2016 Election: Uncommon contenders for state Legislature include millennials, educators, transgender woman

(Cover design: Anna Schilling / Oklahoma Gazette)

(Cover design: Anna Schilling / Oklahoma Gazette)

2016 Election Issue

It’s everyone’s democratic and civic duty to vote on Nov. 8, and this year’s ballot is an important one. This issue includes stories on Oklahoma’s multiple state questions, the Libertarian party, races to watch, our roundup of uncommon candidates and more. It also features the League of Women Voters of Oklahoma’s 2016 Voters Guide. The election doesn’t have to be scary. Oklahoma Gazette helps you navigate the many elections and issues.

Find more coverage in this week’s print issue, on stands now, and in Oklahoma Gazette’s Nov. 2 print edition.

Related stories

• 2016 Election: Oklahoma ballot questions explained
• 2016 Election: The Libertarian Party returns to Oklahoma’s ballot after a 16-year absence
• 2016 Election: Metro races to watch
• 2016 Election: Uncommon contenders for state Legislature include millennials, educators, transgender woman
• 2016 Election: Joe Exotic’s White House run just the beginning of his political aspirations, even if he’s not on the ballot in Oklahoma
• 2016 Election: As Election Day approaches, many seek help navigating flack attacks
• Letters to the Editor: Oct. 26, 2016


 

Elizabeth Larios talks with Patricia Fernandez during her visit to a Moore neighborhood. (Garett Fisbeck / file)

Elizabeth Larios talks with Patricia Fernandez during her visit to a Moore neighborhood. (Garett Fisbeck / file)

After Elizabeth Larios declared her candidacy for the Statehouse, the independent hit the neighborhood streets of Moore, Valley Brook and areas of south Oklahoma City to get the word out about her campaign.

Anticipating voters’ questions, Larios was prepared to discuss her beliefs on education funding, the future of the state’s Medicaid program and other state services. At times, the first question many asked was about her age.

“It never crossed my mind that I might be perceived as too young,” Larios said. “As soon as I started hitting the doors, people asked, ‘How old are you?’ I told them I was 24.”

Some voters jokingly asked Larios if she was old enough to vote, and others respected her interest and efforts to make the state better. It surprised Larios, whose service in high school and college leadership sparked her interest in public service and politics.

In general, millennials — those born after the early 1980s — are less likely to be interested in running for office, and few serve in such roles. Nationally, they hold 5 percent of state legislative seats, according to a 2015 survey by Stateline and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Oklahoma, millennials make up 6 percent of the Legislature, despite comprising a majority of the population. The average age of an Oklahoma legislator is 56, the survey reports. Those figures could change. At least 13 new senators and more than 30 new House members will take office following the Nov. 8 election. In Oklahoma County districts and districts that include parts of the county, 16 millennials seek seats.

In eastern Oklahoma County, before 25-year-old Tess Teague began her campaign for House District 101, she wondered how voters would respond to a young, unmarried woman seeking office. Oklahoma also ranks No. 48 nationally for the low number of females in state Legislature, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

“For every door that I knocked [on], I thought I had three hurdles: I was young, a woman and not married,” said the Choctaw Republican. “That wasn’t the case. People in my area were … excited to see someone young who cared about politics.”

For the past four years, Teague has worked at the state Capitol. As manager of The Journal Record Legislative Report, she read thousands of bills, amendments and floor and committee substitutes and observed countless committee meetings, interim studies and floor votes.

“You see things you agree with or disagree with,” Teague said. “You see what it takes to make a good representative or senator. I figured I’d put my hat in the ring.”

Christopher Crawford, a 24-year-old University of Central Oklahoma graduate student, wants to represent House District 82, which covers portions of northwest OKC and Edmond. As an independent, he became interested after reviewing state budget trends when he studied at the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center.

“The more I looked at it, the more I started seeing the complicated issues,” said Crawford, who moved from Nevada to Oklahoma for higher education. “This is new to me, and it’s a challenge, but it’s a way to put myself in a position to help.”

In recent weeks, Larios has worked to deliver her final pitch to voters on the campaign trail.

The number of millennials running in Oklahoma County encourages Crawford, who is pursuing his master’s degree in political science.

“We could challenge the status quo,” Crawford said.

