Women Candidates in Oklahoma: Sticking to the Issues Instead of Sticking it to Each Other

Jodi Jacobson

Does having more women in politics change the tone of politics?  Two female gubernatorial candidates in a conservative state give it a try.

This article is cross-posted from Women’s Campaign Forum’s MsRepresentation site, for which I am a guest writer during the last three weeks leading up to the election. Click here to receive MsRepresentation’s Daily Brief every morning via email.

One of the key arguments of proponents of gender equity in politics is that putting more women in office will not only lead to a government more representative of the governed, but that women as a whole will change the tone of politics, and also focus more on people and human needs.

I admit that while I am a strong proponent of women taking and using political power for the common good, and an equally strong proponent of women running for office—I’d love to see a majority female Congress to reflect the majority female population of this country—I am skeptical of stereotyping “women” writ large.

There have been and are in today’s current electoral cycle plenty of examples of women politicians who do not, in my mind, have the best interests of women, or groups facing discrimination, at heart. I personally don’t think anti-choice female politicians, for example, will be better than anti-choice male politicians if elected to office; I don’t think “free-market, no-government-regulation” Sharron Angle will be better for children, health care, or the environment than are her compatriots Jon Cornryn or Mitch McConnell.

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That being said, if women candidates do agree to change the nature and tenor of campaigns, that in itself can change the process of elections, whatever the outcomes. So if someone wins based on the issues, rather than on smearing, you know better where things stand.

And the two female candidates for governor in Oklahoma appear to be striving to do just that in a historic campaign that will in either case result in the election of Oklahoma’s first female governor.

Michael McNutt of NewsOk.com reports that Oklahoma’s two female gubernatorial candidates, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jari Askins and GOP nominee Mary Fallin, appear to be striving to create a more civil campaign for governor, eschewing attack ads and bitter campaign rhetoric in favor of focusing on…..issues!

“Their campaigns are generally reluctant to bash each other,” said Mike Turpen, a former state attorney general who lost a gubernatorial bid in the 1986 Democratic primary and remains active in Democratic Party politics.

“Mary and Jari in their ads and their appearances together have been very civil and issue-oriented,” Turpen said. “Men are more likely, in my experience in Oklahoma politics, to take off the gloves and start what a lot of people call negative campaigning or at least running comparative ads.

“I think Jari and Mary both know this is a historic moment in Oklahoma’s history and they’ve decided to be very civil and respectful of each other,” he said. “It would help Jari more politically if she came after Mary as Mary has on the RGA ads against Jari but I think Jari has decided to be more statesmanlike and we’ll see if that pays off Nov. 2…. It’s my perception that they may take it all the way to Nov. 2 being positive and not going negative.”

Others have predicted a turn to negative advertising as the race tightens toward election day.  Right now, polls show Askins well behind Fallin.  But Oklahoma race-watchers say that the same predictions about Askins—she’s behind and will lose—were made in the days before her win in the primaries.

Moreover, political analysts in Oklahoma cite both women as great campaigners. In another story on the race by McNutt, several experts warned against writing either woman off.

Pat McFerron, director of survey research for Cole, Hargrave, Snodgrass and Associates, said Askins and Fallin are the two most underrated politicians during the past decade in the state.

“People might have tried to write them off … but both of them are fierce campaigners,” he said.

Turpen pointed out to NewsOk that the candidates’ strategy does not comport with his own political campaign recipe for winning.

“I’ve always said there’s only three times you run a negative campaign and that’s if you’re behind, even or ahead,” he said. “Unfortunately even though people say they don’t like negative ads they are persuaded by them even if it’s subliminally and they vote because of them. It’s hard to run a race without at some point running a comparative ad or so-called negative ad.”

Fallin, who in 1994 became the state’s first woman lieutenant governor, and Askins, who succeeded her, are vying to become the first female governor of Oklahoma in the state’s 103-year history.

Bill Price, a former U.S. attorney who was the Republican Party’s gubernatorial nominee in 1990, told NewsOK that he felt the lack of negative campaigning in the gubernatorial race may be attributed less to both candidates being women and more to their character.

“I think it’s inherent in the candidates,” Price said.

“You don’t have in either of the candidates some kind of personal thing that anybody can attack and so therefore there aren’t any attacks that are truly below-the-belt kinds of things.”

Fallin, a U.S. Congresswoman from Edmond, is leading in the polls but Askins has come from behind to win her last two statewide contests.

According to NewsOK, Askins beat the favorite in the 2006 lieutenant governor general election and she overtook Attorney General Drew Edmondson in this year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Askins, although trailing throughout the primary, restrained then from running negative ads.

“I have a lot of respect for Jari for taking the high road against Drew and now for taking the high road against Mary,” said Turpen, who supported Edmondson in the primary. “It certainly worked in the primary and I’m hopeful that it will work in the general.”

