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Democrats in Oklahoma: Islets of blue in a sea of red

Katy Malinowski / Red Dirt Report
A Democrat in a red state like Oklahoma can often feel trapped between their state and the news surrounding it.
Fertile Ground Compost Service

YUKON, Okla. -- On November 3, 1969, the political dictionary added a word to its roster.

This term was used by Richard Nixon in order to gain support for bringing the troops home from the Vietnam War. Since then, the term has been used by people such as Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.

But, in Oklahoma’s political climate, the Nixonian phrase “silent majority” does not favor the Republicans.

The Silent Majority lies in the Democratic Party.

Philip Sinnett, 30 year old doctor from Norman expressed with his wife, Amanda the difficulties found in being a part of the left-wing side of the aisle.

“Being a Democrat in this state is a very frustrating thing,” Sinnett said. “If you’ve ever wondered what it must feel like to be one of the black sheep, this is how it feels. It’s hard because, more times than not, it’s like they don’t even want to listen to what you have to say in the first place.

Sinnett, his wife and new born son have since moved to Temple, Texas in order to pursue his field of medicine. As he goes back and forth between the neighboring states, he cannot help but see comparisons between the two.

“As a Dem in a couple of deep red states, you either find like-minded individuals or avoid politically charged conversations and comments altogether,” Sinnett said. “The biggest issues with the current administration is that they have forgotten how to protect their constituents.”

Philip went on to talk about the moment that he knew that he his opinion on Oklahoma government didn’t matter. It dealt with calling the office of Oklahoma Senator Lankford and the approval for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

“I just remember calling them and begging them to not to approve her for the position because I knew that she would destroy education here,” Sinnett said. “All they told me was that they had been getting calls like that all day but that they would vote in favor of DeVos anyways.”

With the current political climate and the dealings of the Oklahoma Legislature, more people who identify themselves as Democrats have been stepping to the forefront and speaking out for change.

Take Anna Langthorn as a prime example.

A LOT OF WORK TO DO

At the age of 24, she is now the chair and executive director of the Oklahoma Democratic Party Officers. After a race to succeed party chairman Mark Hammons, Langthorn won the vote and was labeled as the youngest person to hold office in the Democratic Party.

“The race was exciting,” Langthorn said. “I was not perceived to be the frontrunner by anybody other than myself but that’s okay. It just happened two months ago and we have a lot of work to do.”

This is her first experience working in government and she still finds herself processing how things work on the day-to- day scale. When asked what it felt like to be a Democrat in a majority Republican state, she said, “It’s like where a fish doesn’t know it’s in water.”

Due to her position into government, Langthorn has had to travel to different parts of the country for training. In the two conferences that she attended, she was shocked by the differences in Democratic struggles throughout the nation.

Langthorn would go on to say that, while chairmen from New York or New Hampshire would talk about the money, resources and people they’ve been implementing into the system, Oklahoma is just working to balance the budget.

More importantly, just trying to squeak out a win when they can.

“It’s odd to talk with people from Ohio, or Florida, or one of the swing states,” Langthorn said. “where they have staff of like 40 people in different regents of the state. While we have a staff less than 10 and that’s a big staff for us. I think it’s just a different situation because we used to be a Democratic majority state and now we’re not.”

In recent history, younger generations have grown up with the idea that Oklahoma has been a conservative, blood-red state since its founding. However, the switch to the majority Republican party did not happen until the 1960’s.

According to okhistory.org, the 1960’s is what is often labeled as the “golden age” of Republicans in Oklahoma.

“Under the leadership of Henry Bellmon, Republicans undertook real efforts at organization statewide,” the article reads. “’Operation Countdown’ created county and precinct chairpersons throughout the state, and Republicans realized substantial gains in the vote statewide.”

Since that time, Bellmon has been credited with founding the Republican base for Oklahoma politics.

It’s a common thought that a Democrat’s vote won’t count or won’t matter due to the sheer numbers of Republicans throughout the state. This idea has been a widespread thought for nearly half a century.

