The New Yorker
June 4 & 11, 2018 Issue
A walkout mostly failed to secure more funding for schools, but it has spawned a movement of politically engaged Okies.
Craig Hoxie, an Army veteran and a father of two, still teaches physics at Booker T. Washington High School, in Tulsa, though hundreds of teachers have left Oklahoma for other states, in search of better pay. In the past decade, funding for K-12 education in the state has fallen by a billion dollars. In 2017, the Oklahoma State Science Fair was cancelled, until a retired teacher saved it by contributing fifty thousand dollars from his savings. Hoxie often supplies his classes himself, with help from parents, who give him gift certificates to Walmart and Lowe’s. Still, Hoxie told me, “Booker T. Washington is one of the more fortunate schools in the state.” Many schools, as a way to save money on heating and cooling, are open only four days a week.
In late February, Hoxie and other teachers in Oklahoma closely followed the nine-day teachers’ strike in West Virginia, which was prompted by low pay and insufficient health-care plans; the strike ended when the state legislature passed a five-per-cent pay raise. Teachers in Oklahoma are paid less than those in West Virginia, which spends forty per cent more per pupil than Oklahoma does. During the strike, Alberto Morejon, a twenty-five-year-old social-studies teacher in Stillwater, Oklahoma, searched for a Facebook group that was discussing a strike or walkout in his state. He couldn’t find anything: the Oklahoma Education Association has been weakened by anti-union laws. Morejon started his own Facebook group (Oklahoma Teacher Walkout—The Time Is Now!), invited friends, and went to sleep. By the morning, the group had twenty-one thousand members; soon afterward, it had seventy-two thousand.
In response to the threat of a walkout, the Republican-dominated Oklahoma legislature offered teachers a pay raise of around six thousand dollars a year. It funded the raise with an assortment of tax bills, most of which disproportionately affect the poor—a cigarette tax, a diesel tax, an Amazon sales tax, an expansion of ball and dice gambling, and a five-dollar-per-room hotel-motel tax. The Republicans touted the move as historic, and it was: the legislature hadn’t passed a tax increase since 1990. The Democrats, along with the teachers, argued that the bill was far from sufficient, since it included little additional funding for students or schools. On April 2nd, Hoxie drove to the capitol, in Oklahoma City, about a hundred miles away, to attend the first day of the walkout. He told me, “I think the legislators thought we would come out for a day and just go home.” The teachers protested for nearly two weeks.
Heather Cody, a teacher Hoxie met at the walkout, helped organize a protest march from Tulsa to the capitol. During a trip to Disneyland, Hoxie said, Cody had noticed that she “walked sixteen miles in a day, so she thought, We can do this.” Hoxie and other teachers packed enough food and water for several days, knowing that they would be walking long stretches through sparsely populated areas. “But it soon became very apparent we didn’t need to carry anything,” Hoxie said. “We’d top a hill and then we’d see a family there by the side of the road, with the bed of their truck loaded with water bottles, bananas.” This kept happening. “An interfaith alliance was feeding us dinner each evening. High schools opened their gymnasiums for us to sleep in, pulling out their wrestling mats.” The Tulsa superintendent, Deborah Gist, walked with them. They encountered snow, lightning, and an earthquake. “We were walking through parts of Oklahoma that have barely even recovered from the oil bust of the nineteen-eighties,” Hoxie said. “They all came out for us. I didn’t know how they even knew where we were.”
On the seventh day, Hoxie and the other teachers woke up in the high-school library in Jones. Several hundred people were waiting outside to walk the last nineteen miles with them. A high-school marching band led them the last mile to the capitol, where thousands of people greeted them. Aaron Baker, a teacher from Del City who took part in the march, told me, “I was on the docket to speak, and I remember being so moved, seeing a young girl, just a teen-ager, holding out a bottle of water to me. Then I realized it was my daughter.”
