Can Oklahoma Democrats Compete In 2014?

Image of Mary Fallin

The fact that no prominent politician on the left has yet to step up to run against Gov. Mary Fallin in the 2014 election shows the somewhat precarious state of the Democratic Party in Oklahoma these day.

There’s no one Democrat or one segment of the party to necessarily blame for the circumstance. What I referred to as the “Obama effect” back in 2009 still applies today. President Barack Obama is wildly unpopular here, especially now because of misinformation and fear mongering doled out daily about the Affordable Care Act by Republican politicians and the conservative media here. It’s difficult for any Democrat to run for a statewide office given the party association with the president.

Republicans captured every statewide office in 2010 and remain on target to do so again in 2014. The GOP has super majorities in the Oklahoma House of Representatives and Senate. The state’s entire Congressional delegation is now Republican. There’s been some interest among Democrats in the State Schools Superintendent race, but that just shows how irrelevant Democrats have become in a state where they once ruled supreme. Maybe Democrats have a shot at State Schools Superintendent. Maybe not.

For years now, some people have claimed that Democrats don’t have a message or a brand that resonates with voters, but that seems too simple. It’s just basically true that low-informed voters, manipulated by crafty GOP politicians and the conservative noise machine, have been seduced into voting against their own economic interests for visceral reasons related to wedge issues, such as abortion or prayer in school. This will not change anytime soon. When you look at Oklahoma’s low college graduate rate and the sheer size of the myopic religious right here, the picture becomes clearer and more depressing.

In other words, it’s not something that a Democratic political operative or party official can do much about. I’ve been guilty of it in the past, but I think it’s unfair to blame the state Democratic Party for the situation. Who in the world would want to run against Fallin given her approval rating, name recognition and campaign money? No amount of messaging or branding is going to make that reality go away.

Fallin, the state’s first female governor, announced her reelection bid last week at stops throughout the state, but there was no opponent to challenge her statements about what a great job she’s done for the state during her first term. Patrick, over at the popular The Lost Ogle blog, probably said it best:

. . . [Fallin] could cuss out Andrew Speno, dye her hair pink and get caught doing coke with Wayne Coyne in the Blue Note bathroom and still coast to an easy victory.

A conservative friend once told me a few years ago that the GOP will control Oklahoma politics for at least a generation. Political realities can change quickly under pressing circumstances, but I’ve come to accept the fact that this is a long-term issue and that there’s no magic candidate or message that can immediately change things on the state level here in Oklahoma. Democrats need to continue fighting, of course, but to say it’s a discouraging situation is, well, an understatement.

R.J. Harris, who describes himself as a Libertarian Democrat, has indicated he will run for governor, but is he really a serious candidate? Can he raise millions of dollars in campaign money to match Fallin? How do his political stances contrast with mainstream Democratic political views?

Progressives CAN make a difference, however, in local elections. For example, local physician and Oklahoma City Councilman Ed Shadid is running for mayor on a platform that includes improving public transportation, making neighborhoods safer, citizen equality and government transparency, issues that progressives can absolutely support. We can continue to move our specific communities forward even as the conservative juggernaut continues unabated on a state level.

TANF Drug Testing Is A Waste of Time and Money

Image of Oklahoma State Capitol

Can we finally drop the right-wing mythologies about people who receive government assistance given the failure of mandated testing programs to catch many poor people with illegal drugs in their systems?

Last year, the Republican-dominated Oklahoma Legislature passed a law that requires drug screening of adult applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF. The Oklahoma Gazette reported this week that only 29 out of about 1,300 applicants were supposedly caught under the new program from November 2012 to February 2013. That’s a whopping 2.2 percent, and even those who refused to take additional tests weren’t exactly caught doing illegal drugs or didn’t receive money. The Gazette reported that out of that 29 people, 16 had children who still qualified for assistance.

In Florida, before the law was overturned, a mandated drug testing program for welfare recipients only caught 2.6 percent of people who supposedly had drugs in their system.

Republican politicians throughout the country demonize people on government assistance by consistently depicting them as lazy drug users taking advantage of the nation’s welfare systems. This has been a GOP trope since former Republican President Ronald Reagan referred to a “welfare queen” in one of his 1976 campaign speeches. The demonization works especially well as a political tool in conservative states, such as Oklahoma, where college degree rates are lower than the national average.

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services already screened for drug use, but the new law added more tests and turned it into a punitive rather than rehabilitative process. TANF applicants testing positive for drugs now get rejected instead of referred for treatment.

