Urban Democratic Party candidates in the Oklahoma City metro won election and re-election Nov. 8 bucking the state and national trends of heavy turnouts for Republicans.
And, in at least one Oklahoma House district, people who said they voted for Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump also said they voted for their local Democratic Party candidate for their local House seat.
While some seats were maintained by incumbents, some of the candidates were first-timers who managed to flip state House districts that had been the preserve of Republican representatives for several election cycles.
Through the course of election night Free Press visited watch parties of four of those Democratic candidates who turned in solid wins against Republican opponents in parts of Oklahoma City considered culturally conservative.
Last year’s Minority Leader of the House, Rep. Scott Inman, won all 10 precincts for a decisive 63 percent to 37 percent win against challenger Jason Sansone in Oklahoma House District 94 covering Del City and small parts of both Oklahoma City and Midwest City.
Supporters filled Grub Restaurant in Del City as they waited for the night’s results to come in. Inman finally arrived when it was clear that he had won his contest.
“To hold this seat that I have it takes not just Democrats, not just Republicans, but it takes all,” Inman told the cheering crowd. “I know in this room tonight I’m proud of the fact that there are Trump supporters and there are Clinton supporters.”
After his speech, Free Press asked Inman about his acknowledgment of both Trump and Clinton supporters.
“It’s a Democratic-leaning district for sure,” Inman said. He grew up in Del City, the core of HD 94 and described it as “pretty territorial.”
“The way I ran for office was to carve out a notch, not necessarily as a Democratic candidate, but vote for me as the guy born and raised here. So that’s how I got a lot of crossover support. That Tip O’Neal phrase ‘All politics is local,’ – that’s how it works,” Inman said.
And that one insight seemed to be the theme at each of the other three watch parties we attended throughout the evening.
A few minutes later we happened upon two of Inman’s enthusiastic supporters, Dwayne and Sheri Walker. They confirmed that they had voted for Trump, too.
“I’m not a 100 percent for everything Trump,” Sheri said. “I think more I was against a lot of the stuff Hillary was for, like late-term abortion and things like that. I think the corruption that she was involved in had something to do with it.”
Dwayne was nodding approval and added that he was well aware of Trump’s problems, too. “He’s a womanizer. You can’t really say that you are proud to have voted for either of them,” he said.
When asked how they squared supporting both Trump and the Democratic Party leader of the Oklahoma House, Dwayne said of Inman, “I just know that he’s very honest. I get a feeling that he really cares for his community. He’s been knockin’ on my door and askin’ me questions. I guess he just won my vote by being persistent.”
And to show the diversity of the urban districts, Lisa Williams, the black mother-in-law of Inman’s sister, was sitting in the same booth as the Walkers. The three could be seen happily visiting throughout the evening.
“I’m here because I support and like him,” Williams said. “And he’s not even my representative. I live in a different district.
Urban voters crossing party lines to support the one who they believe truly listens to their concerns was a common theme as we moved from one watch party to another.
First-time candidate Mickey Dollens took Oklahoma House District 93, a longtime Republican stronghold on the south side of Oklahoma City. He beat Republican Jay Means, garnering 60 percent of the vote. The seat had been held by Republican Mike Christian who ran for Oklahoma County Sheriff in this election cycle.
“I just kept knocking doors and visiting with all of the people of this district,” Dollens said about his win. “There are many different people in this district. It has been, and will be important to know their views.”
One supporter at the watch party was Chace Neal, a student at Oklahoma City Community College, a commuter college that has its main campus in the district.
When asked about why he supported Dollens, Neal said, “He’s actually one of the few candidates that I have seen knocking on doors. He just has a really outstanding grass roots campaign. He’s actually connecting with voters.”
Neal went on to express his hope for a new legislative session. “I’m really excited to see what happens at the Capital. I see a lot of optimism here tonight.”
Two years ago Walke and his supporters were disappointed in his loss against Oklahoma House District 87 Republican incumbent Jason Nelson. Nelson did not run this year.
Walke’s work knocking doors through the district in the last election put him at an advantage over his Republican opponent Bruce Lee Smith who received 44 percent of the vote and Libertarian Elle Collins with 7 percent of the vote.
“It was definitely an advantage,” Walke said about getting a head start last election with voters in the district. “I had name recognition.”
Local politics were dominant in the district according to volunteer Katy McLain-Snipes.
She said that as she knocked doors and phoned constituents, she heard concerns not so much about national issues but local ones.
“People are very concerned,” she said. “The No. 1 concern I heard was about education.”
“They are also very worried about the local economy. They are worried about getting and keeping jobs.”
As with other winning Democrats in Oklahoma City this election, the connection with voters, gaining a reputation for listening, and being an advocate for the constituents in the district seemed to contribute to Walke’s win.
It was about closing time at the Paramount where Forrest Bennett was gathered with his supporters on election night. Yet they were all buoyant as it was apparent that he had won the Oklahoma House District 92 seat.
Tired-looking but upbeat, Bennett told Free Press that he would not believe he had won “unless someone official tells me.”
He said that it would be “hard to believe” since he had been campaigning for “526 days.”
Bennett ended up getting 61 percent of the vote, beating Republican opponent Joe Griffin. The seat had been held by term-limited Democratic Party firebrand Richard Morrissette, widely known for passionate debates on the floor of the House and on various television shows.
Bennett said that he knocked through the district six times for the primary before the end of June and then a couple of more times in preparation for the general. And in his view it gave him the edge over his opponent.
“At the end of the day, the person who talked to constituents about the issues that affected them was the one who came out ahead,” Bennett said. And those close connections were already coming into play. He said he already had several calls from constituents asking him to work on particular issues they had in their neighborhood.
Bennett said that he values doing what legislators call “case work” meaning advocating for particular cases where individuals feel that their government is not being responsive to their needs.
“There are some people who feel disenfranchised by their government who feel a little better knowing someone in government who will help them,” he said.
Supporters JoBeth Hamon and Marty Peercy were upbeat about Bennett’s win.
Peercy said he voted for Bennett “because for once there is a local representative who I actually get and who I trust.”
“He already understands the community where he lives in a way that I don’t or won’t,” said Peercy.
Hamon said she first met Bennett at a “Maps for Neighborhoods” meeting and was impressed with Bennett. She said he understood the importance of infrastructure for making Oklahoma City more walkable, which involves addressing street crime.
“When he talks about public safety it’s not just about crime, it’s about creating infrastructure and space for people,” Hamon said. “I believe that he really wants to do what’s best for the people in the districts. He’s not just there for power or political reasons. He really wants to be a representative for all.”
And that universal appeal of someone who will listen to and represent the interests of the constituents of a district is what carried Election Day for those four Democratic Party candidates even though it was not a good year either in the state as a whole or nationally for Democrats.