Oklahoma House District 20 Republicans will vote one week from today in a runoff-primary between a conservative firebrand incumbent and a political newcomer largely motivated by education issues. In interviews for this story, both candidates described the race as tense in nature.
Sherrie Conley, 54, lives in Newcastle and has been an educator for 26 years, with 15 years of classroom instruction experience. Rep. Bobby Cleveland (R-Slaughterville) is a retired businessman with experience in marketing and sales.
The winner will face Democrat Steve Jarman in the November general election.
In an interview with NonDoc, Conley repeatedly discussed what she described as Cleveland’s attempts to “paint me as a liberal.”
“I am not for tax-and-spend. I am as conservative as they come,” Conley said. “I work hard for my money, and I want to hang onto it as much as the next guy does. And so for him to try and paint me as a tax-and-spend liberal is kind of crazy, actually.”
Conley went out of her way to say she is not in favor of socialized medicine and believes health care should remain private. Like Cleveland, she also discussed her commitment to the Second Amendment.
“I am an NRA member. My husband is an NRA member,” Conley said. “I am not against the Second Amendment. I am actually for constitutional carry. Where (my opponent is) getting this information about me being against the Second Amendment, I have no idea.”
In his interview with NonDoc, the 74-year-old Cleveland elaborated on the race, which he called “a little dirtier than what I’ve been around.”
“I’ve had a lot more signs stolen this time than I’ve ever had stolen,” he said. “(On Facebook) I’ve been called the devil, an S.O.B. It’s just real childish, very childish things. Something like teenagers would be doing.”
The candidates both discussed their motivations for running, their campaign strategies and their policy goals. Each discussed education, with Cleveland brushing off criticism from Conley and positioning himself as a proponent for increasing classroom funding while opposing the raising of revenue to do so.
“We do need to get more money to the classroom. I’m all for that, any way we can. I think we need to get more money to the teachers as we go along. But I also think when we do that we ought to do it based on merit,” Cleveland said.
Conley discussed her professional experiences as motivation for attempting to oust Cleveland.
“It started in 2016 when all the budget cuts became so deep that I could tell it was affecting my classroom more and more,” Conley said. “Since 2008, when the budget cuts started, I could tell it was making a difference because you would go into the offices at the school and say, ‘Hey, I need this or this,’ and they would say, ‘Oh, we don’t have that anymore.'”
Sherrie Conley cautious on teacher-pay package
Conley expressed concern about dwindling resources for classrooms, but also raised questions about the large number of emergency certified teachers in Oklahoma.
“My greatest concern is the teacher situation,” Conley said. “I have said this many, many times that those 1,900 emergency certified teachers that are in those classrooms, while they are educated, a majority of them are not trained in education.”
Conley said emergency certified teachers are not trained to manage classrooms or identify childhood trauma.
“That equates to over 44,000 children who are being taught by someone who, unfortunately, doesn’t know what they’re doing,” she said.
Conley said she supports STEM and STEAM career education programs to ensure Oklahomans can remain employed in the face of growing workforce automation.
“We’ve got to do something now with our education system and with the curriculum and requirements we have in our schools in order to make sure that those kids graduating from college or from junior college or from high school, that those kids will be able to find a job,” Conley said.
While Cleveland was one of 19 legislators to vote against HB 1010XX, this year’s revenue bill that funded teacher pay raises, Conley expressed hesitation over whether she would have voted for the measure herself. Asked repeatedly about HB 1010XX, Conley ultimately said she would have voted for the package only if she could have proven there was no money already available for teacher raises.
“What I understand is they didn’t know that money was there after they voted for the pay raise,” Conley said. “So, it just depends on the circumstances. I can’t say ‘Yes, I would have voted for it,’ or ‘No, I wouldn’t have voted for it.’ If I had known there was money there, I would have worked on getting that money for the teachers. So, you can’t really say ‘Yes, I would have’ or ‘No, I wouldn’t have’ because of what the circumstances might have been.”
Bobby Cleveland wants raises, not taxes
First elected in 2013, Cleveland defended his vote against HB 1010XX and said most people in his district appreciated his opposition to higher taxes.
“I got that bill at 5:30. That bill was 50 pages long,” Cleveland said. “I did not get a chance — I got other bills as well that I was supposed to read and be prepared to vote on when session started. At 6:30, they call us to the floor.”
Cleveland talked about the issues that have been important to his re-election campaign. He said his main focus was to deal with the “waste we have in government.”
“The (Oklahoma State) Department of Education needs to be audited for sure,” Cleveland said. “I think there’s a lot of waste inside the schools, but I’m in favor of consolidation of superintendents.”
Cleveland discussed the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, saying the dollar pay raise for state employees funded by HB 1010XX was not enough for corrections officers.
“We’ve got to do something about our Department of Corrections and the pay for our correctional officers,” he said. “It’s a dangerous job these corrections officers have, and we’re having a hard time keeping — or even hiring — corrections officers at $13-an-hour.”
Despite voting against multiple revenue packages in recent years, Cleveland said he wants to try and get more money the Department of Corrections and for counties.
“When it comes to roads and bridges, we have robbed money from our counties the past couple of years,” he said. “I think it’s time to get that money back to them so we can get these roads and bridges fixed in our counties.”
Cleveland said the Oklahoma Second Amendment Association and the National Rifle Association have both endorsed him. He added that he has an “A+” rating from the NRA and a 100 percent rating from Right to Life, an anti-abortion group.
“I’m not for killing babies, and I’m not ashamed of it,” Cleveland said.
Cleveland also emphasized his role as a servant, calling himself a “lobbyist of the people.”
“I get phone calls all hours of the night, from all over the state because people’s representatives won’t help them, and they know I will,” Cleveland said.
He told the story of how he helped a constituent deal with a salesman who had been unwilling to replace a new washing machine that was not working.
In the June primary, Cleveland received 43 percent of the vote compared to Conley’s 16.6 percent. The runoff-primary will be on Aug. 28.