Oklahoma has a population of less than four million. During the walkout, the demonstration at the capitol was attended by as many as eighty thousand people—more than came to the state for the land rush of 1889. All the major school districts were closed, and lines to get into the capitol to speak with legislators often started forming around 6 a.m. The scene had the high spirits of a music festival and the nerdiness of people who really love school. “Can we please put the smart people in charge now?” one sign read. Many signs referred to Oklahoma’s infamously high incarceration rate and its private prison system, and to the fact that the state spends twice as much per prisoner as per student: “If we dress our kids in stripes, will you fund education?”
Though the teachers came from both sides of the political aisle—the legislators and teachers I spoke with estimated that more than half the teachers were Republican—their reception was markedly partisan. “I’m not voting for another stinking measure when they’re acting the way they’re acting,” the Republican state representative Kevin McDugle said, in a Facebook Live feed. Governor Mary Fallin, a Republican, compared the teachers to “a teen-age kid that wants a better car.” The day the teachers arrived from Tulsa, Fallin signed a bill repealing the hotel-motel tax that had helped fund their pay raise. Hoxie told me, “I didn’t know I was going to run for office when I started the walk—that was something I learned along the way.” He is now on the ballot for House District 23.
Oklahoma has essentially been under single-party rule for about a decade. The state legislature is eighty per cent Republican, and in the most recent midterm elections the Democrats didn’t field a candidate in nearly half the races. Governor Fallin is in her eighth year, and during her tenure nearly all state agencies have seen cuts of between ten and thirty per cent, even as the population that those agencies serve has increased. A capital-gains tax break was configured in such a way that two-thirds of the benefit went to the eight hundred wealthiest families in the state. An income-tax reduction similarly benefitted primarily the wealthy. The tax on fracked oil was slashed, and when it was nudged back up—it remains the lowest in the nation—the energy billionaire and political kingmaker Harold Hamm, whose estimated net worth is quadruple the budget that the legislature allocates to the state, stood in the gallery of the capitol, letting the lawmakers know that he was watching.
Reversing tax cuts is never easy, but it’s almost impossible in Oklahoma. In 1992, a law was passed requiring that any bill to raise taxes receive the assent of the governor and three-quarters of the legislature. The law was pushed by two of the wealthiest people in Oklahoma, Edward L. Gaylord and Clayton Bennett, after a previous teacher walkout led to new education funding. It doesn’t cost much, in billionaire terms, to fund a candidate in Oklahoma.
The effects of the telescoped budget have been felt everywhere. There is a ten-year waiting list for home or community-based help for the elderly or for people with developmental disabilities. Many rural hospitals have closed. A bill was even passed that limits the gasoline usage of the state highway patrol.
Every state is politically odd, but I find Oklahoma to be the oddest. In 2002, a gubernatorial election was captured by the underdog because of strong turnout from pro-cockfighting Democrats. The state’s license plates once read “Native America,” though almost no tribes are native to the area; they were sent there in the Trail of Tears. And Oklahomans are proud to be called Okies, a term coined by Californians to disparage people who were fleeing the Dust Bowl. (The pride, for some, is linked to the government policies that led to better farming practices, which prevented a recurrence of the catastrophe.) The state’s beloved son Will Rogers liked to say that he belonged to no organized political party—he was a Democrat.
Oklahoma’s constitution was largely drafted by Native Americans, at the Sequoyah Constitutional Convention, in 1905, when hopes for an independent Indian Territory were still held. The constitution is unusually progressive. It grants the people legislative power through referendums, provides for universal suffrage, and details the oversight of everything from roads and wildlife to banks and social security. It also forbids open carry of a sword. From the time Oklahoma was established as a state into the nineteen-eighties, it was dominated by rural Democrats, who had a tinge of agrarian socialism. The cities were the domain of country-club Republicans. Oklahoma’s first Republican governor was pro-choice.