Fallin, elected to the 5th Congressional District in 2006, is the first female GOP gubernatorial candidate in Oklahoma’s history. Askins is the second woman to win the Democratic nomination for governor after Laura Boyd, who in 1998 lost to then-Gov. Frank Keating.

Price said Fallin continues to run strong in polls and Oklahoma appears headed for another first — Republicans controlling the House of Representatives, the Senate and the governor’s office. Republicans took over the House for only the second time in history in 2004 and gained the majority for the first time ever in the Senate in 2008.

Yet things are not quite as rosy as they may at first appear. As several reports note, a series of ads paid for by the Republican Governors Association and other outside national groups have in fact attacked Askins by cranking out negative ads.

There is no evidence that Fallin’s campaign has asked these outside groups to cease and desist.  In the end its possible that some politics as usual is in fact being orchestrated by the ol’ boys club of larger organizations, leaving at least one nominee’s fingerprints off the airwaves, so to speak.  Given the degree to which money from outside a given state is being used to influence elections in that state, such a revelation would not be a surprise.

News Abortion

Ballot Effort to Criminalize Abortion Care Ends in Oklahoma

Teddy Wilson

The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a petition pushing for a vote on banning abortion care across the state.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a petition pushing for a vote on banning abortion care across the state.

Thomas Hunter of Norman, Oklahoma filed paperwork on January 27 to launch the signature-gathering campaign for Initiative Petition 406, as reported by the Associated Press.

Hunter would have had 90 days to gather at least 123,725 signatures from registered Oklahoma voters in order for State Question 782 to have appeared on the ballot in November. The initiative would have proposed an amendment to Article 2 of the Oklahoma Constitution to declare that anyone who performs an abortion in the state would be guilty of homicide.

The measure would have also outlawed the use of “contraception that causes the death of an unborn human being.”

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“The question is whether or not the Supreme Court ruling that born people have the right to kill unborn people was, in fact, constitutional in the first place,” Hunter told the Tulsa World .

The proposal drew the attention of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. 

Maya Harris, a Clinton campaign senior adviser, told the Oklahoman that Clinton “believes Oklahoma women have a constitutional right to safe, legal abortion and to contraception, and they deserve to be able to make their health care decisions without interference from government or extreme special interest groups.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oklahoma in February challenged the petition on the grounds that outlawing abortion care violates both the U.S. and Oklahoma Constitutions.

“This Court is duty bound by the United States and the Oklahoma Constitution to ‘follow the mandates of the United States Supreme Court on matters of federal constitutional law,’” the Court said in its ruling.

Ryan Kiesel, executive director of ACLU Oklahoma, said in a statement that the proposal would have limited a person’s right to make reproductive decisions, guaranteed by more than four decades of Supreme Court precedent.

“It’s abundantly clear that any measure that interferes with a woman’s reproductive rights, including the legal right to have access to abortion, is unconstitutional,” Kiesel said. “This is the Oklahoma Supreme Court simply reaffirming the very basic principles of federalism and constitutional law.”

Analysis Violence

Drug War’s Impact on Black Women Comes to the Fore in Daniel Holtzclaw Trial

Kanya D’Almeida

Of the many horrific details that have come to light in the ongoing trial of Daniel Holtzclaw, the former Oklahoma City police officer accused of sexually assaulting multiple Black women, perhaps the most common is the allegation that the 28-year-old football star-turned-cop specifically targeted women with histories of substance dependency.

Read more of our articles on the Daniel Holtzclaw trial here.

Of the many horrific details that have come to light in the ongoing trial of Daniel Holtzclaw, the former Oklahoma City police officer accused of sexually assaulting multiple Black women, perhaps the most common is the allegation that the 28-year-old football star-turned-cop specifically targeted women with histories of substance dependency.

Holtzclaw reportedly preyed upon 12 Black women and one Black teenager in the low-income neighborhoods on the east side of Oklahoma City that served as his patrol area between December 2013 and June 2014, stopping those he suspected of being in possession of drugs and allegedly using this excuse to perform abusive body searches and to threaten or coerce women into sexual acts.

By Tuesday evening, which marked day 16 of the trial and saw the 13 accusers taking the stand against Holtzclaw in the Oklahoma County courthouse, a pattern of alleged abuse had emerged that not only highlighted Black women’s vulnerability to police brutality, but also called into question the ways in which the “war on drugs” has disproportionately impacted Black women.

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Since the trial began on November 2, local journalists have reported that the defense attorney led his cross-examinations by questioning witnesses about being under the influence of, or in possession of, either drugs or alcohol at the time of the assaults.

An investigation by the Associated Press revealed that one woman who claims to have been orally sodomized by Holtzclaw was handcuffed to a hospital bed throughout the incident; she’d been admitted to the medical facility while high on angel dust, or PCP.

