they’ve had to endure then from the pandemic, on top of that, and bottom line: I have big goals for Oklahoma school kids. I want to see our children be winners in a rapidly changing economy and ready for life and that starts early … even before preschool. And as they move through the grades, those foundational years, learning to read, getting a foundation in math, that’s all key to their success as they move into middle school and beyond. So we knew we were taking on great challenges. And we have had incredible setbacks, some that no one could have ever imagined over the last two years. But the work’s not done, and I’m seeing barriers in the way, I believe, frankly, Gov. Stitt is running our state into the ground. And I’ve had a front row seat. And if we’re going to meet those goals and make progress like our kids deserve and our families deserve, that’s going to take new leadership in the governor’s office, and I am up for the challenge and I’m not going to stop fighting for them.
Dylan: Is that something that you would view for yourself as governor as your number one focus? I think we’ve seen especially in the last two years that, as governor, there are so many things that intersect, things you can’t even anticipate. So if you’re governor, is public education your number one focus? Or how would you blend that into the number of things you’d have to pay attention to as governor?
Joy: 100 percent. It’s time for an education governor. One who has been in the trenches, who has been a teacher, and who has also experienced first hand as a mother of four kids who all went to Oklahoma public schools and who have moved on through their post-secondary pursuits and are living here in Oklahoma. My husband and I started, we met in college, and he followed a call into ministry, so I left college. I actually dropped out of college and got married and followed him to seminary and helped put him through school. And my own personal story, I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready for college. I struggled and I struggled long before that, so I know what that feels like too. I struggled with reading, dyslexia runs in my family. I’ve overcome a lot and I understand a lot of what moms, dads, grandparents are going through as they sit at a kitchen table trying to teach their kids to read and trying to reclaim lost ground due to some terrible disruption we’ve experienced the last few months. And that would be my top priority because bottom line, that’s what’s best for kids individually, but it also becomes an economic driver, where everyone wins.
Dylan: Sure, that would definitely would have an impact in multiple ways in the future. It came up a little bit (Monday) in the state of the state address, the idea of, and I know Gov. Stitt has a different approach to it, but the idea of how anything that benefits children benefits the state in the long term. And I’m sure you have some specific ideas for how that would be done. I want to ask, getting into the governor’s race and what the next few months will look like as we get into the summer and then the fall when it will really heat up … one of the main questions I hear from people is about your political affiliation.
Dylan: If anyone doesn’t know, you ran for state superintendent twice as a Republican, and I think a lot of people assumed you might run for governor … but some people were surprised you’re running as a Democrat. I’m just kind of curious how do you see yourself. Is that some change that was motivated by, I know people in the last five or six years have maybe re-assessed their political alignment. I just wondered if that was a change that was motivated by how you see your personal beliefs, or was it a more pragmatic decision where maybe it makes more sense to avoid a primary battle with an incumbent governor. Or some blend of the two. How do you view yourself politically?
Joy: Well, like a lot of Oklahomans, I’m an independent thinker. Just to remind you in this conversation. I started as someone who had a front row seat on the state board of education, representing my community, and I challenged Janet Barresi, who was a member of my own party. Because I saw what was happening with education, with rural schools. With a leader that was really losing touch with what it takes to actually do the hard work of implementing innovation or new ideas. We have to have not just ideas, like, let’s be a Top 10 state. That’s a bumper sticker slogan. You have to be able to lead to make that happen. So, yes, I have not ever been someone who has been beholden to special interests or even party politics. In fact, frankly, I’ve been focused on kids, and kids don’t have party affiliations. Education is an area where I think everyone recognizes it is essential, a foundation to a great state. And where does that start? It starts with strong families. Strong families make strong schools which make strong communities that then attract others to invest in the state. So as I look, it’s a time of reflection, I’ve seen Gov. Stitt hijack the Republican party, pander to extremism, and I do support education. I do support access to affordable quality healthcare, and can’t be a part of that extremism and division and chaos that he is sowing. And I, like a lot of Oklahomans, want to get to back to those Oklahoma values, which are working together, common sense, respect for one another, courage during really difficult times, and getting things done. And I can do that as an aggressively moderate Democrat.
