political middle
Republican candidates for Oklahoma commissioner of labor participated in a debate June 6, 2018, at the Tower Theatre in Oklahoma City. (Michael Duncan)

Having lived in Los Angeles as an actor and assistant to a screenwriter and producer – and then having lived in southwest Kansas as a farmhand – I had the unique and fortunate chance to experience the liberal, vocal minority as well as the conservative, silent majority of our beautiful nation (and, of course, every shade in between).

In L.A., I regularly witnessed gregarious, eloquent, driven, socially minded people moving the rights, causes and political beliefs for which they stood forward. They openly wore their politics as a badge. In Kansas, the quiet, private, spartan and hospitable citizens mostly only offered political color with colloquialisms or offhand remarks, usually with the result of establishing a “we’re all in this together” type of vibe. Their ideologies, though strong, manifested as campaign signs that privately adorned the insides of their garages.

I recently moved back to the Oklahoma City metro area. One of the deciding factors in returning was to immerse myself in state government with the aim of better understanding and improving politics in my home state. That’s why the recent Labor Omnia Vincit: A Labor Commissioner Debate was a rewarding learning opportunity as well. Considering my prior absence from the state, I had no idea what to expect from this debate.

Civility reigns among same-party candidates

I arrived an hour early. These 60 minutes proved to be the calm before a storm that never really came. The civility of the evening’s proceedings was impressive. Maybe this was the result of party-affiliate camaraderie, the good ol’ strategy of “don’t shit where you eat,” if you will. Maybe the candidates just wanted make the experience as painless as possible.

For those of us with the Republican Presidential Primaries still fresh in our minds (or recent national politics in general), it was a refreshing display of cordiality, to say the least. No one needed to defend their mother’s honor. No one’s family was accused of helping assassinate President John F. Kennedy. No candidate’s genitalia size was called into question.

Instead, the candidates generally agreed on most topics. In the current climate of U.S. politics, it was a veritable slumber party pillow fight. In fact, the most lively and heated interactions came from the crowd. This could’ve been due in part to the fact the theater was serving drinks, but I think more than likely it was a byproduct of the audience naturally dividing itself into cheering sections for their respective candidates.

The turnout, while slightly testy, was exciting. Especially for something as politically inside baseball as a labor commissioner debate might be. I ran into some old friends who described a prior sheriff’s debate as being “packed.” This I also found heartening. It was inspiring to return to Oklahoma and find our community, both young and old, liberal and conservative, active in the politics of our state.

Attendee’s resolve offers hope for crawling toward the middle

Possibly the brightest spot of the evening was a chance meeting with a woman who works in child welfare. Though her job working day in and day out for the betterment of the children of our state was rewarding, she said it made it hard to motivate herself to immerse herself in politics when her work day was done. Despite this difficulty, she conveyed that a determination to better understand and hold accountable the state for glaring issues that she and her colleagues see brought her there that night. Immediately, it reminded me of those Californians I mentioned earlier. Perhaps the Democratic Primary Debate for Labor Commissioner, set for Friday, June 15, will prove as promising and hopeful as her resolve.

With Gov. Mary Fallin’s approval of recent legislation such as SB 1140, your own hope for compassion and progress within the politics of the Sooner State may be low — and understandably so. It’s clear to me, however, that while Oklahoma may be unable to run or even walk toward the political middle, it can crawl. I believe that, though the state is admittedly nowhere near where I would necessarily prefer, progress toward a more reasonable, practical and beneficial government for all Oklahomans is within sight — if we want to get there.