The state voted for Richard Nixon in 1968, but kept electing Democrats at the state level for decades. Only in the nineties did local politics begin to turn. I was in high school then, and of course didn’t notice. But I do remember Pat Buchanan, who ran for President in 1992, as a Republican, speaking to a packed University of Oklahoma ballroom, talking about the National Endowment for the Arts as if about an evil spirit. That year, my boyfriend made me a mixtape that included a Dead Milkmen song with the ironic lyric “Do you know what the queers are doing to the soil?” The culture wars were on.
Going into the 1994 midterm elections, Democrats in Oklahoma held the governor’s office, five of the state’s eight congressional seats, and large majorities in both houses of the state legislature. Allen Hertzke, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, conducted exit polls during the midterms. Registered Democrats were voting Republican down the whole ballot. “I thought I was in a weird precinct,” Hertzke said. “But I called my students, and they were seeing the same thing.” Republicans won the governorship, made significant gains in the legislature, and secured all but one of the national seats.
“We can work up to antidepressants, but for now I want to start you on eating a whole jar of cocktail olives over the kitchen sink.”
Hertzke attributed the shift in part to the influence of the Christian Coalition, which was founded by Pat Robertson. In Oklahoma, candidates of both parties typically state which church they attend in their campaign materials; “Have a blessed day” is a common sign-off in voice mails. Before the nineties, most evangelicals in Oklahoma were Democrats; as late as the 1994 elections, sixty per cent of registered Democrats in the state described themselves as Biblical literalists. Keith Gaddie, also a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, explained that, before the nineties, “people could vote for George H. W. Bush—he spoke the evangelical code—but they still liked their Democratic sheriff, their Democratic county commissioner. They knew those guys, and they knew they were pro-life.” With Bill Clinton in office, that changed. The Christian Coalition campaigned heavily for Republican candidates, with flyers about homosexuality and abortion. (The Christian Coalition was later denied tax-exempt status. Robertson himself was recently in the news for claiming that an energy drink he was marketing helped him leg-press two thousand pounds.) Republican candidates were encouraged to announce that they would not campaign on Sundays. Hertzke told me, “I remember, in those exit interviews, people just talking to us, their visceral feeling about Democrats not caring for their values.”
In 2016, when Oklahoma voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a thirty-six-point margin, one candidate for the state legislature flipped his district from red to blue. That was Mickey Dollens, who had just been laid off from his job as an English teacher at U. S. Grant High School, in south Oklahoma City, in a round of state cuts to education. “I was lucky—I had just enough savings so I was in a unique position where I could campaign each day,” Dollens said, expressing an idea of luck that I find particularly Oklahoman. Dollens, who grew up in Bartlesville, is thirty years old and blond, and looks as if he could rescue your cat from a tree, perhaps by uprooting the tree. In college, at Southern Methodist University, he was a defensive lineman; he tried out for the N.F.L., and, when that didn’t work out, he made the Olympic bobsledding team. Later, Dollens worked as a roughneck in the oil fields. His father had worked in the oil fields, as had his grandfather and his great-grandfather.
In the summer of 2016, Dollens knocked on around twenty thousand doors. “In the beginning, people weren’t answering, even though I could tell they were home,” he told me. One day, Dollens noticed that some four out of five doors were being opened. At one house, the resident laughed and said that he had opened the door because he thought Dollens was the mailman. Dollens was wearing dark-blue shorts and a white polo shirt. “I started dressing like that every day,” he said.
Dollens campaigned on raising the state income tax by a quarter of a per cent, introducing industrialized hemp to help the rural economy, and funding education. “I ran on raising taxes,” Dollens emphasized. “That worked.” He told voters that, for most of them, the increase would amount to thirty dollars a year. “They voted for that.”
