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Capitol Insider: Legislating From The Minority Side Of The Aisle

Legislative Service Bureau (LSB) Photography
State Rep. Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City

Republicans hold an overwhelming super-majority in both houses of the Oklahoma legislature. In the House of Representatives, the advantage is 82-19. Democrats have limited influence, but still play a role in the governing process. In this Capitol Insider segment, KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley talk to House Minority Caucus Chair Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City, about the Democrats' approach to the legislative session.


Dick Pryor: This is Capit0l Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol news director, Shawn Ashley. Our guest this week is State Representative Cyndi Munson, Democrat from District 85 in Oklahoma City. Representative Munson is House Minority Caucus chair. And thank you for joining us.

State Rep. Cyndi Munson: Thank you for having me.

Dick Pryor: There's just a little over a month left in the legislative session. How would you rate it so far?

State Rep. Cyndi Munson: (laughs) Good to know that there's only a month left. It feels like it's been a lot longer than that - this legislative session. I have mixed feelings about this session. We kind of talk about how every session feels like the most stressful and the worst that we've ever experienced. And I'll say what this session I think what's been most unique is trying to govern and do our business while still living through a pandemic. And then the topics that have come up and have been prioritized by our legislative leaders have been quite interesting. And I'm sure we'll dip into that a little bit more as we continue our conversation. So, with a month left, there's still work to do. We're constitutionally required to pass a balanced budget. That is the one thing we must do during a legislative session. And so there will certainly be more interesting conversations and work to be done here in the next few weeks.

Shawn Ashley: Representative, you came to the legislature as a Democrat representing a historically Republican district. How does a Democrat not just get elected, but reelected and then represent such a traditionally strong Republican district?

State Rep. Cyndi Munson: Yeah, that is a great question. I'll say that it all starts with relationships, I did run in 2014 against the late Representative David Dank. He was quite the opponent. It taught me the hard work it takes to run a legislative campaign, especially as a Democrat and as a young woman. At the time, I was 28, running against someone who he and his wife had been in the House - I think combined their years of service would have been 20 years. And so, it taught me how important it is to be on the ground and to listen to people and have conversations and try to get past the partisan divide that keeps us from doing that.

And so, for me and in my district, relationships are so important. I've spent numerous hours talking to Republican voters, Democratic voters, Independent voters and those who aren't quite as involved in the process and what I've learned in those conversations is we are more alike than we are different. There are a lot of things that we want to see accomplished. And so for me, as I've continued to serve House District 85, I try to make sure I stay in contact. Personally, I, I return phone calls, I return email. I may be behind sometimes, but I do try to make sure they remember my values and what I said I would fight for at the state capital. And so, while they may not agree, I think they do appreciate that I'm not hiding. I'm willing to have those hard conversations.

Dick Pryor: On the federal level, we see clear lines drawn between Democrats and Republicans with little compromise seriously considered, much less reached, in Congress. Is there a difference in the Oklahoma legislature or do you see it as roughly the same way?

State Rep. Cyndi Munson: You know, one thing that has come up a lot, especially in this last election cycle, I had a lot of questions similar to what you just asked me from constituents who said, do you vote party line and do you only vote with the Democrats? And I, I kind of chuckle because if they saw all of the hundreds of pieces of legislation that we vote on, you would see there's a lot of bipartisan support on those issues.

Where we split are usually on those controversial issues where we just have a philosophical difference as Republicans and Democrats. And this year, in particular because of the controversial issues around protesting and transgender student athletes, and hopefully we won't have a future pandemic, but should a health crisis happen again, how will we address those issues that has really kept us apart and split on those issues?

And tension has developed over time, especially in these last two weeks, because deadline weeks are very, very stressful and we are on the floor for many hours voting without a lot of breaks. And I think that makes it worse. There's also been issues around transparency. And when you're in the minority, there's only so much you can do to try to highlight that fact.

In the House, there are only 19 Democrats out of 101 members, so we don't have a lot of power when it comes to the rules. But we do try to use the tools that we have - our microphone and speaking out and bringing light to things that we feel are misuse of power so the public can understand what it is that we're trying to do. And sometimes it's less about what party you're in. It's about whether you're in the majority of the minority. And I think Republicans who have served in the past in the minority would say the same thing.

