OKLAHOMA CITY (16 November 2016) – All 101 members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, including seven new Democrats, received the oath of office Wednesday – the 109th anniversary of Statehood – during a ceremony held in the packed House chamber at the State Capitol.
The oath was administered by Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice John Reif.
State Representatives serve two-year terms.
The seven Democrats include a businesswoman, a former assistant to the mayor of Tulsa, a defense attorney, two former school teachers, an insurance agent, and the president of the board of Oklahoma’s largest homeless shelter.
The House Democratic Caucus lost six seats in the general election but picked up two Oklahoma City metro-area seats that had been held by Republicans for several years. The composition of the House is now 26 Democrats and 75 Republicans. The House’s Black Caucus also gained a member, raising its numbers to four.
The House and the Senate will assemble at the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 3, when both chambers will officially elect officers for 2017-18 and perform several housekeeping chores.
The First Regular Session of the 56th Oklahoma Legislature will get under way in earnest at noon on Monday, Feb. 6. All House bills and resolutions filed for consideration during the annual legislative session will receive their first reading that day, and the governor will deliver her annual “State of the State” address to a joint session of the Legislature.
Monroe Nichols, HD 72: ‘We’ve put a priority on remaining 49th in everything’
The new State Representative in House District 72 said he intends to focus on children’s education, on economic development, and on state tax policy during the 56th Oklahoma Legislature.
“My biggest priority is education,” said Monroe Nichols, a Tulsa Democrat whose son, Gavin Monroe Nichols, attends a public school in Tulsa.
“In portions of my legislative district we have seen high unemployment rates and kids lacking opportunities to meet their full potential. It’s time we expand opportunities to all Oklahomans and allow everyone to participate in a prosperous economy.”
His plan for improving education in Oklahoma is “ensuring that all children get a good early start, and strengthening the entire education pipeline.”
As for economic development, “It starts with a skilled, competitive workforce,” Nichols said. “I will work to ensure that companies have the kinds of incentives they need to help workers get the skills training they need” to advance in their careers.
“Let’s work to ensure our state policy reflects our belief that the Oklahoma worker is not only the backbone of our present, but our greatest hope for the future.”
The prevailing tax policy “has sent Oklahoma into a perpetual state of economic crisis,” Nichols said. “While the national economy continues to show improvement, the decisions of the Legislature have sacrificed Oklahoma’s chance to join the rest of the country on the road to recovery.”
To improve the Oklahoma economy, “We have to find modest ways to raise revenue without impacting the growth of the middle class,” Nichols said.
“The fact that we are faced with a budget shortfall of perhaps $600 million or more, at the same time another income-tax cut is looming, is not only ignorant, it is putting the most vulnerable Oklahomans, students, seniors and working families, at risk.”
The state budget is “a reflection of our priorities,” Nichols pointed out. “At this point, the only thing our budget shows is that we’ve put a priority on remaining 49th in everything. That’s not what Oklahoma is really about.”
Nichols, 33, is a native of Waco, TX. He moved to Oklahoma in 2002 to attend the University of Tulsa, where he played football and received a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics. Subsequently he earned a master’s of public administration at the University of Oklahoma.
Nichols was an assistant to the mayor of Tulsa for three and a half years, chief of staff to the president of OU-Tulsa, worked as an economic development grants management officer in the state Department of Career and Technology Education, managed Kathy Taylor’s mayoral campaign in 2013, and for more than two years he has been the chief operating officer of Impact Tulsa, a partnership intended to “provide a pathway” for Tulsa students to thrive.
Mickey Dollens, HD 93: Athlete, ex-English teacher to focus on education, mental health
An athlete who got laid off in a school budget RIF earlier this year received the oath of office Wednesday to represent a legislative district that has been in Republican hands for the last eight years.
Democrat Mickey Dollens is the new State Representative for House District 93 in south Oklahoma City.
Dollens, 29, had been an English teacher at U.S. Grant High School for two years when he received a pink slip earlier this year during a round of district budget cutbacks.
“That solidified my decision to run for office, because of the state of public education in Oklahoma.” This made him “want to get into policy-making,” he said.
Besides his emphasis on public education, Dollens said he will be an advocate for “improving mental health services, nursing home reform, protecting our veterans, and stopping elder abuse.”
Dollens is a Bartlesville native and a fifth-generation Oklahoman.
A football scholarship enabled him to attend Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, where he played defensive tackle for the SMU Mustangs.
Afterward he competed as a member of the United States bobsled team and tried out for a spot on the 2014 Olympics team, but his crew came up short. Nevertheless, “It gave me an opportunity to travel the world, meet a lot of people, and gain valuable perspectives.”
He returned home and went to work in the oilpatch as a roughneck for a year, then decided to “put my English degree to use” as a teacher at U.S. Grant.
