There Will Be Blood: Oklahoma Democrats Will Fight Where They Stand
Oklahoma yellow dogs: Joe Biden, left, and Jerry Brown.
Some time during the candidate talent show – an actual talent show, featuring statewide Democrats running for office in blood-red Oklahoma, with the winner chosen by applause for a prize of a $100 donation and one precious hour of old Oklahoma ladies phone banking, courtesy of the Pottawatomie County Dems -- I slid from the Tecumseh City Hall auditorium to its little kitchen to get started on the dishes. There were 120 dirty plates, with cutlery and coffee cups. My mother, current chair of the Pott County Democrats, had uncharacteristically permitted plastic cups for water, soda, and sweet tea. I threw them out before she could wander in and start worrying whether we shouldn’t wash and save those too. Environmentalism has its limits.
For weeks my mother was absolutely convinced no one would come to the Dems’ big fundraiser for the year, the St. Patrick’s Day commiethon (not really a commiethon). It was raining pretty hard, and the power was out in parts of Tecumseh, or maybe Shawnee. “Don’t worry mama,” I chirped at her annoyingly. “Now they’ll definitely come, because they can’t watch TV!” They had. Every seat was taken – 120 of them -- and every plate crusted with the sauce from piles of delicious beef stew prepared by a local woman who raised her own cattle. The lady had donated a few ribeyes for the silent auction as well. My mother was looking at a full house, and piles of money for the Democratic Club it would take us the whole next morning to count. The Pottawatomie County Democrats’ St. Patrick’s Day fundraiser was a smashing success.
I was washing all the dishes because I didn’t want my mother’s friends to think she’d raised a daughter – in California, where I doubtless live with my common-law husband, Osama Bin Laden -- who saw a pile of dishes and blithely ignored them. Mostly though I’d sneaked off to wash the dishes because one of the candidates – a collection of the kind of human odds and ends who will run for office as Democrats in Oklahoma -- was in the middle of a very sub-Al Yankovich spoof of “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego.”
It lasted, literally, 25 minutes. As you can imagine, it was “not” “good.”
Other than that, the talent show was pretty outstanding. A candidate for James Lankford’s 5th Congressional District seat played “Fur Elise” on someone’s Casio keyboard, after speaking haltingly of the adoptive parents who had brought him home and loved him forever after his mother abandoned him as a preteen boy.
There were poems, and songs, and dramatic readings, and beef stew. For her talent, state Senator Connie Johnson, running for US Senate against James Lankford, declaimed Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman.”
In the back of the auditorium, we – I and a small group of my mom’s groovy liberal hippie (but now very put-together and blonded) ‘60s friends – hooted and yelled after she’d finished talking about the stride of her step, and the curve of her lip, and something something about her breasts and her hips.
From the stage, though, Senator Johnson must have seen some old faces that weren’t beaming like ours were. From the stage, some of those old people looked mad. And horrified. Disgusted, even. After all, she did say “breast.”
I’ve been going to Oklahoma since I was a little girl, to see my grandma, who made rag dolls and loved Jesus and Mary with every bit of her heart. Thirty-five years ago, a big day out in Pott County was a trip to Van’s Pig Stand for lunch and then the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s heritage museum to look at the weavings, and the photos from their Trail – not of Tears, but of Death.
Thirty-five years later, it still is.
Shawnee, the seat of Pottawatomie County, has a grimy but still kinda cute Old West downtown. Its straits aren’t nearly as dire as they were a few years back. Sure, there’s an awful lot of empty storefronts still, but the ones that are hanging on all have customers in them, except for a few of the less exciting antiques shops. People here have antiques of their own. Though it looked like they might, for a while, the K-mart and the mall out on Kickapoo haven’t murdered downtown totally dead.
Pottawatomie County, actually, is doing pretty well. Forty miles east of OKC, it’s thrived under the neighborly beneficence of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Until now. Now CPN’s chairman, Rocky Barrett, is in the midst of a truly upheavalsome pissing match with the city of Shawnee.
Shawnee wants the Citizen Potawatomi to pay the city sales tax from their grocery and myriad other businesses. (They’ve got a radio station, some banks, the little bingo hall, the giant casino. From five cartons of cigarettes when Barrett joined the tribal council in the 1970s, they’ve become the economic engine for the entire region; the county’s got an unemployment rate that hovers between four and five percent.)
Barrett, meanwhile, wants to know what part of “sovereign nation” Shawnee, Oklahoma, doesn’t understand.
I’m canvassing Shawnee’s downtown with Cathy Cummings, a Democrat living in Oklahoma City who’s running for lieutenant governor. She looks like she’s in her 30s – perky, cute as a button, fun and nice – but it turns out she’s got several years on me, and I’m in my 40s. I swear it’s the Oklahoma humidity that keeps women’s skin here smoother than Nicole Kidman’s, and they can still move their faces.