Other accusers say the ex-officer fondled, groped, and even penetrated them under the guise of searching them for drugs. Some say he promised to make pending charges go away if they “cooperated with him,” or threatened them with jail time if they didn’t.

The sixth accuser who testified against Holtzclaw on November 18 was the second witness to take the stand while in the custody of Oklahoma County jail on drug-related charges. Shackled at the wrists and ankles, she wore an orange jumpsuit to the courtroom and told the all-white jury she was under the influence of crack cocaine when Holtzclaw allegedly stopped her on the street, drove her home, and raped her in her own bedroom.

Defense Attorney Scott Adams has seized upon some witnesses’ histories of substance dependency to cast doubt on the validity of their testimony, according to reporters with the Oklahoman and TV news channel KOCO 5.

In one incident that generated some buzz on social media, Adams aggressively questioned a witness on the stand until she said, “Before I came here I smoked some marijuana and a blunt stick laced with PCP.” Other accusers interviewed by the AP say that, haunted by the attack, they have since slipped even deeper into the use of substances like cocaine.

These repeated references to drug use by the alleged victims made their way into a BBC article on the case—one of the few pieces of coverage of a trial that has otherwise been completely ignored by the mainstream media—headlined, “Daniel Holtzclaw trial: Standing with ‘imperfect’ accusers.”

“I think this is absolutely disgusting,” Camille Landry, co-convener of an Oklahoma City group called Occupy the Corners, said in response to the BBC article, “to suggest that a victim has to have certain attributes or behaviors in order to not be blamed for an assault against her.”

“Exactly what would a perfect victim be?” she asked. “How does one become perfect in anticipation of being victimized so that one is not blamed for her victimization?”

“It doesn’t matter what they were doing or what their past might have beenthese women were sexually assaulted by a man who was charged with serving and protecting them and who instead became a predator against them,” Landry told Rewire.

A close look at the state’s policing of drug-related offenses offers some insight into the context surrounding the threats Holtzclaw is accused of making, and the systems in place that his alleged victims may have been up against at the time of their encounter with the officer.

A 2014 study conducted by the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Sociology found that the state has the highest female incarceration rate in the country, locking up 130 women per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 67 per 100,000 residents. About 1,000 women are admitted into Oklahoma’s prison system every year—half of them on drug-related charges.

“The number-one offense is possession,” Susan Sharp, a contributor to the study and author of the book Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma’s Women Prisoners, told Rewire in a phone interview.

“Women are low-hanging fruit, they are easy to detect and prosecute, and they seldom have enough information to plea bargain with. The war on drugs is what has driven the high rate of female incarceration in this state.”

She said harsh drug sentencing laws are largely to blame for the fact that 2,400 women are currently locked up in jails and prisons across Oklahoma.

“In Oklahoma you can be charged with drug trafficking for possession of five grams of crack or 20 grams of methamphetamine, both of which are fairly low quantities,” explained Sharp, who is also a professor in the sociology department at the University of Oklahoma. She said policies like the 85 percent rule—originally intended to ensure that violent criminals served 85 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole, but which has now been extended to some drug-related offenses—ensure lengthy sentences for minor crimes.

While all low-income women are caught up this dragnet, she said, Black women tend to be disproportionately impacted, a reality that is not limited to Oklahoma.

Across the United States, the “war on drugs” has torn apart communities of color at a far higher rate than white communities, despite the fact that the government has repeatedly documented similar rates of drug use across racial groups.

A recent fact sheet by the Drug Policy Alliance revealed that 80 percent of the roughly 1.5 million drug-related arrests that happened in 2013 were on simple charges of possession. Black people comprise 30 percent of those arrested for drug law violations and 40 percent of those imprisoned on drug-related charges, even though they account for just 13 percent of the population.

Statistics are even grimmer for women. Between 1980 and 2002 the number of incarcerated women in the United States jumped from 12,300 to 182,271. During that time, incarceration rates for drug offenders ballooned by 888 percent, with women of color disproportionately impacted by the increase; the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that Black women are three times more likely to be locked up on drug charges than white women.

“In the last 20 years, Black women have comprised the largest group of people presenting in prisons, and much of that is driven by the war on drugs,” asha bandele, an author and senior director at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Rewire.

A 2005 ACLU report titled Caught in the Net, the most recent comprehensive study on the impacts of the drug war on women, revealed that these racially lopsided numbers are not a coincidence. Rather they are the result of “racially targeted law enforcement practices, prosecutorial decisions, and sentencing policies,” which are exacerbated by “selective testing of pregnant women of color for drug use as well as heightened surveillance of poor mothers of color in the context of policing child abuse and neglect.”

Organizations like the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) have documented the ways in which Black women have borne the brunt of drug war policies like mandatory minimum sentencing laws “despite their peripheral involvement in the drug trade.”

