Thirty-four years ago, Terry Neese returned from a weeklong trip to Washington, D.C., a changed woman. The entrepreneur from Oklahoma City had never paid much attention to politics, but as a delegate to the 1986 White House Conference on Small Business, Neese said she became open to a “whole new world.”
A child of the cotton and wheat farms of southwest Oklahoma who believed a secretarial career would be her highest attainment, Neese built a thriving staffing agency when her trip to the nation’s capital convinced her that politics, once an afterthought, needed to become a central part of her life.
“If you run a business and you are not involved in politics then politics will run your business,” Neese often says.
Four years after her trip to Washington, D.C., Neese unsuccessfully ran for state lieutenant governor. Four years later she lost again.
But over the next three decades, Neese became a notable political player through connections with state and federal lawmakers, was regularly invited to White House policy events and congressional committees, and also became a financial bundler for several Republican candidates.
At times Neese’s business and political interests seemed to blend, including in 1990 when a former business partner accused her of using the employees of their staffing agency to work for her lieutenant governor campaign.
Neese was conservative, but focused mostly on tax policy, business regulations and health care.
In 1990, she led an effort to repeal a school reform and funding package that had spurred a statewide teacher strike.
Neese also participated in a successful effort to raise the voting threshold in the Legislature to increase taxes, a hurdle not met for another 28 years.
“From the stop sign down at the corner to the check that we write to the IRS, it all impacts us and it’s a huge process, but every single person can make a difference in their government,” Neese said in a 2007 interview for an Oklahoma State University oral history project.
But in her current campaign for the U.S. House, Neese has pivoted to the cultural issues that have become the focus of a Republican Party led by a president quick to tweet his brand of identity politics.
Neese’s campaign commercials and stump speeches center mostly on the ills of socialism, preventing a government seizure of guns and building President Donald Trump’s border wall.
Neese’s campaign turned down multiple requests for an interview.
During a speech last year in Del City, Neese told a crowd of Republicans that to reelect Rep. Kendra Horn, a self-described moderate Democrat, would turn the country into a socialist nation.
“Socialism, socialism, socialism,” Neese shouted as the crowd applauded.
The Republican primary race in Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional district has largely been a race to see who supports Trump the most and who is best positioned to retake the seat from Horn, who flipped the district in 2018 when Democrats took back control of the U.S. House.
Neese, who previously lived in Canadian County in the state’s 3rd Congressional District, rented an Oklahoma City apartment last year when she launched her campaign, according to an interview with The Oklahoman.
Neese was the top vote getter in last month’s crowded Republican primary, but with fewer than 50 percent of the share she was forced into a runoff against State Sen. Stephanie Bice.
Bice has also sold herself as a defender of the president, but more than Neese she has, at times, separated the man from the policies he supports.
“Maybe his tactics are not something everybody agrees with, but I think policy wise he’s doing the right things for the country,” Bice told The Frontier the night of the primary election.
Appealing to Trump supporters in a Republican primary, especially a runoff race, could be considered a wise strategy as voters will to be some of the most conservative in the district and the president remains popular with the party’s most enthusiastic members.
“Neese appears to be the more Trumpian figure and that likely plays well in a Republican primary runoff where voters are going to have to be really motivated to go out and vote,” said Richard Johnson, a professor of political science at Oklahoma City University.
‘The world is in trouble’
While Neese has stuck with Trump, many of the Republican leaders she once aligned herself with have not.
Neese launched a nonprofit to help women business owners in Afghanistan and Rwanda at the behest of former first lady Laura Bush, whose husband, former President George W. Bush nominated her to lead the U.S. Mint – a position she turned down days before her Senate confirmation hearing.
The New York Times reported last month that Bush was unlikely to support Trump in November.
In 2016, Neese led fundraising for Carly Fiorina, a second-tier candidate in the Republican primary for president who recently announced her support for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
“I think we need humility and empathy everywhere in public life right now. And I think character counts,” Fiorina told The Atlantic last month in explaining her support for Biden.
But Neese’s support for Trump didn’t just come during her run for Congress.
When Trump secured the Republican nomination in 2016, more than 100 business leaders signed a letter supporting his bid. Neese was one of just 15 women to sign the letter.
