Oklahoma teachers shift from marching to running for office

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By SEAN MURPHY

Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – When Oklahoma second-grade teacher Cyndi Ralston heard her state representative berate teachers for walking out of the classroom and marching on the Capitol, she knew she’d be running against him in November.

Rep. Kevin McDugle, an ex-Marine Corps drill instructor, chastised teachers in a video he posted on Facebook for failing to thank lawmakers after he and other Republicans voted in favor of tax hikes to fund a teacher raise.

“I’m not voting for another stinking measure when they’re acting the way they’re acting,” Republican McDugle said.

Now the walkout has shuttered schools in Oklahoma’s largest districts for two straight weeks, and Ralston has joined more than a dozen teachers, most of them first-time candidates, taking their frustration to the ballot box by running for seats in the GOP-controlled Legislature.

“There are so many parents, community members and students up here seeing what’s going on and how they (lawmakers) are not responding to the voices of the people they represent,” Ralston said after filing her candidacy papers. “I think it’s going to grow.”

The teacher-led rebellion over low wages and funding cuts has spread from its genesis in West Virginia to Arizona, Kentucky and Oklahoma. Filing deadlines already have passed in Kentucky and West Virginia, but Oklahoma’s teacher walkout coincided with its three-day candidate filing period. The timing gave frustrated educators an outlet for their enthusiasm.

Amanda Jeffers, a Democrat and a high school English teacher, said she was spurred by the teacher movement to run against a Republican incumbent, even though she acknowledges an uphill battle in a district with a 2-to-1 GOP registration advantage.

“Looking at my district, there really hasn’t been anyone stepping up to the plate, so I thought: ‘Well, how about me?'” Jeffers said.

Despite the disadvantage on paper, Jeffers said she thinks the teacher movement could put some wind in her sails in an election where Democrats already are energized.

A similar effort by dozens of Oklahoma teachers in the 2016 election, most of them Democrats, was largely unsuccessful, but the Oklahoma Democratic Party’s 25-year-old chairwoman, Anna Langthorn, said she senses this cycle is different.

“Voters are more receptive, engaged and aware about what the issues actually are, and there’s not a presidential election at the top of the ticket,” Langthorn said, “so we’re focusing on Oklahoma issues, and I think that will give everybody a head start.”

Democrats also are emboldened by a string of four special election pickups from Republicans since 2016, including two victories by Democratic public school teachers. Republicans hold a 72-28 advantage in the House and a 39-8 edge in the Senate, but Democrats hope to chip away at that and have their eyes on an even bigger prize – the open governor’s seat.

Langthorn said the party has been overwhelmed in recent weeks with potential candidates seeking guidance on how to run for office. She spent Wednesday and Thursday greeting state House and Senate candidates with a packet that included details about free training, templates for literature and websites, and contact names of Democratic political consultants.

While many of the teacher candidates were Democrats, some Republican educators also threw their hat in the ring against GOP incumbents they felt weren’t supportive enough of public schools.

Republican Tammie Reynolds, an assistant superintendent from the southwest Oklahoma town of Elgin, said she decided to run against the GOP incumbent in large part because of his vote against a tax-hike plan that funded teacher pay and public schools.

“Regardless of Democrat or Republican, I think your representative should represent you, and if he doesn’t then I think it’s time to go and say: ‘You’re not representing me, and I’m either going to vote someone in who does or I’m going to file myself,” Reynolds said.

Oklahoma Republican Party Chairman Pam Pollard acknowledged many GOP incumbents were faced with a difficult decision this session on whether to approve a tax hike and anger anti-tax conservatives to their right, or vote against it and upset teachers and educators in their district.

“It’s going to make them talk to their voters and explain their votes on both sides, either why did they raise taxes or why did they not vote for more taxes,” Pollard said.

Trebor Worthen, a former House member and now a GOP campaign consultant, said the political winds have clearly shifted since 2016 and many incumbents are feeling the pressure.

“I think that anyone running against incumbents will likely experience more success this year than they did in 2016,” Worthen said. “And teachers are certainly contributing to that anti-incumbent mood.”

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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