This is a post I have contemplated writing for years. It is a story I have wanted to share for a while and never felt the time was right. I started this post on Monday, December 18, 2017, just after Democrat Doug Jones upset Roy Moore in Alabama. I am finishing this post right after the Oklahoma Teacher Walkout of 2018. All of these events combined with the state of our country under Donald J. Trump make this the right time for me to share the tale of my political journey. So grab a cup of coffee or tea, or something even stronger if you so choose, get comfortable and let us begin.
I take pride in being both an Oklahoman and a strong Democrat. I have lived in Oklahoma for 38 of my 39 years alive. Save a few years when I chose to support a former boss/mentor in a primary election, I have been a member of the Democrat party for most of the past 20+ years; since I first registered to vote. So let me repeat this: I take pride in being both an Oklahoman and a strong Democrat. I have served in some form of ministry in Southern Baptist Churches almost continuously since the fall of 1994. Even spending some time as a senior pastor of a first Baptist church in a town in Oklahoma. So let me repeat that one more time: I take pride in being both an Oklahoman and a strong Democrat.
The previous paragraph more than likely has you either in rage with anger or in shock and admiration. I doubt it would leave most readers in the present day and age with little emotional reaction. At the least, I would imagine you are curious about the journey that would make someone make these statements and the seeming paradox that is his life. So now that I have your full attention let us go to the backstory, that informs and creates this situation.
I grew up in Southeastern Oklahoma, in Pittsburgh County, mostly in the town of McAlester, Oklahoma. My family has strong roots in that county. My Grandpa and my step-grandfather both starred in football for the tiny town of Haileyville, and used that ability to obtain a college education. My grandpa wanted to teach high school but could make more money working for the railroad and did that until opening and running the Gragg Texaco. My step-grandfather was set to be the starting QB for Texas Tech but left school and joined the Army to fight in WWII. After the War, he rose through the ranks to become the postmaster in his tiny town. My mom’s real dad, my grandpa Jim, grew up on the opposite side of the county and was a rural Baptist preacher before succumbing to stomach cancer a half-decade before my birth. My roots are deep in that county. I may not get back as much now as I did when I first left town for college in the Fall of ‘96. However, it is still one of those places that is just home.
Growing up there is a unique experience. For a small section of Oklahoma, it is rather diverse. The county is named after the similarly named part of Pennsylvania due to the shared abundance of coal mines between the two locations. Before statehood and after, troves of immigrants, mostly Italian, with some Poles, Irish and Russians sprinkled in, came to this outpost to work in the mines. Now the mining has largely been replaced by oil and gas industry and derricks now pepper the landscapes outside of the county seat. I grew up in that in-between time. After the mining dropped off and before the oil and gas boom. It was a glorious place to grow up though.
My 18 years there consisted of family, friends, bike roads to the local park, fishing, playing golf, basketball in the driveway, neighborhood whiffle ball games, mowing neighbors lawns, learning to drive, high school sports, church activities, being an honor student, and politics. Now my family was never directly running for office. Well, my Grandpa and some uncles might have been on the city council in their tiny towns at various points, but we lived in the big city. The county seat town of McAlester. Best known for the state penitentiary on the edge of town, and the second largest daily grossing Wal-Mart in the world at that time (it was just behind Mexico City, simply because it was the only place to shop for people several hours away). But no neither my Dad nor my Mom never ran for office. But we were involved politically. It was just what was done in our town. You put signs in your yard, stickers on your vehicle, and went to pie auctions in the summer to hear candidates speak. When I moved away in 1996 it was a Presidential election year, you know a big important election. I was shocked to find the town where I went to college was not as involved politically. Now I did not move that far away. I went to a small liberal arts church-affiliated school less than 2 hours away. In regards to political engagement though I might as well have moved to the twin mooned desert planet of Tatooine or at least Pluto (it was still an actual planet then). I did not see any Dole/Kemp and especially no Clinton/Gore yard signs or bumper stickers in my new town. The election was far less talked about among my new college classmates as it was amongst my high school ones, and all of my new classmates were actually able to vote. In fact, before moving to college I made sure to go to the county election board to request absentee ballots to be sent to me for all elections because missing a single opportunity to vote was as bad as missing church on Easter or Christmas.
It was not just that my county was incredibly political though; it was also highly Democratic. When I was in high school there were scantily few registered Republicans in my hometown or county. Most city and county-wide elections were decided in the August party runoffs. If there was a General election candidate against the Democratic primary winner it was as likely to be an Independent (probably someone that had made the party officials mad) as it was to be a Republican. And it would be a good showing if either of those candidates wound up with higher than 15% of the vote. Everyone was a Democrat. Former U.S. House Speaker Carl Albert is from my hometown. The longest-serving state legislator and state executive in Oklahoma history are both from McAlester – Senator Gene Stipe, and former Governor George Nigh. Now that does not mean all the Democrats got along. Now there was sharp infighting. My Grandpa, for instance, never cared for Speaker Albert. Those feelings had nothing to do with politics though. It was all due to a high school debate contest in which my Grandpa was the only person to ever defeat Speaker Albert during high school. Mr. Albert though went to a school that could afford to send him to larger state contests while my Grandpa had to care for his brothers and sisters by working as the school janitor from 4 AM till school started, then again after football practice till the job was done. Still, though my Grandpa would vote for Speaker Albert over a non-Democrat any day. One day while watching our beloved Chicago Cubs play on WGN I asked my Grandpa why Gragg’s were such strong Democrats. I have never forgotten his short but deep response – we are too poor to vote for a Republican.
We are too poor to vote for a Republican. Those words have stuck with me ever since. I am at a place in my life where I am solidly within the middle class. I might be higher on the economic scale if I were to teach in a state whose legislature valued public education but that is a post for another day. Even working within a state that devalues education and especially educators so greatly I have a career I love and from which I draw satisfaction, my wife and I own a nice modest house with a giant yard, we have groceries in our house, our bills are paid, and we have reliable transportation, as well as adequate health insurance. Now our savings is rather sparse but that is because every time we seem to start making progress there we have something that happens that requires using that money. All this to say we are no different than a vast number of Americans. We are surviving day to day, month to month in relative comfort hoping that devastating tragedy does not hit that will destroy it all. So even though I do not consider myself poor I still find this statement rings true. As I prepare to enter my 40’s in a matter of months I find myself making more voting decisions based on economics. For the past 20 years, one party and one party alone has put forth economic policies that seek to help those in my situation. That party is clearly the Democrats.
Now some may say well you are right, Democrats have better policies for economics for all of those except the wealthy, but I just cannot give my support to their moral stances. I have some rather strong feelings here for both those inside the Democratic Party, especially the leaders, and for those outside the party making these claims. I will address these issues in parts 2 and 3 of this series.