Shawn Ashley: Last week we talked to Republican Senator Darrell Weaver, who told us he sees bipartisanship and collegiality in the Senate. Do you see that in the House?

State Rep. Cyndi Munson: I do on some issues. It's not on everything, as we've discussed. But I'll highlight two issues that I am pretty proud of and felt like, you know, this is what the process is supposed to look like and this is what can happen when we work together on issues that really aren't partisan. First is representatives Collin Walke and Josh West, who have worked on data privacy legislation this session that unfortunately didn't get through the Senate. They are good friends. They are very different, but they are good friends. And this is an issue that, despite your political party, is important - that we protect our data that's being shared when we use our apps and email and order things online through Amazon and things like that. And it was so fascinating and so inspiring to watch Representative Walke answer questions and describe his bill in a way that we typically don't get to see on the House floor.

The second piece of legislation is Senate Bill 131, which was authored by Marcus McEntire, who is from Duncan and is the Public Health Subcommittee Chair who's really well versed on health care policy and the Oklahoma Care Authority and is pushing back against the governor's plan to have a managed care Medicaid program, and that bill was supported overwhelmingly by Democrats and Republicans who have a shared interest in keeping those tax dollars here in Oklahoma and not giving those dollars away to private companies to manage our health care system when Oklahomans voted for Medicaid expansion to ensure that more folks will have access to health care.

So those are two examples that I think have to be highlighted and talked about that sometimes get...we gloss over those times...because some of these other controversial issues where you will see Democrats and Republicans split really take over the headlines of that day. And so, yes, there is collegiality. There is bipartisanship. I do have good friends on the opposite side of the aisle, and I'm grateful for that because there are things that we do agree on. And sometimes as a minority, if you have really good ideas, (it) has to be passed on to someone in the majority because they can get it done. But there are ways to work together and find ways to give credit to both parties on those issues. And so, don't lose heart (that) all we do is fight each other. There are opportunities to work together, but there are times too where we will butt heads. And sometimes it's less about the policy content, it's more about the process that can be very, very frustrating.

Dick Pryor: The reality is Republicans have supermajorities in both houses of the legislature and can do whatever they want without involving Democrats. Is there anything that you think could be done differently by either side to provide for more bipartisanship than what we see?

State Rep. Cyndi Munson: Absolutely. And I want to go back to what I mentioned earlier and talk about relationship building. I think there's something to getting to know somebody beyond who they are as a representative of what party they represent and what district they represent. A couple of weeks ago, I had proposed a resolution to condemn violence against the Asian-American Pacific Islander communities. And I had a couple members come up to me who said, “hey, my wife is Asian-American” or “my grandkids or cousins are Asian-American.” And I had no idea.

And so, I think those opportunities to see each other outside of the Capitol, to get to know each other outside of that building really, really helps. And I think it's important that legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle find ways to build those relationships personally. And then we can have…I think we can have more frank conversations around the issues we disagree on and figure out ways to work together. And I think it would help the state of Oklahoma if the supermajority will, would allow the minority members, the Democrats in the House and the Senate, to work on some policy issues that are important to Oklahomans to show we're all working together. That's just going to take time and it's up to each of us to do it. And that's important to remember. It's not one party's responsibility over the other.

Shawn Ashley: Are Republicans taking steps to allow Democratic voices, ideas and bills to be heard?

State Rep. Cyndi Munson: In some instances, yes, I would say that data privacy bill is one of them. It is a passion of Representative Walke’s. But he found ways to work in partnership with the majority to make sure that it was heard. And I'll say for my own personal experience, I was able to work on some very important and impactful health care policy in 2019, where we were reforming step therapy practices here in Oklahoma, essentially ending them. And that was an effort that leader Echols and I both worked together on. And I really led on the issue. I carried the bill. I did the work on the ground. He helped me with his caucus and I appreciate that. And again, that comes from relationship building. He and I have a good relationship. He trusts my work ethic and knows that I'll show up and do the work. And so, we just need more opportunities like that. But they do happen.

Dick Pryor: Several of the bills generating a lot of talk this session have generated stark partisan differences. Some are arguably unconstitutional and do appear designed to stoke culture wars. How do you see those bills and explain them to people outside Oklahoma?