Just because a person has detected drugs in their system also doesn’t mean they are intoxicated or can’t work.

These new drug-testing policies are a waste of taxpayers' money and are primarily used to harass poor people and create disparaging stereotypes about the impoverished, but that won’t stop the Republicans here.

Hate’s Hangover: Will Obama Hysteria Fuel State Decline?

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I want to spend my last post of this week focusing once again on GOP extremism here in Oklahoma and how it continues to prevent rational discussion of issues important to both Republicans and Democrats.

I know it’s the third post in a row on this topic, and it might be a stale issue for some progressives here, but I can’t stress enough how discouraged I’ve become with the current political Oklahoma scene. It’s telling that even The Oklahoman editorial board, the ultra-conservative machine that keeps going and going, has come out against state GOP overreach here and here.

I fear that conservatives here will do much damage to the state before there’s a power shift, and, yes, eventually there will be a power shift, but those of us living here during this era will suffer a price, whether through lack of educational opportunities, shoddy infrastructure, poor medical access or neglect of many other practical, quality-of-life issues.

At the root of the conservative rage in Oklahoma seems to be the fictional, hate-filled mythology of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president. It’s generated constantly by the right-wing media, which includes Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and even The Oklahoman to some extent.

Obama does represent a changing country, one that’s slowly—far too slowly for me—becoming more diverse and open-minded. I recognize how change can be difficult. I get it. On the other hand, Obama has reached out to conservatives over and over again, and he has frustrated liberals and his party over and over again for his tendency to compromise. I’m in this group of liberals so Republican extremism here, such as the Obamacare nullification effort or the gun-obsession paranoia or the Agenda 21 nonsense, seems completely divorced from reality to me.

I wrote about the ”Obama effect” on Oklahoma back in October, 2009 in which I outlined how extreme conservative personal animosity against the president would dictate the state’s future political development, making it even more conservative and extreme. I was exactly right, which is not such a great achievement because it was so utterly predictable. The obsessed fixation on one person, elected by clear majorities for two terms, has distorted the political debate here and isolated the state from national trends as Republicans have grown their local legislative and executive power.

Is it racist? I’ve always contended that racism has played a part in the Obama hysteria here and elsewhere, but I’ve always conceded that many Republicans are genuinely fighting for a certain “vision” or, really, a primordial political urge to take the country back to a romanticized past that, in reality, I think they probably wouldn’t much like if it could even happen. I’ve also conceded many state Republicans, who are otherwise lifestyle liberal, simply like the winner-takes-all mentality of the market or, in broader terms, capitalism. They don’t spend too much time on the broader, global ramifications. What I can’t accept, however, is the proselytizing of right-wing religious folks in the legislature, who are dishonest about their intentions and hide behind disingenuous bills, such as the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimation Act or the anti-evolution bills proposed year after year.

But let’s return to Obama. It would be difficult to find a leading Republican politician more representative of misplaced Obama anger than Oklahoma’s U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, who is 78 and plans to run for reelection in 2014. Inhofe relentlessly criticizes the president with sweeping generalizations. According to The Hill, Inhofe told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham what he thought about Obama’s recent outreach to Republicans for compromise:

This is the same guy [Obama] that is ... over-regulating all of our businesses, he has a war on fossil fuels, he is keeping us from being energy independent, he is defunding the military.”

So he's destroying this country, but yes he's charming.

Destroying the country? From one of our state’s United States Senators to the Oklahoma Legislature, it’s Obama-hate all the time, and it’s going to cost us. After all, Obama is only in the first year of his second term. Where does all this anger lead? How will it affect our quality of life as Oklahoma GOP legislators use the hate to easily pass legislation that ignores cultural reality and the state’s future?

Some national Republicans, as I’ve noted, want to rebrand and become more culturally progressive, but the Oklahoma GOP has doubled down on its Obama hate binge.

I urge leading state conservatives, including Gov. Mary Fallin, to separate their voter mandate, which I accept, from the craziness. Repair the state Capitol building, fund education, fix the roads, try to deal with the state’s mediocre medical outcomes, among just a few of many practical issues. By all means, push income tax reduction and worker’s compensation agendas, which I will no doubt oppose, but, please, think about what Oklahoma will be like in five, 10 or even 20 years when all this extremism will be but a blip in time.

Obama won’t be president then, and the hangover of hate could be brutal for us all, Republicans and Democrats alike.

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