“I’m really surprised if anyone knows anything about me other than that I’m a lesbian and I’m a Democrat,” the 26-year-old soon-to-be state senator told The Frontier in a recent interview.
Such is life right now in politics, particularly in Oklahoma where a number of Republican legislators lost their positions amid scandal, opening the door for democrats like Ikley-Freeman to swoop in and steal the spotlight. The 15 minutes of fame enjoyed by the victors is enough only to cover their victory speech.
But for Ikley-Freeman, her narrow victory (only 31 votes separated her and Republican Brian O’Hara) brought home the harsh reality of running for, and winning, state office.
Three years ago Ikley-Freeman and her young daughter were homeless. She had left her then-wife and moved in with her parents, an arrangement she said “didn’t work out.” From there she either slept in the car or “couch-surfed,” finding friends to live with for short periods.
“I grew up in poverty, and that’s a mindset that sticks with you,” she said. “I didn’t know how to get out of it.”
But things began trending upward for her years before her election victory. She credits her boss at a nonprofit where she worked for showing her the way out of poverty. Ikley-Freeman eventually got her college degree, then her graduate degree, and began working as a mental health counselor.
“I wasn’t in poverty anymore,” she said. “But I’m still middle class or maybe not even middle class. I mean even this level of wealth is still new to me.”
On Dec. 16, about a month after being elected, she posted on Facebook about an issue that had weighed on her mind.
“Some of you who are close friends know this has been a struggle for me since being elected,” the post read. “While our state offers a per Diem to help with the many meals out, the travel back and forth, and maintaining lodging; the upfront cost of obtaining an apartment, and needed things inside of it is daunting. Most people also are unaware due to some ethical conflicts I will not be able to continue counseling once sworn in.”
Her job, where she worked as a counselor, has a budget set by the state Legislature. Ethics rules being as they are, she cannot set her own budget. So counseling was out.
Suddenly she found herself out of a job. That presented another problem — after she’s sworn in at the state Capitol in February, she’ll need to figure out where to live when the Legislature goes into session.
“When we’re in session it’s four days a week for four months,” she said. “We do get a $150 per diem, which I can use to pay for an apartment, but even that presents a problem.”
Most apartments, she said, don’t do shorter-term leases, and ones that do — and target out-of-town legislators — tend to be much nicer living arrangements than she’s used to.
“It makes me feel guilty, having been homeless, to be thinking about spending this money on a place I won’t really even live year-round,” she said. “My other options are places that I don’t really feel safe.”
Wherever she lives, she’ll have to come up with a deposit, first-month’s rent, and money for furnishings like dishes and furniture. Then what happens to those purchases after the legislative session ends?
“I figured that even with something sparse, just a couch, a bed, some cheap dishes, I’ll be looking at several thousand dollars,” she said. “That’s my entire emergency savings.”
Staying in Tulsa and commuting was an option she weighed briefly, but ultimately decided against. Couch-surfing, if only for a month, could be back on her agenda.
“Someone offered me the opportunity to stay with them for a month and save money to put down on an apartment,” she said, noting that it wasn’t for sure and there were logistics still to nail down.
“Winning is exciting, you have this wonderful opportunity to impact this state and the well-being of the state, and improve people’s faith in government,” Ikley-Freeman said. “But up front costs can make it almost impossible for a working-class legislator to actually be a legislator.”
When sworn in, Ikley-Freeman will have a salary of about $35,000 (per diems increase the finally tally to more like $45,000.) In November a state board actually voted to decrease legislator salaries from about $38,000 to $35,000.
The life of a freshman legislator is never easy, and as much as her soon-to-be fellow senators have kept her in the loop, Ikley-Freeman knows she faces an uphill battle at the Capitol.
For one, she’s a Democrat, for two, she’s new to the game.
“I know, for instance, OKPolicy (a nonprofit website that covers state policy) has a wishlist, and there are a lot of things on that wishlist that I would love to see happen,” she said. “But a lot of those things need to come from someone with more experience.”
With the state budget in shambles, Ikley-Freeman said she feels her focus needs to be less on what she thinks would be great for the state, and more on things the state can afford. As a now-former mental health counselor, she knows more can be done for Oklahomans in that arena.
“There’s so much expansion to mental health programs that our state desperately needs, she said. “But I can’t propose them because they would be these wonderful programs with no way to fund them.
“What I’m going to try to focus on are changes that help everyday people, but don’t require any additional funding,” she said. “That’s not easy. A lot of things I want to happen don’t provide people immediate relief, and they need immediate relief. If I can’t provide that, hopefully I can find a way to provide something that over generations changes the course of people’s lives.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the amount of money a legislator is paid.
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