On Tuesday, high school social studies teacher John Waldron joined in the last stretch of a 110-mile march of teachers from Tulsa to the state Capitol. On Wednesday he’ll join another march—to the election board.
“If they miss the message today, they’ll get it in November when all the new candidates win,” Waldron said over din of the cheering crowd. “We’re all marching forward in the same direction.”
Waldron is one of a still unknown yet rapidly multiplying number of teachers who will run for office this year — with some launching last-minute campaigns as the state candidate filing window opens Wednesday, colliding with the ongoing teacher walkout.
Waldron, a Democrat, is running for House District 77 in northeast Tulsa, a seat now held by Rep. Eric Proctor. Proctor, also a Democrat, is term limited and asked Waldron to run for his seat. Waldron said the erosion of state education funding over his 20-year teaching career combined with the momentum of the teacher walkout convinced him to run.
“We’ve got to do something,” Waldron said “This is not an event— it’s a movement. We’re making progress, but until we consolidate those gains at the ballot box, all of those gains are in jeopardy.
Teacher walkout fuels Democratic candidates
The Oklahoma Democratic Party hopes for a big comeback in 2018 after eight years of Republican domination of state government.
Oklahoma Democrats have had a problem for years finding enough candidates. Many state legislative seats go to Republicans without Democratic opposition in the general election. Anna Langthorn, chairwoman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, said ongoing turmoil in state government has yielded unprecedented new interest in running for office.
It’s not just the teacher walkout — the state’s ongoing budget crisis and healthcare are fueling a new interest in running for office.
“We’ve been getting between five and 10 people calling every day for the last 10 weeks who are interested in running,” Langthorn said. “A lot of them are teachers.”
It’s difficult to say until the end of this week how many of those potential new candidates will pay the filing fees and make it official at the state election board.
Langthorn said this year, she’s confident the party will have enough candidates to put a Democratic challenger against half to two-thirds of incumbent state legislators.
Many of the candidates have only recently emerged and haven’t yet raised the minimum $1,000 to require filing financial disclosure forms with the Ethics Commission, Langthorn said.
Mark Faulk, chairman of the Oklahoma County Democratic Party, believes he has Democratic candidates to run in most if not all of the roughly 30 house districts in the county, something unheard of in recent years.
“We have a hard time recruiting candidates and we have a tendency to believe some districts are just hopelessly lost,” Faulk said.
The state budget crisis and the teacher walkout and has been a boon to the party, he said.
“Literally, the Legislature just handed me an organizing gift,” Faulk said. “I have literally recruited 10 candidates in the past 10 days — it’s just been phenomenal.”
Some House districts will even have multiple Democratic candidates this year.
At least 20 of the new crop of Democratic candidates in Oklahoma County are women, Faulk said. Many are teachers or parents concerned about education issues.
Amanda Jeffers is a high school English teacher at Crooked Oak High School in Oklahoma City. She just decided this week to run as a Democrat against incumbent Republican Chris Kannady in House District 91. She knows the road ahead will be hard. It’s a long-shot race against a strong incumbent. Kannady easily won reelection in 2016 with more than 72 percent of the vote.
Jeffers first considered running for office in 2016.
“But, as a lot of women do, I talked myself out of it,” Jeffers said. “I actually decided to commit to running last week after being at the capitol and speaking with my representative and just feeling my frustration that real change wasn’t going to happen.”
Jeffers, like many of the new crop of education candidates, talks about putting more teachers in the classroom and reducing class sizes.
“This is a problem that doesn’t know party lines — we we are all just so frustrated and there’s an atmosphere of change,” she said.
Newly minted teacher movement looks toward to November
On the steps of the state Capitol on Tuesday, Tulsa Schools superintendent Deborah Gist called on teachers to run for office.
“This is not a rally, this is not a protest, this is a movement,” Gist said.
In one of her nightly Facebook Live addresses to teachers during the walkout, Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, also urged educators to look to November elections for change.
“We need to do whatever we can to ensure public education champions are filing for office and have the support of this movement to get them over the finish line this November,” Priest said. “We must harness the energy we’ve seen at the capitol this week and ensure it translates into a Legislature that won’t neglect public education over the course of the next decade.”
Momentum is one thing teachers have on their side.
A new network of volunteers is already forming to help teacher candidates launch their campaigns.
Tristen Black, and two of her friends, Lindsay Myers and Kenzie Lance, launched A Brand New State earlier two weeks ago to connect education candidates with volunteer creative services.
It all started when Black posted an offer on Twitter to design a logo for any teacher who wanted to run for office and snowballed from there.
The expense of running for office can be prohibitively high or teachers.
In a matter of 24 hours, more than 50 creative services professionals had also volunteered to help, offering teacher candidates services ranging from writing press releases, photography sessions, web design and shooting and editing campaign videos. About 30 potential teacher candidates across the political spectrum have already contacted Brand New State for help with their campaigns.
“It quickly turned into this heartwarming, amazing response,” Black said. “It empowered us to feel like we could help out teachers on both sides of the aisle — Republicans and Democrats.”
“We were even so surprised at how high the barriers were to running,” Black said. “How can a teacher who makes $32,000 to $35,000 a year feel this is even attainable for them?”
Carri Hicks is running as a Democrat for Senate District 40. A math and science teacher for Grove Valley Elementary in Deer Creek, Hicks declared her candidacy a year ago, and has been out walking her district, knocking on doors.
She’s running against incumbent Republican Sen. Ervin Yen in a district that includes traditionally conservative areas including the affluent Nichols Hills.
Yen already had $147,000 in his campaign coffers at the end of the first quarter of 2018.
Hicks has raised significantly less. At the end of 2017, she had about $18,000.
“The hardest aspect has been not being independently wealthy. All my friends are teachers and we’re all broke,” Hicks said. “I’ve just said I have to knock on this many doors today, keep my head down and my pace strong. Some days will be easier and some days will be harder.”
Last wave of teacher candidates didn’t fare well
Oklahoma saw a similar wave of teacher candidates for legislative seats in 2016—dubbed the teachers caucus. That effort was largely unsuccessful, with only a handful of roughly 30 education candidates winning seats.
This year could be different — or maybe not.
Pam Pollard, chairwoman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, said she isn’t fazed the by the anticipated wave of teachers who will file to run for office this week — many — but not all of them Democrats.
“Two years ago, they were not very successful,” she said.
It’s hard to run against incumbents.
Support for most Republican incumbents is still strong in their districts, Pollard said.
“When they go to their districts and talk directly to the voters and the teacher from their district, teachers are telling them ‘thank you’ for doing the work that they’ve done to get funding for education,” Pollard said. “I think the topic is the budget and education is just another part of that. We’ve been focused on the budget for years.”