Cummings had to miss the St. Patrick’s Day fundraiser because with her husband she owns two OKC restaurants – and one of them is an Irish pub. The Saturday night before St. Patrick’s Day is not one when she can leave her restaurant to go gallivanting to Pott County.
She did send a video, though – her talent was ballroom dancing, and “how to pour a Guinness.” Who wouldn’t love her!
As we go from business to business -- the courthouse, the senior center, a barber who remembers my mom (then Miss Shawnee) and her brothers, my uncles, from 55 years ago at Shawnee High – Cummings introduces herself the same way every time. “I’m Cathy Cummings, and I’m running for lieutenant governor, of Oklahoma!” she says. She just wanted to introduce herself and ask for their vote, if they don’t mind!
They thank her, polite but not friendly. They do not blossom into conversation. Oklahomans -- though they'd be shocked to learn it -- are not a warm lot in general. And then, once, twice, five times, eight, the same thing happens. Nobody ever asks her in what party she’s running – and she never offers – but then people do ask, reserved and stone-faced, and she brightly, perkily, offers “Democratic!” and each time they whisper to us: them too.
Then they step outside with us, because they don’t want their coworkers to hear them say so. And every time, we get an earful.
You’re reading Wonkette, so you’re aware of how bad things have gotten in Oklahoma. Like Montana, the state used to be full of Socialists and Woody Guthrie and Roosevelt Dems. The Roosevelt Dems are still around, if dying off – at least the ones who didn’t follow Jerry Falwell to the Moral Majority.
The governor, Mary Fallin, well, she’s a treat. She’s a Tecumseh hometown girl made good, if by “good” you mean "shutting off access to the PX for families of National Guardsmen" – so they won’t have to offer discount goods to the filthy homosexuals some of those guardsmen are married to.
Mary Fallin also refused to back a ballot measure authorizing millions in funds for storm shelters in schools – in the wake of the obscene Moore tornado that buried 10 schoolchildren in the rubble of their elementary. She only supported it once it was up to each local school district to determine whether or not they wanted to tax and spend the money. You wouldn’t want to undercut “local control” by making sure that tornados can’t murder children in their schools.
Mary Fallin’s approval rating is 64 percent.
But while everyone insists a Democrat could never win in Oklahoma, Fallin’s predecessor was Shawnee boy Brad Henry, a Dem. And just about all the local officials hanging out at Shawnee’s county courthouse are Dems too. People still vote Democratic in Oklahoma, you just don’t hear about it, because the Democrat they vote for is Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry. He beat the president of the United States, one mister Barack Hussein Obama, in 15 Oklahoma counties for the Democratic nomination in 2012.
They don’t care much for Mr. Hussein O. in these parts. The local Democratic clubs wouldn’t even hang banners with his name on them in their campaign headquarters when he was running for reelection – you know, the president of the United States, their party standard bearer – because they didn’t want to be “divisive.”
But guess what? For all that we on the coasts and in the capital presume to know exactly how Oklahoma will play out, for all we insist donating to Democrats there is a waste of time and money, the state’s got 30,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, with about a quarter of a million independents to liven things up.
And here is what we hear, in whispers:
A sheriff guarding the metal detector at the county courthouse – as if our constitutional right to wave a gun around no matter when is somehow suspended at the courthouse door – says of Mary Fallin, “She was a good country girl from Tecumseh. Don’t know what happened, ‘cause she lost her way.”
A woman in the sheriff’s office downstairs in the basement comes outside to tell us how angry she is that Mary Fallin turned down Medicaid expansion. Now her son is “too poor” to qualify for the subsidies that would let him buy insurance. She’s not happy about Fallin pooh-poohing the school storm shelters either. And she doesn’t know a soul who is. Nobody wants government so small it can drown a schoolchild.
A glamorous, confident blonde woman – the county clerk – is so glad to see a Dem running. She tells us Democrats do get elected here; she and pretty much all her fellow local officeholders are yellow dogs. In the legislature – where only 12 of 48 senators have a D next to their name – it’s another story.
At the senior center, where a man performs Wii bowling while the olds get ready for their free socialized lunch, an old Indian woman in a sharp blue suit and a baseball cap embroidered with “Jesus” on it asks “Democratic?” and when Cummings says yes, she hugs her and informs her, beaming, “I pray you win, in Jesus’s name!”
Almost everyone who wants to talk to Cummings is intimidated by their friends, their neighbors, their colleagues. They don’t want anybody to think they have communist tendencies. And here, “communist” and “Democrat” are as synonymous as they are in Sean Hannity’s studio, or in the pixelated pages of WND.
Connie Johnson has a plan. That plan is … not really that surefire, actually. It’s to get medical marijuana and decriminalization on the ballot, and then all the youngs will come out and vote Dem while they’re voting for weed.
More than 70 percent of Oklahomans support medical marijuana, no matter what Merle Haggard thinks.
But if 70 percent of Sooners support medical pot, it stands to reason they could just as soon come out, vote for pot, and then not vote Democrat.
