© 2024 KGOU
The statue As Long as the Waters Flow by Allan C. Houser stands outside the Oklahoma Capitol
News and Music for Oklahoma
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

40 Percent Of The 2019 Oklahoma Legislature Will Lack Political Experience. Should We Be Worried?

Caroline Halter
House District 101 candidate John Carpenter prepares to teach yoga at the Eastern Oklahoma County Technology Center on Sept. 26, 2018.

John Carpenter is a yoga instructor in Choctaw. He previously worked as a probation officer, and before that he owned a construction company. And Carpenter recently organized his community’s opposition to the Eastern Oklahoma County Turnpike.

“Ultimately we didn’t stop the turnpike,” Carpenter said. “But it got me politically involved.”

Now Carpenter’s trying something new once again. He’s campaigning as a Democrat to be House District 101’s next state representative.

“It seems like our state government has just been stagnant. No one from either party is willing to reach across the aisle and work together,” Carpenter said. “Seems like every agency’s just bled out.”

Carpenter said his lack of political experience could make him a better, more effective legislator.

“I think I’ll be more open-minded,” he said. “I’m not going to say it’s going to be easy, but I think I’m up to the challenge or else I wouldn’t be running.”


Credit Caroline Halter / KGO
Fourth grade teacher Kari Cruzan sits at a local Braum’s in Choctaw, Oklahoma on Sept. 26, 2018.

Kari Cruzan, a resident of House District 101, also sees value in electing newcomers. 

“Not already being a career politician, for me, is a benefit,” Cruzan said.

Cruzan teaches fourth grade in Choctaw, and her frustration with current representative, Republican Tess Teague, peaked when Teague voted against increasing taxes to fund a teacher pay raise. Cruzan campaigned for Teague’s primary opponent, Robert Manger, another candidate who has never held elected office. 

Manger defeated Teague in the Aug. 28 primary runoff. 

“He [Manger] seems untainted, if you will. And, he seems as though he wouldn’t have too many people on his shoulder telling him what to do,” Cruzan said. 

But, even if her candidate loses, Cruzan says she’s just happy to have new representation. 

“With having our incumbent out, I don’t see where we can go anywhere but up,” Cruzan said.

Outsider appetite

Voters in HD 101 are not alone. More than 40 percent of Oklahoma’s incoming class of 149 legislators are guaranteed to be new to the office, and most have never served as elected officials. That percentage could be higher if more incumbents are unseated in the Nov. 6 general election. And, even if the remaining incumbents do hold onto their seats, more than 60 percent of Oklahoma’s lawmakers will have two years of legislative experience or less due to term limits. 

Are there any downsides to this collective lack of experience?

Legislating, after all, isn’t easy. Newcomers will have to learn to write bills and push them through the legislative process, understand complex topics like tax policy and government finance and navigate intense political pressures from party leadership, constituents and interest groups.

“Turnover, you can argue, is… it is a two-edged sword,” said Richard Johnson, a political scientist at Oklahoma City University who has researched the effect of term limits on the effectiveness of Oklahoma’s Legislature.

“There are several things we worry about with people with lack of experience,” he said. “One would be that it clearly opens the door for greater influence by lobbyists or interest groups, because they have the institutional memory and the knowledge a lot of times that a new legislator may not have.”

Another concern, Johnson said, is increased power among unelected staff members. 

“The staff actually have to put a fine point on things like legislation,” Johnson said. “And they understand how the capitol runs on a day-to-day basis in a way that you can’t unless you’re holding public office.”

After discussing all the pitfalls of sending a bunch of inexperienced legislators to the state capitol, Johnson cracked a smile. 

“I live in Senate District 40, so one of the candidates there is former student mine, and she really got into it because she thought if she wasn’t part of the solution, she was part of the problem,” Johnson said. “I’m encouraged by that as a political scientist.”

In other words, underneath this desire for politicians without political experience, is new participation— more Oklahomans are getting involved in local politics.

Oklahoma Engaged is a public service journalism collaboration of KOSUKGOUKWGSKCCU, and StateImpact Oklahoma with support from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Kirkpatrick Foundation, and listener contributions. 

 As a community-supported news organization, KGOU relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online, or by contacting our Membership department.  

Caroline produced Capitol Insider and did general assignment reporting from 2018 to 2019. She joined KGOU after a stint at Marfa Public Radio, where she covered a wide range of local and regional issues in far west Texas. Previously, she reported on state politics for KTOO Public Media in Alaska and various outlets in Washington State.
More News
Support nonprofit, public service journalism you trust. Give now.