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.”
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.
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.