Early Saturday evening, during my mama’s Pott County Democrats fundraiser, the power outlets on the back wall had gone out due to the embarrassment of crock pots. My mother had her cell phone in hand and was about to call 911 to have them come break into the electrical room and throw the breaker when I suggested I go to the fire station – next door – and bat my eyes and ask them to come over instead.
In the lobby for the fire and police substation was a display case of all the drug paraphernalia they’d seized during traffic stops and busts in little Tecumseh, OK. There were a lot of one-hitters, maybe one crack pipe (probably for meth), a few bongs. They’d even seized people’s silver cigarette cases. I would have been pissed. Over the display was a thundering denunciation of DRUGS, going on for many, many paragraphs, about how RIGHT HERE in OUR LITTLE TOWN, people are getting high on reefer, and BE VERY AFRAID.
Canvassing with Cathy Cummings in Shawnee, I’m chit-chatting about Senator Johnson and her race for US Senate – at that same fundraiser, Senator Johnson had kind of scolded me when I’d asked if she was running against Lankford. “I’m not running against James Lankford,” she’d insisted. “I’m running for US Senate.” But against James Lankford, right? “I’m not running against anything. I’m running for .”
Then I told a story about saying the word “hell” to a woman in Jackson, Mississippi, one night, and several times Senator Johnson asked me to repeat myself, and I kept repeating it, and finally she said – sort of sniffed really -- “Oh, you mean H-E-L-L.”
Lady, I am 41 years old. Are you really going to correct me like a naughty kid?
My mom is absolutely positive she was joking. After the Maya Angelou recitation, I’m leaning that way, but really I’m still not sure.
The store owner we’re talking to is the one man, in the several hours we’re walking around downtown Shawnee, who has said anything complimentary about the president. He says he thinks Obama is the smartest president we’ve had since Kennedy – and maybe smarter! It’s the first time in hours I’ve even heard Obama’s name. He’s obviously up on the local issues; we talk about Fallin, about this one and that one, about Rocky Barrett fighting the city of Shawnee. Of Johnson, and a campaign he does not think she will win, he gives us all the explanation that’s needed, saying simply: “She’s black.”
Well. Yup. It’s true. She is. Bye, Senator Johnson, probably, I guess.
When my grandma was alive, we’d been driving through the black section of Shawnee to go somewhere – probably Van’s Pig Stand. “This is where the colored people live,” my Grandma Jeani pointed out in her sweet little voice. She got thoughtful, and looked sad. “I just don’t think it’s right that they’re not allowed to live with the white people.”
An hour later, when the cute waiter rebuffed my mild flirtation, she comforted me. Nodding vigorously, she explained, “I think he must be one of those queers!”
Really, when rejecting the bounteous charms of her eldest granddaughter, it was the only possible explanation.
Some years later, I was visiting my mama while researching my master’s thesis, which was about the economic development strategies of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. (Spoiler: they’re really good strategies!) Every expert with whom I spoke talked about Oklahoma racism as a matter of sad and undisputed fact. When my mom’s beloved country neighbors came over on a Sunday afternoon, I put on my “girl reporter” hat, the one that magically draws people out and gets them to tell me terrible things. What did they think of the Citizen Potawatomi? They’d start listing this grievance and that one – how is it fair that the CPN get their own auto tags – and perkily, with my eyes big and eager and not at all judgmental, I’d ask them, “oh, are you racist?”
“Well, that depends what you mean by ‘racist,’” they’d answer, and I would laughingly, congenially, explain that then, yes, that means you’re racist.
They didn’t even take offense.
I don’t foresee any good times for Oklahoma Democrats any time soon. (Don’t tell my mom. She gets pissed at the doomsayers.)
Jerry Falwell, Grover Norquist, Jim Inhofe and the like have poisoned the electorate with an angry God who just hates it when we help our neighbors. They might vote in medical marijuana, but that’s because rednecks like marijuana too. They might vote some Dems locally, but most of those would be considered conservative Republicans in a saner state. Also, they’re racist as fuck and totally unashamed of it.
James Lankford is a smarmy son of a bitch, and I’ve got as little doubt he’ll be Oklahoma’s next senator as I doubt my Grandma Jeani loved me.
Democrats outnumber Republicans in Oklahoma, and even so the ones I talked to were so terrified to say anything, it was like they were looking for the safe house in A Handmaid’s Tale. The discourse is, how you say, less than civil. Because that’s what Jesus wants, I guess.
But all around the state, the workers -- always old ladies: the almost-gone Roosevelt Dems, their Baby Boom daughters now retired themselves – are staffing their phone banks, putting on a show, and then staying till midnight to mop and clean up. They’re filling their slates with first-time candidates. They’re commenting on Wonkette.
Wonkers meet up in OKC.
They've got the numbers on their side, if those numbers mean anything any more. And they’ll die with their boots on. Leather boots. They're still in style for manly footwear.