Dollens also owns a weightlifting company. “Being a small-business owner has taught me valuable lessons in resourcefulness, thinking ahead, and working with others to get things done,” he said.
During his legislative campaign, Dollens was endorsed by The State Chamber, the American Federation of Teachers, and Oklahomans for Public Education, among others.
Jason Lowe, HD 97: ‘Focus more on rehabilitation and less on incarceration,’ attorney says
A defense attorney elected to fill a legislative seat vacated by term limits said his primary goal at the State Capitol will be criminal justice reform.
Oklahoma City Democrat Jason Lowe received 73.49% of the popular vote in his bid to succeed Mike Shelton as State Representative for House District 97.
Lowe, 42, founded his law firm in 2005 and today he has offices in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Lawton.
The New York City native received his undergraduate degree in political science at Virginia State University, and earned his juris doctorate degree from the Oklahoma City University School of Law in 2002.
Lowe said he wants to change sentencing guidelines for crimes such as possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.
He was pleased when Oklahoma voters approved State Question 780 during the general election Nov. 8. That measure will make possession of a limited quantity of drugs a misdemeanor offense. It also increases the threshold dollar amount for certain property crimes to determine whether they should be prosecuted as a felony or a misdemeanor. Currently the threshold is $500; adoption of SQ 780 doubles that amount, to $1,000.
SQ 780 becomes effective on July 1, 2017.
“We need to focus more on rehabilitation and less on incarceration,” Lowe contends.
Collin Walke, HD 87: Priorities are education, economy, tax policies, Bipartisan politics
A lifelong metro-area resident received the oath of office Wednesday as the newly elected State Representative for House District 87, a post that had been held by Republicans for the last 30 years.
Collin Walke, 34, said his priorities at the State Capitol will be the economy, education, sensible tax policies, and bipartisan politics.
A quality education is “the cornerstone of a thriving economy and a safe neighborhood,” said Walke, a product of Oklahoma’s public education system. He said one of his goals is “to ensure that our schools have the resources to provide our children with the best education possible.” He also said he wants to “empower teachers in their own classrooms.”
Education is the cornerstone of a healthy economy, he contends. He said he would join hands with business leaders to “foster an environment where we can grow an educated workforce and create more good jobs right here in Oklahoma City.”
Walke believes that “we need to be stewards of taxpayer dollars and make sure we use tax credits responsibly.” He said he will “work to boost small-business owners and make sure they are able to grow their businesses.”
Partisan politics has “dominated the State Capitol, creating gridlock” that prevents progress from being achieved, Walke contends. The freshman lawmaker said he will “reach across the aisle to find solutions that benefit everyone, not just the privileged few or special interests.”
Walke was born and reared in Del City. His father is a special district judge and his mother is an executive at Hobby Lobby.
Collin was the valedictorian of his Del City High School graduating class. He enrolled at Oklahoma State University, where he studied philosophy, then earned his juris doctorate degree from the Oklahoma City University School of Law, graduating magna cum laude. Also, he was an adjunct professor at Oklahoma City Community College, teaching classes in federal government.
His wife, Lori, was graduated from Moore High School. She attended Oklahoma State University on an athletic scholarship, and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in healthcare administration.
Subsequently she, too, earned a law degree from OCU, then attended Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, where she received a Master’s of Divinity degree. She is ordained in the United Church of Christ and is associate minister at Mayflower Congregational UCC.
Walke is president of the board of directors of the City Rescue Mission in Oklahoma City, which is Oklahoma’s largest homeless shelter and which operates the most successful private drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in the state.
Matt Meredith, HD 4: Health care, public safety, education, small business are priorities
A new state legislator for northeastern Oklahoma said his priorities at the State Capitol will be public education, adequate funding for other core services of state government, curbing drug abuse and supporting law enforcement agencies, and helping small-business owners.
Matt Meredith, a Hulbert Democrat, is the new State Representative for House District 4. Meredith, 32, works in his family’s insurance agency.
During his campaign he said he was seeking legislative office “because the funding for our education system, other core services such as health care, infrastructure and public safety, should be priorities for our state – not giving tax cuts and tax credits to big oil and gas companies and to big corporations.”
The State of Oklahoma “shouldn’t throw everything aside in the name of Big Business, but instead serve our citizens and communities” while promoting economic development in a sensible manner.
“Everyone should have an equal voice, no matter the size of the person’s bank account,” Meredith said.
Public education is “critically important to our future,” he said. As a member of the Hulbert Board of Education, he said he experienced firsthand “the challenges faced by local schools, school teachers and administrators and staff members, but most importantly our students.”
Sufficient funding for education “at all levels” should be a legislative priority, Meredith said. “Our schools need adequate funding,” he said. “And we need to pay our educators a decent wage, not only to retain teachers but also to recruit new ones.”
Regardless of income, “Every family should be able to depend on our schools to educate our children,” he said.