Teague believes millennials running for office have already challenged the status quo. Grassroots millennial campaigns are built on getting to know neighbors and hearing the issues, as opposed to posting their platform on social media alone.

“We’ve put mileage on our shoes,” Teague said when speaking of door knocking efforts. “We are working hard for it, and I think that speaks to our work ethic.”

Marina Mangiaracina challenges George Young for the House District 99 seat. (Garett Fisbeck / file)

Marina Mangiaracina challenges George Young for the House District 99 seat. (Garett Fisbeck / file)

Transgender candidates

When North Carolina’s governor signed into law an anti-transgender bathroom law in March, it served as a defining moment for OKC resident Marina Mangiaracina.

The 24-year-old trans woman decided to run for House District 99, which includes portions of northeast and northwest OKC. Her campaign is largely focused on advancing nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ community with an end goal to protect people from housing, workplace and public discrimination. She would like to see Oklahoma’s hate crime law cover sexual orientation and gender identity.

As a candidate, Mangiaracina listened to the audio from the committee meeting when Oklahoma lawmakers debated a similar transgender bathroom measure in May.

“It was just ridiculous,” Mangiaracina recalled. “They all seemed to be scared of something they didn’t have [an] understanding of.”

Mangiaracina is not the first transgender to seek a spot in the Statehouse, nor is she the only trans woman seeking office this November. Outside Oklahoma, two trans women are seeking congressional seats.

“Now that I am here, I see it as a lifetime commitment,” she said. “I want to continue to work towards change even after this election.”

Mickey Dollens, a former U.S Grant High School teacher, talks with Isaias Perez in a neighborhood in District 93. (Garett Fisbeck / file)

Mickey Dollens, a former U.S Grant High School teacher, talks with Isaias Perez in a neighborhood in District 93. (Garett Fisbeck / file)

‘I want your seat’

When Shawn Sheehan first entered the classroom six years ago, he found his calling. An innovative math teacher, Sheehan was keen on teaching how to solve for x and enjoyed becoming a confidant among his students.

His popularity propelled him to Teacher of the Year for Norman Public Schools, which led to Oklahoma State Teacher of the Year in 2015.

During that time, Oklahoma media regularly devoted headlines to issues such as teacher shortages, low pay, school performance and funding drops. Teachers like Sheehan lived those issues daily. He is willing to pause his life’s work to positively impact the outcomes of the state’s biggest education challenges.

“My running is out of frustration,” said Sheehan, who seeks to represent people in Norman and parts of Moore and Del City as an independent in Senate District 15. “I want your seat, and I want to be at the table.”

Former U.S. Grant High School teacher Mickey Dollens can relate. He was one of 208 teachers laid off due to budget cuts affecting Oklahoma City Public Schools in the last academic year. Now, the 29-year-old teacher is one of 61 pro-education candidates who competed or are competing for a legislative seat. Known as the “teachers caucus,” the candidates hold high hopes of earning seats and improving education.

“All the years of teachers gathering at the Capitol to have their voices heard, but coming back to schools empty-handed has been the tipping point,” said Dollens, a Democrat running in House District 93.

Educators have a front-row seat to issues of poverty, mental health, addiction, immigration, family law, the economy and others. Oklahoma public schools showcase society’s diversity, said Cheryl Mooneyham Hessman, Democratic candidate for House District 101 and principal at Clara Reynolds Elementary School in Harrah.

A parent encouraged Mooneyham Hessman to seek the seat, which represents parts of Midwest City, Choctaw, Harrah and unincorporated sections of OKC.

“I spend a majority of my day with children, but there are many times when I am with parents and grandparents,” Mooneyham Hessman said. “Regardless of their economic situation, they have troubles in their home life. I am usually a sounding board.”

On doorsteps, Oklahoma voters ask, “What makes teachers think they can do it any better?” said Kevin McDonald, an Edmond Democrat for Senate District 41. The Edmond Memorial High School teacher said he and other teacher candidates are often asked about their credentials outside of the classroom.

“I think it is a fair question,” McDonald said. “We have the practical experience of being on the receiving end of legislation for our day-to-day existence. Perhaps we have a fundamentally different view of what a piece of legislation does and how it should impact its passage.”

 

Print Headline: Uncommon contenders, Candidates for the state Legislature include millennials, educators and a transgender woman.

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