It was not an easy year to run as anything but a Republican. The 2016 Oklahoma teacher of the year, Shawn Sheehan, ran for the State Senate—and lost by twenty-four points. Then he and his wife, who is also a teacher, moved to Lewisville, Texas, where they now earn forty thousand dollars more a year. Karen Gaddis, who taught for forty years in the Tulsa area, ran as well, and lost by nineteen points. Jacob Rosecrants, a single dad, a military-history fanatic, and a beloved geography teacher at Roosevelt Middle School, in southwest Oklahoma City, lost by twenty points.
Speaking with Democrats, I rarely heard anyone mention Trump. They preferred circumlocutions like “After November 8th,” or “In early 2017, I began to follow local politics more closely.” It was a good time to follow local politics. “Normally in a year there might be one special election,” Anna Langthorn, the twenty-four-year-old chair of the state Democratic Party, told me. Since the Presidential election, Oklahoma has had nine special elections for state legislative seats. One legislator resigned after being charged with engaging in child prostitution, one with sexual harassment, one with sexual battery, and one following an ethics-commission investigation; four went to other jobs; and one died. “That’s Oklahoma politics,” Langthorn said, with a shrug. The first special election, covering parts of Seminole and Pottawatomie Counties, didn’t get much coverage; Steve Barnes, the Democratic candidate, predictably lost. But, in a district that in 2016 had gone for Trump by a margin of thirty-six points, Barnes lost by only sixty-six votes. His opponent made border control a central issue; Barnes focussed on education spending.
Jacob Rosecrants decided to run again, in a special election on September 12, 2017. I followed his race closely; he had been three years behind me at Norman High School, and his House district included my childhood home. His high-school English teacher canvassed with him. He won by twenty per cent—a forty-point swing. Rosecrants told me that he lost sixty pounds knocking on doors. “I saw a photo of myself at my swearing in,” he said. “I was laughing because those clothes did not fit me anymore.”
The Democrats ended up winning four of the nine special elections, all in areas that had voted heavily Republican in 2016. Karen Gaddis ran again, and won by five points. In a red district covering west Tulsa, Allison Ikley-Freeman, a twenty-six-year-old lesbian and a mother of three, began a State Senate campaign with only eight weeks to go, because there was no Democrat on the ballot. Four years earlier, she had been sleeping in her car, homeless, while trying to finish a master’s degree. She won by twenty-nine votes. Two of the four victors were teachers, and if you guess what issue they ran on you’ll be right.
Since the Presidential election, Jerreck McWilliams, a twenty-eight-year-old software developer from Ada, has put more than thirty thousand miles on his old Honda, working to rebuild the Democratic Party. McWilliams has visited thirty or so Oklahoma counties, from Garvin to Greer to Comanche, and spoken to activists from all seventy-seven. “Poor car is held together with zip ties and prayers now,” he told me.
Before the election, McWilliams had never been involved in politics. “Didn’t like political parties,” he said. “Still don’t, really.” McWilliams was a registered Independent; in 2008, he voted for John McCain. But the past decade has not been flattering to those holding power in Oklahoma. “Education is the No. 1 reason I started doing all of this,” McWilliams, whose mother is a public-school teacher, said. “The people who currently make up the Republican Party of Oklahoma have made it clear that they are not interested in funding public education.”
After the 2016 election, McWilliams was on the phone with his college roommate, who followed Oklahoma politics closely. He said that if McWilliams really wanted to make a difference he had to go to his county party meetings, Republican or Democratic. McWilliams changed his registration from Independent to Democrat.
McWilliams was not alone. The Pontotoc County Democrats’ meetings typically drew around four people; suddenly, forty people were showing up. Events in Cleveland County grew to hundreds of people. “Near as I can tell, it was the same story almost everywhere across the state,” McWilliams said. “As much as we like to talk about data and automation in modern politics, things haven’t really changed a whole lot. I was talking to a woman who keeps up attendance at her county meeting just by leaving a message the night before, saying, ‘I look forward to seeing you tomorrow.’ ” McWilliams attended one of the woman’s meetings recently, for canvassing training; despite an unexpected spring sleet storm, the meeting was packed. “The personal touch is still king,” he said.
