Every seat in the Oklahoma House of Representatives and half of the state Senate is up for election in November. Of the 187 remaining candidates, just eight are Black and three are Hispanic, according to an Oklahoma Watch review of June 30 primary results.
Black and Hispanic lawmakers have historically been underrepresented in the state Legislature. There are currently seven Black and three Hispanic representatives. In 2016, there were five Black and two Hispanic legislators. Oklahoma’s population is 11.1% Hispanic and 7.8% Black, according to 2019 U.S. Census data.
Recent protests over the death of George Floyd have caused a growing number of Americans to evaluate the rate of diversity in institutions like state legislatures. While the numbers appear stagnant, two new faces are emerging and looking to change things at the Capitol.
Mauree Turner worked as a regional field director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice, which aims to reduce the U.S. prison and jail population, before deciding to run for office. She defeated incumbent Rep. Jason Dunnington last Tuesday to become the Democratic candidate for House District 88, which includes the Plaza and Paseo Districts in Central Oklahoma City. Regarded as one of Oklahoma’s most liberal districts, House District 88 has had Democratic representation since 1977.
Turner will face Republican Kelly Barlean in November, and if elected would become Oklahoma’s first Muslim legislator. Turner is also nonbinary.
Turner, 27, said working-class people from minority communities are especially qualified to serve in state office and fight for reforms on issues that have affected them, like mass incarceration and police brutality. But without personal wealth and political connections, their path can be difficult. Candidates must often leave their jobs or take significant time off work to campaign. For those who end up winning, an Oklahoma state representative’s annual salary is just $35,021.
“I just got to the place where I was able to leave my job,” Turner said. “We don’t create an environment where the have-nots, our most vulnerable Oklahomans, get the option to say ‘this issue is kind of crappy, I want to run for office and fix it.’ ”
In South Oklahoma City’s House District 89, another new minority candidate emerged victorious on Tuesday night. Democrat Jose Cruz secured 75% of the vote in a three-candidate primary to advance to November’s general election. A recent graduate of the Oklahoma City School of Law, Cruz, 29, served as campaign manager for State Sen. Michael Brooks’ in 2017 and worked as an aide for U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn in 2018.
The likelihood of a Cruz victory in November appears high, as Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 in House District 89. With a win, Cruz would make history.
Although its population is 65% Hispanic, House District 89 has never elected a Hispanic state representative. Community organizer Mary Sosa came close in 2014, but lost in the August runoff to former Rep. Shane Stone.
Hispanic representation in Oklahoma’s population has more than doubled since 2000, from 5.2% to 11.1% in 2019.
“There have been Hispanic families here since statehood, but the population growth has only happened in the past 20 to 25 years,” Cruz said. “It takes time to develop and grow leaders, and now we’re seeing that.”
Why Representation Matters
Policy outcomes tend to change as state legislatures become more diverse, according to a 2014 study published in the Annual Review of Political Science. Minority legislators often advocate for issues important to minority communities, and legislatures are more likely to consider these issues as the number of minority lawmakers increases.
Turner said there have been too many tough-on-crime policies — like sentence enhancement laws — that have negatively impacted people of color. Recent ballot initiatives like State Question 780, which reclassified certain nonviolent drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, have led to some change, but the legislature has passed little criminal justice reform on its own, Turner said.
Turner, whose father was incarcerated for much of her childhood, said Oklahoma needs more lawmakers who have direct experience with the criminal justice system.
“When we’re talking specifically about criminal justice reform in the legislature, one of the main things is we don’t have that shared experience,” Turner said. “We don’t have that voice for folks saying ‘this is a real thing’.”
Cruz pointed to HB 1804, a strict 2007 anti-illegal immigration law, as an example of a policy that hurt Hispanics in south Oklahoma City. Still on the books but loosely enforced, the law makes it a felony for U.S. citizens in Oklahoma to knowingly transport, employ or house an undocumented immigrant.
“It was across the board just bad,” Cruz said. “The business community stepped up on that one and said ‘this isn’t good for us’.”
Possible Voter Bias?
Running for office in urban, left-leaning districts, Turner and Cruz said they have not encountered much discrimination or racism. But they acknowledged the reality could be different for minority candidates in more rural areas.
Outside of the Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Lawton metropolitan areas, just two Black and Hispanic candidates—Republican Aaron Means from Stillwater and Democrat Juan Garcia from Clinton—remain in the race for state office. While rural Oklahoma tends to be more white than urban areas, Black and Hispanic communities can be found across the state. For example, Guymon’s population is 59% Hispanic. In far southeast Oklahoma, Idabel’s population is 21% Black.
Turner’s hope is that potential minority candidates, no matter what district they are from, will be judged by their qualifications and have a fair shot of getting elected.
“We shouldn’t have to think ‘I’m Black in this area that’s predominately white, or I’m not heterosexual, or I’m Sikh in this area that’s mostly Baptist or Methodist, maybe I should not run’,” Turner said.
One Hispanic lawmaker has found success in a predominately white suburban district. Since 2016, Rep. Ryan Martinez has represented Edmond’s House District 39, where the population is 5.2% Hispanic. Martinez is running unopposed and will serve another two-year term.
While Oklahoma’s three Latino legislators were elected in a broad range of districts, Cruz said potential voter bias is still a concern for Hispanic candidates. In one study, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and Massachusetts Institute of Technology examined the voting habits of Illinois Republicans in Presidential primaries over a period of 16 years. They found candidates with foreign sounding names were 9% less likely to receive votes.
“It’s a little scary,” Cruz said of the research. “It takes a lot more work to overcome that setback.”
Kathren Stehno’s concerns include harassment and intimidation of female employees creating “an often-hostile work environment.”
Inspiring a New Generation
What has to happen for Oklahoma’s legislature to become more diverse?
A major component, Turner says, is showing young people of color that they can be successful in state politics. Turner said she has received numerous social media messages from Black and Muslim families inspired by her campaign. In one message, a mother wrote that her daughter pointed to Turner’s campaign flyer and said ‘she has my same skin color’.
“It’s important to provide an example and show them that this is possible,” Turner said.
As they entered the world of politics, Turner and Cruz say more established politicians offered valuable encouragement and opportunities to gain campaign experience.
For Turner, a May endorsement from U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., was especially inspiring. Omar, who was elected last year, is also female and Muslim.
“She was a very big motivator for me to be like ‘it’s okay for me to be Muslim but also run in Oklahoma’,” Turner said.
Three years ago, Cruz was not considering a run for office. That changed after Sen. Brooks offered him a campaign manager job despite having no prior political experience.
Brooks, who is half Hispanic, remains active volunteering at schools in South Oklahoma City. Many students interested in politics have visited the Capitol and worked for him as aides.
“We’re focusing on the Hispanic kids down here in South Oklahoma City, and we’re creating a whole different channel that really didn’t exist before,” Cruz said.
Keaton Ross is a 2020 Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. He can be reached at (405) 831-9753 or kross@Oklahomawatch.org.