Tuesday is Oklahoma’s primary runoff election and in House District 20, an educator is campaigning to oust Republican incumbent Bobby Cleveland, who’s held the seat for six years.
It’s a theme that’s playing out in races across the state, and the outcome of the runoff south of Norman could test whether Oklahoma educators are part of an election moment — or a true political movement.
Sherrie Conley is an administrator in Oklahoma City Public Schools who worked as a teacher for 15 years. Conley only received 16 percent of the vote in the June 26 Republican primary compared to Cleveland’s 43 percent, but she still thinks she has a good chance of winning Tuesday’s runoff. Conley said when people find out she’s an educator they quickly pledged their support.
Cleveland ran unopposed in the last two Republican primaries and won his last two general elections with nearly 75 percent of the vote. For the 2018 election, however, he drew five primary opponents.
Conley said voters throughout the district are mad that Cleveland voted against a $450 million tax package to fund teacher pay raises — a measure Conley said she would have supported.
“The education funding was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the district,” she said.
Cleveland is one of 19 House members who voted against that tax package, and educators and public school supporters have led significant efforts across the state to unseat lawmakers who followed suit. Of those seeking re-election, seven are in runoffs, and two lost their primaries.
Cleveland declined interview requests, saying he was too busy campaigning, but he’s told other news outlets that one reason he voted against the tax bill was he didn’t have enough time to read it. In other interviews, Cleveland said he supported teacher raises but didn’t think tax increases were necessary to fund them.
Resident Ryan Rogers predicted Cleveland’s vote against the tax package would cost the incumbent’s re-election. Rogers described himself as a conservative but said he wanted his representative to support the tax increases so schools could have more money.
“Education and health care are non-negotiables,” he said. “We’ve got to have help to make it the best in the country. And I know it’s not realistic to go from 50th to first in one election, but it’s a step.”
Rogers said Conley represents those values, and he plans to cast his vote for her in Tuesday’s runoff.
James Branum is a bankruptcy lawyer in Newcastle, which is located in the northern part of the district. He has a big Bobby Cleveland sign in front of his office and plans to cast his runoff vote for the incumbent.
Branum said he met Cleveland when the politician first campaigned for office in 2012 and said he’s proved to be a hardworking and committed representative.
“Bobby really seems to care about the legislation,” he said, “He seems to be more tuned into the details of legislation than I thought.”
But Branum also identified a major factor at play in Tuesday’s District 20 election — and other contests across the state: Voter turnout is often very low for runoff races. Only 20 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in the 2014 runoff.
The winner, Branum said, will likely be the candidate that motivated the most people to show up at the polls.
Oklahoma Engaged is a public service journalism collaboration of KOSU, KGOU, KWGS, KCCU, and StateImpact Oklahomawith support from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Kirkpatrick Foundation, and listener contributions.