State Rep. Cyndi Munson: Yeah, that's a great question. I have been so deeply frustrated by these pieces of legislation, and the way that I tried to communicate out to my district is to highlight the fact that these are not the things that are coming up, when I'm going door to door, when I'm looking at my emails, when I'm taking my phone calls. Yes, there are times where I may hear, you know, from a few who are in favor of those pieces of legislation that I would be adamantly against. But it is important to break down where these bills are coming from. They're not necessarily request bills from their communities or for it from any local organization.

As we know, to your point, there are many that are unconstitutional. There are also many that will have a very large economic impact on our state. There are large organizations and businesses who have said they will not come to Oklahoma, they will pull businesses out. The NCAA was one that made a tweet that said any state that passes anti-transgender student athlete legislation, we will take our business elsewhere. And I think Oklahomans have to realize that. I think many of them do.

When it comes to communicating to those outside of the state my fight is to stand up and say this isn't who we are as Oklahomans. We want businesses here. We want people to move to our state and raise their families here. And we want folks from Oklahoma to stay. But there are many young people who are reconsidering where they're going to spend their lives and raise their families. And that is truly heartbreaking as someone who passionately serves the state and loves Oklahoma.

Shawn Ashley: In addition to a super majority Republican legislature ,Oklahoma has a Republican governor. How often do Democrats hear from Governor Stitt?

State Rep. Cyndi Munson: You know, in the beginning of his administration he was very good about engaging the Democrats and I was so grateful to see that. And I think because he hadn't come from a political background, that he was pretty new to this world really helped. I mean, in his first State of the State address, he mentioned House Minority Leader Emily Virgin. And I was very shocked when he mentioned her name. I, out of all the years I had served in the legislature, I never heard a governor actually, you know, recognize our minority leader. We were invited to the governor's mansion to have conversation to get to know him. I will say since then, there hasn't been as much of an effort.

There are certainly many disagreements that we had, especially during the pandemic, that I think strained that relationship. But what my hope is, is that he will realize that we have a duty and a role to play in our state, and that is to speak up and to shine a light on the majority and to hold them accountable, to make sure they are serving the people and not their own self-interest or their own political agenda. And I have seen that the governor has signed some Democratic bills, I think mostly Senate Democratic bills, into law. I'm very grateful and heartened to see that, that he sees that the policies that we work on are things that are important to Oklahomans, regardless of party.

Dick Pryor: There's still a lot of work to be done. But when it's over in late May, how do you think this legislative session will be characterized and remembered?

State Rep. Cyndi Munson: Well, I think it depends on who you're talking to. For me, it will be remembered as one - and I, and I will say I'm going to sit down and reflect back on these last two months that we've really been in committee work and on the floor making sure I highlight the good things that have happened - but this year, outside of the culture war legislation, the lack of transparency, the shucking of bills, the changing of rules, you know, those things have been very frustrating. And it's less about me as a Democrat. It's more about me being a member of the legislature, someone who very much values the legislative process and values the public being engaged in knowing what it is that we're doing.

When we are doing those types of things that lack transparency it takes away the integrity of the process and the work that we're doing. And it almost makes the job feel like a joke. When how can we how can we do good work when we're not playing by the same rules? And look, I get it. I know the world that I live in. I know that I'm in the minority. And this is the reality, unfortunately, but I don't think it has to be this way. And so, I will continue to highlight that and I will continue to push for a more balanced government and balanced representation, because this doesn't ultimately serve the people. And it's disrespectful and a disgrace, I think, to the legislative process that I think many of us appreciate and hold dear.

Dick Pryor: Oklahoma City State Representative Cyndi Munson, thank you for your thoughts and for being with us on Capitol Insider.

State Rep. Cyndi Munson: Thank you again for having me.

Dick Pryor: If you have questions, e-mail us at news@kgou.org or contact us on Twitter at @kgounews and @eCapitol. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I’m Dick Pryor.

Dick Pryor has more than 25 years of experience in public service media, having previously served as deputy director, managing editor, news manager, news anchor and host for OETA, Oklahoma’s statewide public TV network. He was named general manager of KGOU Radio in November, 2016.
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