Dylan: So that’s something I have thought about in terms of looking at a path for you, obviously it’s tough to unseat an incumbent. You’re running as a Democrat in a very conservative state. You have to appeal to a wide group of people. I would imagine, maybe I’m wrong, but as a Democrat, you’re going to have to appeal to the sort of moderate Democrats in Oklahoma, without losing the center right Republicans who are maybe turned off by some of what Gov. Stitt has done. And those can be two groups on the edges who are not necessarily close to each other. Will there be a time where you’ll have to state a policy position that you think this might anger, this might upset these Republican voters or Democrat voters that you’re going to have to rely on if you’re going to win in November.
Joy: That’s a great question. So I think how I handle that is the same way I’ve always handled it. First, I don’t pander to extremism. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t find a consensus in a place that meets the needs of most Oklahomans. And that doesn’t mean that people with viewpoints different than mine don’t get my attention, that you don’t listen and hear and learn and understand perspectives that might be different than mine. That’s how I lead. I am more collaborative, certainly, than Gov. Stitt. And i’ve gotten a number of really tough things done by bringing people with different viewpoints together around the table. That’s what’s missing right now. Instead there’s this real heavy handed partisan divide, that actually goes against the grain of most Oklahomans. We are known for that Oklahoma standard, where we come to the aid of one another in crisis. Where we rally together in really difficult times. And you have seen that over the last seven years that I’ve been working with teachers, working with families and working with legislators that come from all different parts of the state. And we can and we have already shown we can get things done that people didn’t think could happen. A pay raise came after, about, I guess, two and a half, three years of being in office. I beat that drum about a need for competitive pay because we had a teacher shortage and we began to put it in common language. Things legislators could even relate to, and say, hey, my husband went to grab dinner, went to Chipotle, he saw the little brochure about their salary structure and career ladder. He brought it home and I looked at this and from the beginning of the guy making minimum wage to just two rungs up the ladder, that person at Chipotle was making more money than an Oklahoma teacher working 25 years and had a PHD and that’s not right. So you bring things back to where people understand the reality at hand, the crisis that needs to be addressed, and we work to fashion a plan together. That’s how we got a pay raise, that’s how we will get out of these various issues of teacher shortage, we’ve got to be a place where parents can count on that that neighborhood school that they grew up in, that they bought their house in order to send their kids to, is going to be a top choice. We can’t abandon kids in Oklahoma schools.
Dylan: One thing I asked you about earlier was how you viewed yourself politically, and I wondered if you have any thoughts about how other, how voters see you. I was in Oklahoma City for the state of the state, and House Democrats were giving a response. And someone, a reporter asked, obviously education was a huge topic during the governor’s speech, and a reporter asked one of the legislators about, what would it be like working with a Gov. Hofmeister. One of the legislators said something to the effect of we’re really excited about having a strong Democrat candidate for governor. And to me it felt a little tongue in cheek. From them not necessarily knowing how you align with them politically. So I wonder how you, if you view that as a challenge, about how people view you. One of the things we heard immediately after you announced your candidacy was this idea, of “oh well, if in November it’s Stitt versus Hofmeister running for governor, we’re still picking between two Republicans, and that is something that might turn off some Democrat voters. Do you view that as a challenge? Addressing how someone views you as a person who has already run for office twice as a Republican?
Joy: Certainly I have to prove myself to every Oklahoma voter, including legislators in the Democratic party. And I am in a primary and I am working to be the nominee. But I know that in order to win, we have to answer and speak to Oklahoma values. Not national party politics. And particularly my position is, I’m the same person, but I do not identify where Gov. Stitt has taken the party, and I can’t be a part of that. What I believe Oklahomans really want is to stop the partisan divide and focus on getting something done. When you have chaos and division, you don’t have the progress and results. And I am a pragmatic person, i want to set a goal that inspires people that we can get around, build, fashion that plan based on evidence, not some wild idea or somebody’s think tank that is being paid by some billionaire that has an ax to grind in a certain direction. This is about what’s best for Oklahomans. And I know Number 1 has to be education. It is time we not just have lip service from a governor who spent two years of his first two years with giving me about 15 minutes of his time about education policy. That is not a focus on an understanding of the role education plays and now is going, when it’s politically expedient, is going to make quite a bit of his state of the state focus on education, but not about building on the foundation we’ve laid, but is instead about blowing up the system and about less transparency, less accountability and really breaking rural communities.