McWilliams has often crossed paths with Justin Moser, a thirty-eight-year-old fifth-generation Oklahoman from Norman. When Moser was a college student, he was active in the Oklahoma Intercollegiate Legislature (oil), a mock-state-government program. oil held its sessions in the capitol, and several alums are current legislators. “The lieutenant governor would sometimes sit in on our mock legislative session and take notes,” Moser said.
After the 2016 election, a friend of Moser’s from oil, Ryan Robinson, posted on Facebook about feeling that what had happened was “our” fault. Moser explained, “By ‘our’ he meant our generation. We wanted to do something. Lots of people wanted to do something.” Oklahoma has one of the lowest voting rates in the nation, and turnout is especially depressed among young people.
Moser and Robinson began a group that they eventually named the Frontier Coalition, with the goal of organizing defunct county Democratic parties. Other groups were doing similar kinds of work, and they joined forces. The Frontier Coalition—which has helped increase the number of Oklahoma counties with active Democratic groups from forty-four to seventy-two—had one rule for their Facebook group: avoid posting about national issues. “People know nothing about state and local politics, but everything about the national news,” Moser said. “We want to change that.”
Karen Gaddis, who is sixty-eight and a newly minted state representative, was with the teachers in front of the capitol, wearing a red blazer, red pants, and a stars-and-stripes scarf around her neck. It was the second week of the walkout, and Oklahoma Arts Day, so Gaddis had invited an orchestra from Sistema Tulsa, a program, run by a Methodist church, that offers free after-school music lessons, to be honored at the capitol. The Sistema kids, in pink T-shirts, played Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”; they played Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma.”
The capitol was being renovated, and I followed Gaddis through scaffolding and past “Please Excuse Our Appearance” signs. We took the stairs, crowded with teachers and families, up to the fifth floor, where her tiny office was at the end of a long, narrow hallway. Dozens of constituents were waiting for her. Todd Henshaw, in jeans, boots, and a baseball cap, took a seat across from Gaddis; there was barely room for his legs between the chair and the desk. Henshaw teaches and coaches baseball and softball at Liberty High School, in Mounds. “I’ve been teaching for twenty-two years,” he said. He spoke in a smooth teaching voice, but his hand was trembling. “My base salary is thirty-eight thousand dollars. And, even if they give us raises, they’re not addressing class size. Up to seventy per cent of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch. We are on a four-day-a-week schedule. Churches bring in bags on Friday for the Monday lunch that students are missing. We have two teachers leaving, going to Texas. Signed contracts for sixty thousand dollars. I just have to say, I think the legislators are out of touch.”
Mary Barry, who teaches English as a second language at Boevers Elementary, in Tulsa, came in. She has two hundred and seventy students, each of whom she is legally required to spend forty-five minutes a day with. She loves teaching, but her school, lacking the resources to hire more E.S.L. instructors, was under “audit.” Barry explained that she is part of the sizable Burmese population in the Tulsa area; six languages are spoken at her school. She had also wanted to speak to the Republican representative Chuck Strohm, who was not available to meet. “He’s a waste of your breath, to be honest,” Gaddis said.
A wider hallway on the fourth floor houses the offices of Republican legislators. “This reminds me of my divorce,” Robin Hibbard, a speech pathologist at Kennedy Elementary School, in Norman, said. She was there with two other teachers from Kennedy, waiting to speak with Kim David, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We just keep bringing proposals to legislators” to raise revenue, she said. “They just say no. They never propose anything themselves.” Her colleague Kayla Melton, a kindergarten teacher, said, “I’m doing their homework. I’m going home at night coming up with ideas.” Melton said she had brought in her tax returns to show her state senator that in the past three years she had spent twenty-six hundred dollars on school supplies. The senator, a Republican named Rob Standridge, “wouldn’t even look at the returns,” Melton said. Hibbard added, “When I was in training, I said, ‘I want to work at the most difficult school, the one where they need me the most.’ I could go tomorrow and get a job at a hospital and earn thirty thousand dollars more, but I love my kids. We’re all used to working hard. We can handle a lot, and we love it. But I know seasoned teachers who have just been crying for the past three days.”
