Wednesday night at the Oklahoma State Capitol, I learned a lot about my personal privilege.
As a proud member of the underpaid media, it was not until I had wandered to the people’s house with a Let’s Fix This pub crawl that I realized how much behavioral leeway I typically have that “regular people” apparently don’t.
For instance, did you know that citizens are not allowed to record smartphone video of their legislators from the House gallery? I had forgotten that rule because I’ve always been able to identify myself as a journalist and strike some compromise about where I can stand to capture footage of the People’s Business.
Wednesday night, however, a humble Sergeant At Arms gently asked me to stop recording Rep. John Bennett (R-Sallisaw) as he passionately pontificated on food-stamp beneficiaries buying steaks and Red Bull at a Sequoyah County Wal-Mart.
I intentionally avoided claiming media privilege with the gentleman. I also resisted the temptation to walk 10 feet to my right and stand at the permanent TV-camera mount. I was trying to blend in as an Average Joe, with his shirt untucked and a beer in his belly.
Meanwhile, I wondered if Bennett knew that funny little cars actually drive around to dispense free Red Bulls.
Bennett was debating in favor of HB 1270 (embedded below), a bill requiring the Oklahoma Health Care Authority and Oklahoma Department of Human Services to “verify” various pieces of information about the eligibility of Medicaid or food-stamp applicants. In Bennett’s eyes, the bill was a righteous attack on all the fake deadbeats and faux single moms out there. You know, freeloaders who are sucking that fat government teat of Medicaid and SNAP to their own affluence and the state’s budget-busting detriment.
So I’m standing in line at Wal-Mart the other day, and I notice that the people checking out in front of me are buying all of the top-of-the-line stuff. They were buying steaks, they had Red Bulls. They had all kinds of stuff in their cart, and it was overflowing. Which, you know, is not a surprise that people would enjoy higher-end stuff or high-quality stuff. That’s fine.
However, I was surprised when I saw those same people paid for those items with their welfare card. As I’m watching them put their costly items in their cart, I looked down at my own cart. My wife and I, we’ve got five kids, there’s seven of us we’ve got to feed, and we’ve got to set a budget for our groceries and our toiletries every single month. (…) I couldn’t help but think, something’s not right about that.
And then you walk out into the parking lot and, guess what, they get in a brand new Denali! Something ain’t right. So here I am buying the cheap items trying to stay within my budget while they’re buying all the best on my dime. How is that fair?
‘The lying liberal media’
While I had succeeded in feeling what it was like to visit the Capitol as an Average Joe with Let’s Fix This, Bennett’s reference to what is “fair” made me bothered by the chamber’s videography rules. Why should media have extra rights above those available to all?
Bennett, for one, dislikes media as much as he dislikes social-program leeches.
“Why should our money fund someone else’s lifestyle when they refuse to work?” Bennett asked in his debate. “Before you say it — and no doubt, the lying liberal media is going to say, ‘Well, he’s being unfair because he’s got a nice car or a nice house.’ Somehow, they’re going to say that somehow I don’t have a right to say anything about somebody who’s on welfare or talk about people who are poor. Well, let me tell you a little something about John Bennett. I grew up poor. Dirt poor. We were so poor we couldn’t even pay attention we were so poor.”
Ironically, Bennett seemed right about common people lacking the agency to “pay attention.” Aside from Let’s Fix This’s presence of about 15 people, the House gallery held only a half-dozen spectators for the conclusion of HB 1270’s two-hour consideration.
It was well after 9 p.m. Parents of young children were surely home. Bedtime stood on the horizon.
‘This is dumbfounding’
After Bennett and bill author Rep. Elise Hall (R-OKC) concluded debate in favor of HB 1270, House Minority Leader Scott Inman (D-Del City) offered a critique in opposition. He ran through his usual laundry list of state policies that benefit wealthy Oklahomans and large corporations, saying he had always thought those were the main drains on state finances.
“I could have sworn that’s what it was. But tonight, Mr. Speaker, I got an education. My eyes have been opened. The light has shone down upon us,” Inman said. “The reason our public school children are suffering; the reason the University of Oklahoma has five million fewer dollars this year than it did in 1999; the reason our public safety system is staffed at 65 percent and incarcerated at 110 percent; the reason isn’t because of all those other things I’ve seen with my own eyes in the last 11 years. No, it’s because there’s some poor guy driving around in a Denali!”
The chamber echoed with laughter.
“Holy cow,” Inman said. “Or it’s that poor family — apparently at the Wal-Mart in Sequoyah County — who, after they shopped for their $75 worth of groceries with a SNAP card, got on an airplane and flew to Hawaii. This is dumbfounding. It’s just dumbfounding.”
Inman continued his righteous indignation. He hammered home his message about what poor people really need, and it had all the passion and fire necessary for a great campaign spot until he awkwardly uttered the phrase “a set of Twinkies” as a punchline.
Still, the potential gubernatorial candidate impressed much of the Let’s Fix This crowd, leading one woman to ask a telling question: “Who is that guy?”
When debate concluded and the voting bell tolled, Let’s Fix This director Andy Moore and I walked around the gallery to watch the scoreboard. The bill passed 63-25 along mostly party lines. Rep. Carol Bush (R-Tulsa), Rep. Marcus McEntire (R-Duncan) and Rep. Katie Henke (R-Tulsa) voted no.
Moore, a therapist, shook his head and said any bill making it harder for the low-income clients he sees to obtain Medicaid coverage will directly hurt children and families.
A constituent of co-author Hall’s, he called the bill a “travesty” on Twitter, which Hall questioned. Moore fired back:
People starving and losing healthcare IS a travesty. I deal with this every day. I’m surrounded by social workers who do this every day too https://t.co/3RDx60ydG7
— Andy Moore (@andyokc) March 23, 2017
And therein lies the purpose and value of Let’s Fix This, I suppose: The people most likely to be connected with low-income or even “Average Joe” Oklahomans are the Average Joes themselves. They are not high-priced lobbyists, and they are not even members of the media like me who can be blind to our own privilege.
Instead, they are often made to feel like the government is too powerful, confusing and off-limits for them to make a difference.
But that’s wrong. Public dollars pave the Capitol’s parking spaces.
Go park your Denali in one.