Dylan: You mentioned Oklahoma values and getting back to Oklahoma values, and I think that’s an interesting topic because I think we can fall into the trap of viewing Oklahoma through a national lens, where nationally … Oklahoma is a very unique place. It’s obviously very red, and even the Democrats in the state tend to be very moderate, as far as a large group. So Oklahoma values can be very different from what we might see in other stats, or if you’re taking the nation as a whole. So one of the questions that does come up is about where you stand on abortion access. I know Roe v. Wade is continually being whittled away at and even more successfully lately. And we’ve seen very harsh legislation passed in some other states that even four or five years ago you would have thought was unthinkable. And you have a governor who said he’d sign every pro-life bill that hits his desk, and of course Oklahoma is a very pro-life state. I just wonder as governor, would you protect abortion access and how would you view, you’re going to have a very Republican legislature, whoever the governor is is going to have a lot of these bills on their desk, how would you view that topic and what would you say to voters who that is a key issue?
Joy: Yeah, well, so, I haven’t changed. And as I mentioned, I grew up in a baptist home, my husband is an ordained minister, I value life and and personally pro-life. But I don’t walk in every woman’s shoes. And I don’t favor extremes on either side of this issue. And like many Americans, I am watching the courts too. And we will all respond to decisions that are soon to come.
Dylan: So it’s kind of, you’re saying the Supreme Court, the ball is in their court to some degree? How they would rule on this topic would impact how you would view legislation that would hit your desk?
Joy: Well, certainly. And I can tell you that it’s very important that we focus on how our, that our moms and women have access to affordable quality healthcare, a trusted relationship with a doctor, confidence their children will have a good education and that they have access to a high-quality job. These are those issues that also are critically important to ensuring that Oklahomans are ready to have successful families and businesses and communities, and we’re going to keep the focus right there.
Dylan: Getting back to the state of the state, the governor talked about a number of education topics. He talked about a voucher program and some sort of nebulous system where a teacher might be able to make $100,000 a year. He was critical of teacher’s unions and talked about, it would be better for teachers if the union was weakened. I just wonder, as someone who has spent so much time in education, as you’re watching this speech, hearing these different education changes he was talking about, what was going through your mind?
Joy: Well, I think that is all talk. It is real quick to come up with some idea of six figure income for teachers which we all would love to see and we know our teachers are worth so much more than what they would make even in the highest paying state. When you think about what we’re entrusting the future of our youngest generation to be education. But a quick look at the governor’s budget is flat funding for education, there’s nothing being put forward to even make that a reality. And the fact is I championed legislation that he evidently has decided he wants to fund, yet he’s not going to fund, it appears, which is this very legislation to keep teachers in these roles of using their talents and their expertise to be mentors, as instructional coaches. We refer to it as the Iowa model, and we brought that model in so that it would still meet various statutory requirements for a teacher but allows them to lead among teachers without removing them from that instructional space and into administration. We also know that teachers tell us yes, pay is critical. But it is also about having the people around them to support children in their classrooms. Shouldering that together with a counselor, with a behavioral specialist, with a math tutor, a reading specialist. It’s about respect, it’s about support. Until we can clearly understand this, basic, fundamental need, we will continue to lose teachers. And it’s too great a cost. We have to get this right. That’s part of why I’m running for governor. We need an education governor and it is dire that this be solved. And this governor can’t do it.
Dylan: So, thinking about having an education governor and everything an education governor would see, I’m curious about one topic. The topic of what’s being taught in the school classroom or what’s being read in the school library. I just want to, what do you think, you have more insight, what do you believe is behind the culture war classroom bills this session, and how do you respond in your role to parents who believe their children are undergoing some sort of leftist indoctrination in public schools.
Joy: I think Oklahoma kids are not political footballs. We have to state that plainly. My desire is to see our kids have a strong foundation, we are keeping the focus on fundamentals of math, phonics, social studies, science and we also do that in a way that does teach our history, and some of our history is uncomfortable to hear. But we must have our children prepared and ready for their post-secondary pursuits and that means they’ll have to know American history, Oklahoma history, the good, the bad, the ugly. And our teachers are telling me that they are afraid to teach. They are fearful of what one question a child might ask, and their answer, might cause some kind of outcome or misunderstanding that has a chilling effect, frankly, on teachers, not just in history class, but all over. So we really can’t lose our sense of having a well-rounded education where our kids are prepared. And yet at the same time I was talking to a mom who was texting me as she was in the drop off lane as school was getting ready to start, and I called her to answer a question on another issue. And we began talking about this very topic. And she said, I just want my kids to focus on the basics, and I don’t like extremes on either side of anyone’s agenda. Let’s focus on what it takes for our kids to be winners in that rapidly changing economy. But we have to take this fear out of our teachers being able to do their job well.