The carpet on the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives is green and gold, with stain-obscuring fleurs-de-lis, reminiscent of a palace, or of a casino. The representatives sit at dark-wood desks that are wired to a digital board on which yea and nay votes are tallied in green and red. The legislative process is in some ways admirably transparent: sessions can be watched online, and it’s easy to look up the votes on each bill.
On an average day, there might be a dozen observers in the visitors’ gallery, or none. On the ninth day of the teacher walkout, all two hundred and thirty-two seats are filled with teachers. “I had no idea there were this many people interested in the House Subcommittee for Transportation,” someone behind me deadpans. The gallery appears to be ninety per cent women; the floor is almost ninety per cent men. Outside, Karen Gaddis, in her red blazer, looked like just another teacher; here, she’s a poppy among dark suits.
On this morning, the teachers’ hopes center on three possible tax reforms that would generate new revenue. Two of them originated, before the walkout, with Republican legislators.
The session begins with a prayer, led by a pastor from Oklahoma City, who speaks of the God “of reconciliation.” Next is the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a coda pledge to the state flag—“I salute the flag of the state of Oklahoma. Its symbols of peace unite all people.”
The session is gavelled in by the presiding speaker, the Republican representative Chris Kannady, who begins moving through the day’s agenda with a hurried voice, like a bored auctioneer. Senate Bill 1156, relating to travel insurance, is brought to a vote; it passes. Senate Bill 1089, relating to an increase in permissible axle-load weights, is brought to a vote; it passes. Senate Bill 912, which would exempt certain agricultural vehicles from certain requirements, comes up—and a small technical drama ensues.
Scott Inman, a slim, bespectacled sixth-term Democratic representative in a blue suit, stands up and says, “Do you believe this law will be constitutional? . . . A lot of folks upstairs”—he gestures toward the teachers in the gallery—“have been told we can’t exempt agriculture from something like a capital-gains tax, because that would be unconstitutional.”
It’s a super-nerdy bit of political subtext, but the teachers understand it. Every time I heard teachers talk about the proposed capital-gains tax increase, they would add, “with an ag exemption, of course,” so that small family farms would not be harmed. Some Republicans claimed that an exemption for small farms wasn’t possible.
As the session continues, Democrats try, within the constraints of parliamentary procedure, to bring to the floor a discussion of education funding. After all the scheduled bills for the day have been dealt with, the Republican floor leader asks the members of the House to stand at ease—take a break without adjourning—because of “some ongoing discussions between the majority and minority parties.” It seems impossible to me, I confess, having been among the teachers at the capitol, that the legislature won’t pass something.
When the session reconvenes, Inman asks the speaker to bring to the floor a capital-gains tax bill. Inman says, “We had a bunch of folks walk down here from Tulsa yesterday asking for more revenue, and I’d hate to see that they walked a hundred and ten miles and were sent home with not—”
The speaker interrupts Inman, and calls for a vote simply on whether to discuss the bill. The leaderboard lights up in a pattern of red and green: Republican names come up red, Democrats green.
With a slight laugh, the speaker declares that the motion has failed.
For the next few minutes, Inman tries to introduce various bills to support the teachers. Each time, the red-and-green pattern on the leaderboard results in his motion being tabled. Finally, he makes a motion to have an open discussion about education funding with the teachers who are present in the gallery.
The speaker is silent. Then the Republican representative Katie Henke, a former pre-kindergarten teacher who in 2016 received a glowing endorsement from the Tulsa World for fighting for public education, asks to be recognized. As a teacher, Henke embodies the hope of an alliance with the Republican Party. Henke rises. “I move to table the motion,” she says. She sits down.
The speaker announces, “That’s a proper motion.”
