Some of Mauree Turner’s earliest memories as a child include trips to an Oklahoma prison to visit her father. In a state that locks up more of its citizens than any other, she learned early how the imprisonment of one person often left an extended family feeling as if they were also behind bars.
“So many Oklahomans have been impacted (by mass incarceration) yet few members of the Legislature have that shared lived experience,” said Turner, a candidate for House District 88 who is challenging incumbent Rep. Jason Dunnington in next week’s Democratic primary.
“I bring an important perspective that we need to have not only from this district but at the Capitol.”
In this solidly Democratic House seat, where the incumbent hasn’t faced a primary challenge in six years, Turner, 27, is running on a belief that the current representative isn’t progressive enough for a district that includes the city’s gay district, neighborhoods growing with millennial residents and one of the city’s historic hubs for refugees.
Turner, 27, also believes she more accurately reflects the district.
“As a black queer Muslim from Oklahoma I think what people have latched on to is the type of inclusiveness I represent,” Turner said. “We live in one of the most liberal places in Oklahoma and we should be driving conversation (in the Legislature) about what it means to be inclusive.”
Dunnington, 42, rejects the idea he isn’t progressive enough.
“I see daily (from my opponent) how I’m a fake progressive and we need someone who is true and real in this seat and then I think about all the progressive pieces of legislation I’ve carried,” Dunnington said.
Dunnington has authored bills to promote equal pay among men and women, ban conversion therapy and end the death penalty.
“I’m running on my record, which includes pushing for progressive issues and doing more than just talking about them,” Dunnington said.
Some have challenged Dunnington’s progressiveness by pointing to his past work in oil and gas and studying theology, two sectors viewed with skepticism in some liberal circles. But he has also been hit for his outspoken desire to work with Republicans, a posture of practicality and civility Dunnington believes is necessary in a Republican-controlled Legislature.
“The ability to get things accomplished has been my willingness to engage with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle in a manner that is more than, ‘Hi, how are you?’” Dunnington said. “It’s trying to understand the perspective that they have and the constituents they represent to know where their heart is and to know why they vote the way that they do on issues. I think I have been able to do that by investing in personal relationships within the building.”
In 2018, Dunnington made a run for minority leader by pledging to work across the aisle, instead of simply being the opposition.
“The mistake is believing that being progressive means that you have to be divisive,” Dunnington said at the time. “I think it is time for us to try something different and embrace a strategy of working together for the betterment of all Oklahomans.”
Dunnington faced challengers from his left when he first won his seat six years ago, which included a 22-vote runoff win.
This year’s primary could be another close contest, according to JR Day, the founder of OkiePolls, who has modeled the House District 88 race and found Dunnington with a slight lead as of two weeks ago.
“This district in the middle of Oklahoma City already has a fairly liberal incumbent,” Day said. “But everybody has their different interpretations of what liberal means and (Turner) has done a pretty good job at convincing many there is still room to be even more progressive.”
Day said a close race makes every variable important, including endorsements.
Dunnington has drawn support from many of his fellow Democrats in the House and Senate.
“He has the experience and connections to get things done on the floor as well as behind the scenes,” said Rep. Jason Lowe, D-Oklahoma City.
The most impactful endorsement for Turner may be from Oklahoma City councilwoman JoBeth Hamon who has become one of the area’s most progressive elected officials.
“When I think of progressive I think beyond ideology and values but how you show up in the community,” Hamon said. “Beyond showing up to vote or having relationships that can get things done … I think you also have to drive conversations.”
As progress is made on various fronts, Hamon said she believes Turner can continue to bring attention to marginalized communities and subcultures.
“I think she would be great at knowing who is currently not part of the conversation,” Hamon said.
Day said Hamon’s endorsement could pay off.
“If you are looking for a progressive endorsement then JoBeth is a good one to get, especially right now,” Day said.
Hamon was one of a few council members to recently push for redirecting police funding to other social services, including mental health support.
That effort came after nationwide protests have pushed for a rethinking of law enforcement, an issue Turner believes she is well positioned to speak on.
“The three things that drive our prison system are drug offenses, property offenses and severe sentencing laws, so those are where our focus needs to be,” Turner said. “We use our prison system as a holding facility for folks who are suffering from homelessness and mental illness.”
Dunnington has many advantages as an incumbent — he is one of the most quoted lawmakers by local media, hosts regular constituent gatherings and has accumulated a sizable war chest.
Dunnington has raised nearly $100,000 this year, including more than $20,000 from political action committees in recent months.
A global pandemic has altered the normal process of a state House campaign, making door knocking an untenable strategy in an age of social distancing. Turner has topped $20,000 in fundraising, enough to be aggressive with mailers and digital advertising in the final weeks of the campaign.
But Turner also hopes her candidacy is an inspiration for many in the district who typically sit out a primary election.
“The number one thing that rings in my ear is that one in five LGBTQ folks are registered to vote,” Turner said. “When we hold the heart of the LGBTQ community, especially here in OKC, I think you have to be connected to that community in a deeper sense than what we have seen.”