Dylan: Sure. It’s caught maybe some people by surprise, the growing number of land mines in the classroom that teachers have to be aware of that a few years ago might not even have been a consideration. We were talking earlier about teacher pay, I think anyone who has been a parent the last two years understands how much teachers are underpaid. I have two young kids, after about a week, I don’t know how … my daughter, her teacher, every time I see her I just think she’s doing an amazing job.
Joy: Dylan let me just add to something you just said there. I appreciate you just really reflecting on your own experience and having that appreciation for what our kids and teachers experienced together in classrooms. I’m reminded of a teacher who shared how, for her, in her classroom, she’s in a low socioeconomic school where there’s high poverty, and she said for a lot of our families, they wake up, there’s a parent who greets them, makes sure they have their bag and their snack and their lunch and their reading log has been signed, and they’re off to the bus or being dropped off. But for a lot of our kids, they’re coming to school, and the first loving word that they hear is a teacher who greets them by name. It’s the place where they have a backpack that gets food for the weekend. I was in Tahlequah right before the snow came. Those teachers have prepared for those kids they know will not have nutrition, over the weekend but let alone snow days. And wellness checks on some of their kids they know are homeless, to make sure do you have a couch to sleep on, where are you going to be? We need to be able to contact you. These are kids in middle school. It’s heartbreaking when we really get down to the struggles that a lot of our kid are going through, the trauma that they have experienced, and then they come to school and they’re expected to jump into algebra. We have to really reframe the work in our minds, the work that our teachers are tasked to do. And if they don’t have all of that support around them, then they’re shouldering it on their own. I remember a teacher telling me I have to deal with trauma before I can teach. I can’t even get to that until a child is secure, fed, able to sit still and focus, has trust, and then we can start working through problem solving and decoding words. I don’t think our governor appreciates just how much of a struggle this has been for our teachers. And to somehow wave this kind of promise of six figure salaries for some of you, is just a slap in the face for the respect they deserve.
Dylan: I guess what I’m hearing you say is that there are, no matter who the governor is, there’s going to be a million topics they’re going to face. And Oklahoma, and any state, is not something a governor can fix in one term, or two terms. But the quickest way to solve the issues long term is a better start for children who will grow up as Oklahoamns and grow up in Oklahoma, and giving them better learning opportunities and a better start is the key to issues that you might not be able to solve in eight years, but you might solve in 20 years if students today are in a better place to grow into adults. Is that what you’re saying?
Joy: Yes. I love how you said it. And it really is about, it’s the marathon not the sprint. It’s not about the next election cycle. It’s about the long term plan and support with high expectations for our kids to be competitive, to know where they’re going, to have a way to identify their strengths, their interests, the problems they want to solve as they graduate high school and keep pursuing credentials in career tech or an associates degree or bachelor’s or more. Or be prepared and ready for the military. We have all kinds of opportunities and our kids have to be ready to grasp those. And when you talk about what a governor focuses on, our governor needs to be able to fit the state. And some states are ready to focus on other things. This is at this point, education, for too long, as neglected, and we have seen in the time I’ve been in office the legislature start stepping up, addressing teacher pay, additional funds for classroom support, but my gosh we cannot undermine that foundation peice of education by now saying, OK, let’s bring in vouchers like the governor’s scheme that he unveiled in his state of the state. That is going to dismantle the educational opportunities for 90 percent of Oklahoma kids who attend public school, that neighborhood school around the corner, or that school in your rural community. It should be the top choice. And when we get back to, we’ve got to get that foundation secured, strengthened, and then we build on that. And that’s why we need an education governor.
Dylan: Superintendent, I really appreciate you taking this time to talk to me. I know we probably went longer than you planned on. Before I let you, I want to say I really do appreciate the time. And do you have anything else you’d like to talk about or let people know before I let you go?
Joy: No, I thank you so much for the chance to talk, I hope we get a chance to do that again. You know I put 92,000 miles on my car running my first race as state superintendent, and that same car is in this race with nearly 500,00 miles on it.
Dylan: Well that’s probably some advice for people is what car to buy. That’s what they need to know, is how do I get 500,000 miles out of my car?
Joy: Yeah, a lot of oil changes, tire changes, timing belts. But we are so grateful for the chance to get out on the road again. And we are out in a lot of the communities listening and really working to represent the needs of Oklahoma families, Oklahoma students, and I just appreciate the chance to get to visit with you today.
Dylan: Yeah, thank you very much, I’m sure we’ll get to catch up soon.