It wasn’t that long ago that Cyndi Ralston was just a mild-mannered rural elementary school teacher with a politically-minded son.
It’s safe to say things have escalated since then.
Ralston, a Democrat, had officially decided earlier this year that she would run against Rep. Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow. But as Oklahoma teachers launched their walkout and series of rallies outside the Oklahoma Capitol this week, Ralston had not yet announced her bid.
That all changed when McDugle, fired up about the thunderous protests inside the state Capitol, broadcast himself on Facebook Live, chiding teachers and saying “I’m not voting for another stinkin’ measure when they’re actin’ the way they’re actin’.” (McDugle has since deleted the video.)
Ralston didn’t even have a website, but she saw opportunity — or as she put it, she rode “the McDugle Tsunami.”
“I was driving and my phone starts going,” Ralston said during a recent interview with The Frontier. “It was my son (Josh Martin, a Democratic candidate for House District 70.) He said ‘Mom, have you seen this video?’”
She hadn’t. But she pulled over and watched it and called her son back.
“I looked at the video and I said ‘Are you kidding me?’” she said. “Josh goes ‘Go finish your thing and then turn around and come right back here.’ We weren’t ready to go, our plan wasn’t to announce until next week.”
But she went ahead and announced anyway. Without a website, she kept her announcement short and sweet.
“You’ve all seen the video,” she wrote on Twitter, posting a screenshot of McDugle’s face taken from his video. “I don’t need to tell you why I’m running for District 12 against Kevin McDugle.”
It didn’t take long for her story, seemingly made to go viral with the nation looking at various teacher walkouts across the country, to spread.
The interview requests were so numerous that Ralston said she sometimes would be in the middle of an interview and forget what station she was on.
CNN called. MSNBC called. Vice called, asking to do a short documentary on her. The Daily Beast wrote a story titled “Oklahoma Republican Insulted Teachers. Now a Teacher Wants to Take His Job.”
“I didn’t really get it,” Ralston said. “But they (Martin and campaign manager Robert Goins) were like ‘You just got three minutes on CNN. Do you have any idea how much three minutes on CNN is worth? People would kill for that.’”
It wasn’t until George Takei, the actor whose Twitter account is so large (nearly three million followers) that it’s managed by an entire staff, tweeted out her story that it began to sink in.
“I was like ‘He’s old! I know him!”
This is what democracy looks like. https://t.co/9Nd6E8KG8N
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) April 5, 2018
“What really got under my skin was in (McDugle’s) video, he said something like that our students were watching our behavior and they ‘may not remember arithmetic, but they will remember what you did here,’” Ralston said. “I was like, yeah, they’ll remember how we taught them that our government works for us, and that we taught them how to protest peacefully. I mean really, this is a civics lesson that is better than any 20-year-old book you provided them.”
The decision to run
Ralston has been a teacher for three decades and until recently had no interest in any kind of political career. But it was her support of her son’s political future that caught the eye of local Democrat groups.
“My mother has talked to my son since he was very little, telling him that he was going to run for something,” Ralston said. “That’s been his trajectory all along.”
She traveled to a training with her son and when the trainers found out she was a teacher, they began to put pressure on her to consider running against McDugle.
“They said ‘That would be so cool if you could run at the same time,’” Ralston said. “But I just was like ‘No, I’m a teacher. This is Josh’s thing.’”
But the seed had been planted.
“As much as I was denying it, that seed started to grow,” she said. “Politicians have told us for years that we would get a raise, that we would get better funding, and it never happens.”
At the time, the teacher walkout was looming. Ralston said she rallied during the 1990 teacher walkout and realized the timing was right.
“But then here came Tsunami McDugle,” she said.
And then came the local news stories. Those were followed up by national news stories, and national television broadcasts.
“The first day after I announced, I was rallying with my fellow teachers at the state Capitol and people started recognizing me,” Ralston said. “They’d want to take selfies with me or they would yell support for me.”
By the next day, she had graduated to “whisper status.”
“It was the strangest thing to me, because I would walk around and people would get very quiet,” she said. “I’d hear them saying things like ‘There she is, that’s her.’ By the next day even some of the legislators recognized me.
“I’m trying to handle it the only way I know how, that’s with humor. I said I’ll know I’ve made it when Ellen calls.”