A 2015 AAPF report highlighted how interactions with law enforcement personnel who regard Black women’s bodies as “vessels for drugs ingested, swallowed or concealed, or their homes as drug factories” have led to the deaths of Black girls as young as 7 and Black women as old as 92.

Hyper-policing of Black women under the guise of fighting the “war on drugs” also informs how women interact with the criminal justice system, legal experts say.

Citing a recent report on policing and domestic and sexual violence, Sandra Park, a senior attorney at the ACLU, told Rewire, “Survivors with criminal records or substance abuse issues, even if they have experienced sexual assault or domestic violence, tend not to reach out to the police because they know they are vulnerable to arrest.”

She added, “That issue is compounded when you are talking about a police officer like Daniel Holtzclaw, someone who can use stringent drug laws to help perpetuate or commit sexual assault.”

As witnesses in the Holtzclaw trial have testified, this same cycle of fear held true when it came to reporting the police officer’s alleged abuse. Under aggressive questioning by Holtzclaw’s attorney, several women on the stand confessed that they didn’t lodge official complaints because they were afraid to reveal their own drug problems, didn’t think the authorities would believe the word of a Black woman, or simply saw no purpose in reporting a crime to the very same institution that the alleged perpetrator was part of.

“What kind of police do you call on the police?” the 13th and final accuser said on the stand on Tuesday.

Damario Solomon-Simmons, a civil rights lawyer based in Tulsa who traveled to Oklahoma City together with National Bar Association President Benjamin Crump to witness the trial proceedings, said in an interview with NewsOne, “As Black men and lawyers, it was important that we attended the trial to both personally show solidarity.”

Asked about what he witnessed in the courtroom, Solomon-Simmons said, “Frankly, it was a surreal and disappointing scene that was more like 1915 than 2015 … while defendant Holtzclaw was allowed to attend the trial in a suit and free from handcuffs or restraints, some of the alleged victims were actually forced to testify while shackled and ‘dressed out’ in jail orange jumpsuits.”

He also noted his “disappointment” that the women did not appear to have adequate legal representation or the support they needed to navigate the complex proceedings.

In addition to a decades-long crackdown on narcotics, Oklahoma recently tightened regulations regarding the abuse of prescription drugs. The state ranks ninth nationally for overdose deaths involving opioid pain relievers, or OPR, according to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, while local news reports suggest that the number of overdose deaths as a result of powerful prescription drugs has doubled in the past 12 years.

Last year the senate passed HB 2589, a bill that added morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and benzodiazepine to a list of controlled substances in Oklahoma’s Trafficking in Illegal Drugs Act. Ostensibly aimed at curbing overdose deaths, the legislation imposes a ten-year minimum sentence on individuals found to be in possession of legally stipulated quantities of the four additional substances. However, criminal justice experts fear the law will do nothing except add to the state’s prison population by policing and prosecuting users, rather than, for instance, the drug manufacturers.

The bill could have especially serious ramifications for communities of color, who are disproportionately cut off from health services and are unable to seek treatments or care for dependence on controlled substances. The Oklahoma Policy Institute estimates that over 20 percent of the state’s African-American population is uninsured, suggesting that once again Black people are more likely to feel the most impact of a crackdown on “drugs.”

By putting a health issue into the hands of law enforcement personnel, the state has effectively widened the scope for police officers to conduct searches in the name of public safety. In fact, a common thread running through the testimony against Holtzclaw is the allegation that he instructed women to remove their shirts, “lift up their breasts,” and even pull down their pants so he could search them for drugs, in one case reportedly shining a flashlight between a 57-year-old woman’s legs to satisfy his suspicions.

So far the prosecution has called more than 40 witnesses, while the defense is expected to produce up to 75. With the trial expected to carry on well into the month of December, activists who have mobilized to pack the courtroom, demonstrate outside the courthouse, and otherwise show their support for the accusers say they are ready for the long haul.

“It is traumatic, seeing what has happened to these women in our own backyard and knowing it could have been us,” Landry said. “I am 65 years old and I have been accosted by the police just driving down the street. Other Black women have had similar experiences. Grandmothers, women with gray hair, have shared stories of being thrown up against the hood of their car and patted down with their grandchildren in the backseat, on their way home from church or school or the grocery store.”

“Even people who have had a hard time getting involved in this kind of activism have come out and said, ‘This is the straw that broke the camel’s back. This is where I draw the line. This is where I stand up and say, stop,'” she said.

As of Tuesday evening, all of the alleged victims had taken the stand, including one girl who was just 17 years old at the time of the assault and whose DNA was found on the inside and outside of the former policeman’s trousers, a lead detective testified this week. Holtzclaw has pleaded not guilty to all 36 charges against him, which include battery, stalking, and forcible oral sodomy.