The red-and-green pattern repeats.
When the session is gavelled out, not a single proposal for education has been brought to the floor.
In a taxi home from the capitol, the driver told me that he had retired as a high-school principal in McLoud. Then he took a job as a classroom teacher in Texas, where he made fifteen thousand dollars more a year. He stayed in a bungalow in the yard of the school’s principal during the week, and drove home every weekend. “I’ve always been a conservative,” he said. “But I don’t mind paying taxes for education. You have to pay for nice things. I paid for this car”—he gestured around his S.U.V. “I could have had a cheaper car, but that wouldn’t have been as good.” He told me he had loved teaching math. “If you’ve got a real difficult problem, I used to tell my students, then you take off your socks and count with your toes.”
The next day, the teachers’ association called for an end to the walkout. At a press conference, Alicia Priest, the president, said, “We must turn our attention toward the election season.” She said that a poll of members showed that the majority did not think extending the walkout would be effective. She added, “We got here by electing the wrong people to office. No more.” Many teachers were devastated, and recalled that the association had not led the walkout. In the following weeks, delegations of teachers continued to fill the gallery. In Kentucky, the legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto in order to fund education; teachers in Arizona went on strike, as did teachers in Colorado. In Oklahoma, the former U.S. senator Tom Coburn began to support a referendum initiative with the power to repeal the taxes that funded the teachers’ pay raises. A new president of the University of Oklahoma was named—an energy executive. For now, Oklahoma’s students remain among the most poorly funded in the nation.
The last days of the teacher walkout coincided with candidate filing—a bureaucratic process in which the spirit of democracy is fused with the spirit of the Department of Motor Vehicles. The walkout mostly failed to secure more funding for classrooms, but it was a baptism by fire for a movement of politically literate and engaged Okies. In the 2014 elections, eighty-seven Democrats ran for legislative office in Oklahoma; for this fall’s elections, the number has more than doubled. Owing to the walkout, and to the large number of candidates, the filing proceedings were moved from the second floor of the capitol to the west entrance, where the senators enter. Folding tables and chairs were cordoned off with stanchions and rope. At the first set of tables, candidates presented notarized paperwork, a certified check to the State Board of Elections, and proof that they were old enough to run. The next table belonged to the Ethics Commission.
Darrell Moore, a retired two-star Marine Corps general, arrived with his wife. He’d decided two days earlier to run as a Democrat for the House of Representatives. “The last election was dominated by national issues, not local ones,” he told me. “We know a principal who is also sweeping the school and driving the bus.” Tyson Todd Meade, the lead singer of the Oklahoma-based nineties band the Chainsaw Kittens, filed to represent Oklahoma as a Democrat in the U.S. House. “I just said to myself, ‘I have a platform, I have to use it, I can’t take this stuff anymore,’ ” he said.
And dozens of teachers filed. Carri Hicks, a teacher and a mother of three, filed with her eight-week-old baby strapped to her chest. She had been coming to the capitol for years, using her personal-leave days to advocate for education. She had tried to contact the incumbent in her district, Senator Ervin Yen, a Republican, several times over the years, but had never received a response until she announced her candidacy. Then he called her cell phone. “At least now he has to speak to me,” she said.
John Waldron, a social-studies teacher from Tulsa, had run in 2016, and was signing up to do so again. I asked him if, as he’d knocked on doors, he had found that people knew who their local representatives were. “Most people never get to that chapter in the textbook,” he said, with a small laugh. “But, when you talk to them, they’re interested. We have gotten to see here pure, unalloyed, deep-red conservative government, and we will learn from it. The Okies proved it in the Dust Bowl, that they could learn.” He added, “People say they aren’t interested in politics. But then politics happens to them.” ♦
This article appears in the print edition of the June 4 & 11, 2018, issue, with the headline “The Teaching Moment.”
Rivka Galchen has published three books, including “Little Labors,” which came out in May.