Public safety also is a major concern of the freshman lawmaker. “I have served as a jailer, a deputy sheriff and an investigator for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department,” Meredith related. “I know the problems facing law enforcement, and I have seen families torn apart by illegal drugs.”
Support of small businesses will also get his attention. His parents have been small-business owners for 25 years, and his wife’s parents are small-business owners, too. And his wife, Janet Cooper-Meredith, is employed as a hair stylist in Tahlequah.
The couple has three children, ages 14, 4 and 2, and the family attends the First Baptist Church in Hulbert.
Meloyde Blancett, HD 78: Focus on ‘efficient, effective, fiscally sound’ state government
Public schools will be the chief priority of the new state legislator in House District 78.
Meloyde Blancett said she opted to opted to run for House District 78 because the incumbent, Jeannie McDaniel, is vacating the post due to term limits, and because of deep concerns about the condition of Oklahoma’s state government in recent years.
“The issue that caused me to be most passionate about running was public education,” Ms. Blancett said. “And we have to have some retooling of the state’s fiscal strategy,” she added. “We desperately need a much improved revenue plan to finance basic state services.”
Another priority of hers while at the State Capitol will be reforming “our expensive and ineffective” criminal justice system. “We are a poor state. We don’t have enough money to warehouse human beings at $25,000 a year, while providing no resources to help those people turn their lives around after they’re released from custody. We need to stem the spending and start investing in less expensive, alternative programs proven effective at rehabilitating nonviolent offenders.”
She also contends that the Legislature needs to devote attention to economic development, specifically “structuring a state that’s marketable to employers” and sufficiently attractive to recruit out-of-state businesses.
Ms. Blancett said she wishes the Legislature would “spend significantly less time on polarizing social issues that cost taxpayer money unnecessarily and paint Oklahoma as a state that is not business friendly,” and instead “focus more on running an efficient, effective and fiscally sound” state government.
“We are not on a good track,” lamented Ms. Blancett, a professional businesswoman. With persistent budget cuts, especially to public schools, “We have dug ourselves into a reputation hole,” she asserted.
“Building a free public education system that is the best it can possibly be is the cornerstone of an economically viable state,” she said. “It is important that we build the public education system to ensure Oklahoma’s economic viability.”
When asked by a news reporter earlier this year to explain her position on school choice, she replied, “The problems with the premise that every child should be allowed to take ‘their share’ of public education dollars to any school they want include: Oklahoma’s traditional school systems are grossly underfunded; public money shouldn’t be used for religious purposes; and little or no oversight of private, religious and charter schools exists.”
Her LinkedIn biography says that besides education, other causes about which she cares deeply are alleviation of poverty, animal welfare, civil rights and social action, economic empowerment, plus arts and culture (she designs jewelry in her “spare” time).
Ms. Blancett is a lifelong Oklahoman who has resided in Tulsa since 1980. She has one child, a son who is an attorney with the general counsel’s office of Insperity, Inc., headquartered in Houston.
She was graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and professional writing. Now she is enrolled at Tulsa University in a graduate-level executive class on health care delivery systems, taught by new TU President Gerry Clancy.
Ms. Blancett was a vice president with Thrifty Rent-a-Car for 12 years, director of strategic marketing for Williams Communications for two years, and deputy director of marketing and communications at the state Commerce Department when Kathy Taylor was Secretary of Commerce, Tourism, and Workforce Development.
She established the Blancett Group eight years ago. The organization is a consortium of digital and traditional marketers, public relations strategists, designers and web developers that offer large agency experience “packaged in a flexible and customizable solution that provides a more strategic and focused result.”
Ms. Blancett was named the “Professional of the Year” in 1996 by the Tulsa Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.
Forrest Bennett, HD 92: ‘Make sure the least among us aren’t forgotten’
Democrat Forrest Bennett, the new State Representative in House District 92 in south Oklahoma City, said his priorities at the State Capitol are to “fix our schools, bring jobs back for working families, and make sure the least among us aren’t forgotten.”
During his campaign, Bennett, 27, emphasized that he has worked since the age of 14. “First it was to pay the bills because my family fell on hard times. I was a waiter, I mowed lawns, I did what I could.” Then he worked his way through college.
After graduation “I tried to find jobs where I could help my community,” he wrote. “I worked on protecting our civil and constitutional rights. I worked to protect our neighborhoods. And I worked to improve our schools and empower parents.” Next, he taught in the classroom, “where I saw that there is so much more work to do – within our schools and outside of them – to make our city and state better.”
Ultimately, Bennett said, he realized that “the best way, the most direct way, to help make things better here is to work where the decisions are made.” That’s why he ran for a seat in the Legislature.
The new state lawmaker attended the University of Oklahoma, where he received a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2012 and earned a master’s in public administration this year. In addition, while in grad school he taught federal government classes to OU freshmen students.
Source: Press release from the Oklahoma Democratic Caucus