However, as the numbers are reviewed, it’s clear that this is nothing more than a myth lined by truth of the sitting political party.

With voter registration statistics from ok.gov, in 2017 the number of Democrats is 852,447 people in a population of 2,161,881.

Republican numbers are found to be 989,358 people.

Where the issue lies is the fact that both the Oklahoma House of Representatives and the Oklahoma Senate have been controlled by Republicans since 2012.

Any inkling of Democratic legislation seeing the light of day appears impossible.

That is, without major change in the way people view things.

DEMOCRATS GAINING GROUND

As of July 11th, Democrat Michael Brooks won the Senate District 44 seat that was formerly held by Ralph Shortey. Brooks won roughly 55 percent of the vote over his Republican opponent Joe Griffin.

Since Gov. Mary Fallin’s term limit is being met in January of 2019, candidates have been declaring to the public that they will run to take her spot. Democrats, such as former Attorney General Drew Edmondson and former State Senator Connie Johnson, have chosen to run against the Republican machine in the state.

But, according to Langthorn, it’s not about one party beating the other in a struggle for Oklahoma’s hearts. It’s about balancing the shift.

“We have to step out,” she said. “With change in tone of this last legislative session was kind of a realization that we’ve got to do something because we haven’t talked about the real issues lately. It’s not about partisan politics anymore. We are in the midst of a budget crisis and our government is about to shut down and for Oklahoma to survive, there has to be a change in government. There has to be a balance.”

One of the main difficulties set in the Democratic Party is the tension between the two factions: Foundational and Progressive.

While foundational Democrats follow the original movements of the civil rights movements, they’re often found to be stuck in that method of thinking. Progressives acknowledge the way things used to be but wish to move forward.

This has presented an issue for the party because they cannot seem to unify under one message.

In contrast, the Republicans have been able to collaborate for the most part.

Not everyone in the state can back what the Democrats have so far. Republicans, such as Darcy Jenkins, have looked at either side of the spectrum and came to the conclusion.

In the end, they’re Republican through and through.

Jenkins is the Surgery Department Administrative Assistant for Community Hospital South on 89th street in Oklahoma City. Being a Republican for 29 years, she’s seen what the climate of the state has been and what it could be.

“I don’t always agree with them [Republicans] but, for the most part, I do,” Jenkins said. “Might not be right but I feel like Dems want things given to them. An entitlement issue. I think Republicans are salt of the Earth people who work hard for what they have and are proud to do it.”

A statement similar to this was pointed out by Langthorn during the interview.

“That’s always been an issue with Democrats,” Langthorn said. “We need to meet people where they are and realize their lifestyle and where they come from. The party is often thought of as talking down to people or ignoring people and that’s something we need to be better about that.”

Added Langthorn: “It’s not a matter of what’s right and what’s wrong as it is what’s good for the people.”

JUST DO IT

Being the outsider has never been easy, but it’s never impossible.

Activism and political action is one thing but a balanced power of Republicans and Democrats includes involvement from people on either side of the aisle. In the grand scheme of things, the typical people who vote in majority of the elections in the state are elderly white people.

When asked what would be some advice for someone trying to get involved in the political system to make a difference, Langthorn commented that you should, “just do it.”

Going from one event to the next since she was 17 years old, she was surprised as to how little people showed up to these influential meetings. One meeting after the next, she became more involved and more active in the community.

This period of time is the right time for this conversation; however, in Philip Sinnett’s time of growing up, it wasn’t always this way. To avoid confrontation, he would often keep his mouth shut and try not to push the envelope unless it was necessary.

Sinnett thinks about people wanting to be Democrats in the state and what he has to say is, “you’re not alone.”

“No matter that the political climate might seem like, you’re not the only one who thinks the way that you do,” he said. “Sure, it might be frustrating as hell some days but you need to stand up for what you believe in. That’s all that matters.”

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Brandon King

Brandon King is a journalism student at OCCC, working towards becoming a professional writer....

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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