Neese told Yahoo! Finance she did not share Trump’s values and was troubled by a video that showed him bragging about sexually assaulting women.
“Do [these accusations] disturb me? Of course they do,” Neese said. “But I also think we have to think with our brains and remember that our economy is in trouble. The world is in trouble.”
‘none of your damn business’
Neese headed into June’s Republican primary with nearly $1 million in her campaign account, half of which she loaned herself.
The war chest was second only to Bice and fueled a full press of television ads that followed the common script of a traditional Oklahoma political commercial; the candidate driving a pickup truck – while pulling a gun from the glovebox – and reminiscing about growing up on a farm with “Oklahoma tough” parents. In adopting the more modern Republican commercial playbook, Neese’s ads also include grainy images of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez flashing across the screen.
“President Trump needs more of us to join the fight against the career politicians, the fake news and the liberal elite,” Neese said in one commercial.
Neese has painted herself as a political outsider, but she has sought “insider” status before.
In 1990, she became the first woman nominated by a major party for lieutenant governor of Oklahoma. At a time when Democrats still had wide political power in the state, Neese lost her bid.
“Should I have started at a much lower level?” Neese asked herself during a 2007 interview. “Hindsight’s 20/20 and that’s probably what I should have done but I’m a dreamer and I’m a visionary.”
When she stepped away from her staffing agency during the 1990 campaign, Neese’s business partner, Ginny Kidwell, accused her of using agency staff on her campaign without reimbursing the company, according to a lawsuit and court documents reviewed by The Frontier.
Neese “used her influence as my employer to require me to work in her campaign,” said Shari Snyder, a former employee of Neese, according to court documents.
Snyder also claimed that other employees of Terry Neese Temporaries worked for the campaign “and I do not believe that the campaign ever reimbursed TNT for the ‘temporaries’ that worked in her campaign.”
Neese denied the allegations.
Kidwell also accused Neese of inflating her business success and said she didn’t have enough money to settle the lawsuit.
“I am saying it is none of your damn business,” Neese told a reporter for The Oklahoman when asked about Kidwell’s claim.
Around the same time Neese also resigned from a position with the state chamber over a dispute on a tax increase to boost school spending.
“They (state chamber officials) said the advertisements and my stand on being opposed to the tax increase was against state chamber policy,” Neese told The Oklahoman in 1990.
Neese ran for lieutenant governor again in 1994, but lost in a Republican runoff to Mary Fallin, who would later become the state’s first female governor.
During a 2007 interview, Neese said running again for elected office wasn’t in her future.
“I don’t think so,” she said when asked if she would ever run for office again. “I think I have bigger things (to do). Not that being in office isn’t a big thing. I think my role has been helping women, not only in Oklahoma but around the world.”
Neese’s first runs at elected office were at a time when the political climate in Oklahoma was challenging for Republicans, unlike today when the party holds a majority of positions, including four of the state’s five congressional districts.
But the island of blue in the state’s sea of red has been viewed as a black eye by many state Republican leaders. Oklahoma is where recent GOP presidential candidates could rely on a sweep of every county, so the fallen congressional seat quickly became the party’s main 2020 target.
“Kendra Horn is a liar and a fraud, it is time for her to go, it is time for us to take her out,” Neese said at a candidate forum in February.
Because we're getting asked now, here's our current Presidential model for Oklahoma County:
Donald John Trump (R) – 134,767 (45.54%)
Joseph Robinette Biden (D) – 153,889 (52.01%)
Joanne Marie Jorgensen (L) – 7,251 (2.45%)
— OkiePolls (@OkiePolls) July 2, 2020
The voter modeling outfit Okie Polls shows Biden with a decent chance of winning Oklahoma County, the most populous of the three counties that make up the 5th District.
The political shift of Oklahoma County is largely due to changing demographics in Oklahoma City, but also comes from slight shifts in suburban precincts where some women voters have been turned off by the president.
But before worrying about the voters in a general election, Neese is doubling down on the message that seems to appeal most to her party’s core.
“I am running for congress because I believe socialism is evading our country and we must stop that,” Neese said at a recent candidate forum hosted by NonDoc. “I am the person who is ready to work with president Trump to make sure his agenda is pushed through congress.”