SD 35
From left to right, Democrat Jo Anna Dossett and Republican Cheryl Baber are competing for Tulsa's Senate District 35 in the November 2020 election. (Provided)

Touted as the most contested legislative seat in the state, Senate District 35 will see new leadership this fall after Sen. Gary Stanislawski (R-Tulsa) terms out, ending a 12 year career in office. SD 35 voters will have the choice between Republican Cheryl Baber and Democrat Jo Anna Dossett on Nov. 3.

Sandwiched between Harvard Street and the Arkansas River, SD 35 includes much of south-central Tulsa. The voter composition of this urban area has changed in recent years, something both candidates are acutely aware of.

“The demographics have changed over the last 12 years and certainly over the last 20 years for this district,” Baber said. “It is going to be a lot closer and a lot more difficult for a Republican to win it and to hang on to it because of the way that the demographics have changed and how much growth there has been in the southern part of this district.”

Baber won the Republican primary runoff election against Kyle Creekpaum with 53.5 percent of the vote and is now facing off against Dossett in November. Dossett won the Democratic primary with 57.2 percent and is hoping to flip the seat blue after two decades of Republican control.

 “The voter registration in the district still favors Republicans, but their voting behavior over the past four years or so is indicating that voters are retaining their Republican voter registration but voting for Democrats,” Dossett said. “It’s purple.” 

Dossett is a life-long teacher in Oklahoma from a family of educators and said she is ready to advocate for education, health care, and criminal justice. Her brother, Sen. J.J. Dossett (D-Owasso), currently represents SD 34 in Tulsa and has since 2016. This is Jo Anna Dossett’s first campaign for political office.

Baber is a self-proclaimed conservative Republican and is aiming to uphold conservative values in Oklahoma. She has been endorsed by Stanislawski, who won SD 35 in 2016 with 65 percent of the vote. In 2018, Baber ran for House District 71, a district covering largely the same area of Tulsa as SD 35. Baber lost to Rep. Denise Brewer (D-Tulsa) with 43.9 percent of the vote.

Oklahoma Senate District 35
Oklahoma’s State Senate District 35 hugs the Arkansas River. (Oklahoma State Election Board)

Pivotal platform points: Education and the economy

Education, health care and criminal justice top Dossett’s priorities regarding campaign issues.

“The big frontier in education in Oklahoma is classroom funding,” Dossett said during a phone interview. “We need to make class sizes smaller, and we need to give teachers the tools they need. We need to resist defunding through privatization tactics.”

Baber cited her top two issues as the economy in a post-COVID-shutdown society and public safety.

“We have to get our economy moving again, going again, growing again,” Baber said by phone. “I’ve worked on a wide variety of cases involving businesses and for government agencies. I think that background will enable me to get up to speed quickly on legislation at the Capitol that involves jump-starting this economy.”

Having grown up on a farm and ranch in Walters, Oklahoma, Baber set out to attend Columbia Law School in New York City. After earning her juris doctorate, she settled in Tulsa and began working in business and commercial litigation and later as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Oklahoma. Since then, Baber has helped with pro-bono, volunteer work for Tulsa Lawyers for Children, an organization that represents children in foster care.

Dossett is from Owasso and prides herself in being from a family of life-long teachers in the public education experience in Oklahoma. After serving in the Peace Corps, Dossett earned a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language and has taught in the Tulsa metro since 2005. Following the 2008 recession, Dossett began her work in education advocacy. A member of her local and state teachers association, Dossett has spent the past six years knocking on doors and lobbying legislators to advocate for the teaching profession.

“There was a critical point when I said, ‘Well, we need to fill this seat with someone that’s going to build up public education and not tear it down. We literally cannot afford it anymore.’ And I decided to run,” Dossett said.

Baber said she hopes to honor the system of capitalism “that has created the most affluent society in history and on Earth,” advocating that governments should be limited and markets should be free. She also referenced Gov. Kevin Stitt’s announcement that Oklahoma is ranked No. 10 in the United States for lowest unemployment rate as of Sept. 18 and expressed commitment to keep unemployment low. 

In 2008, the recession hit Oklahoma’s public education system hard. Prior to the recession, Dossett said her school could afford to help fund her master’s degree, but she said the post-recession school systems could barely afford basic classroom necessities. Oklahoma education funding cuts topped national charts with a 23.6 percent decrease in funding per student. Dossett said her own ESL classroom caseload jumped from 35 to 100 students per year. Dossett explained that with schools adapting to remote learning owing to COVID-19, teachers need additional funding for technology and professional development.

“It comes down on teachers to provide in-person lessons, sometimes at risk to their own safety, as well as virtual content,” Dossett said. “You can’t get to the academics until you meet their basic needs, and so much is coming down on teachers.”

In regards to public safety, Baber aims to continue working toward a sense of security and order that respects the rule of law. Using her experience in the legal field, she plans to work on legislation that will maintain strong stances against violent offenders but reduce incarceration rates through fair sentencing. Her safety and security plan also prioritizes deporting undocumented immigrants who violate the law.

“I think people are really wanting that sense of safety and security that the government plays such an important role in providing,” Baber said. 

Regarding health care, Dossett believes all Oklahomans should have access to affordable health care, including mental health services. Oklahoma ranks second in the nation for uninsured citizens and is one of the bottom three states regarding overall health. Dossett also plans to work on policy to decrease “our embarrassing, crisis-level high” incarceration rates and eliminate cash bail for non-violent crimes.

“If you’re a part of the super majority, it’s very difficult not to tow the super majority line. If you’re a part of the super minority, you have to be so acutely tuned into your constituency and you have to be truly representative of them and their needs,” Dossett said. “We are people-focused and policy-based.” 

Although not discussed in the interview, Baber’s website also cites infrastructure, taxation and energy as being top issues. Baber is advocating for the maintenance of road and waterways, “pro-growth tax relief” and the “exploitation of all energy resources so that more jobs are created.”

“I have always had a heightened interest in politics,” Baber said. “After Barack Obama got elected in 20212, I thought, ‘Well, this is a good time for me to step away from a legal career and get involved in politics to do what I can to secure the future for my kids.’”

Mailers and mudslinging create campaign tension

Throughout the Republican primary, tensions rose between Baber and Kyden Creekpaum, her runoff opponent. Baber and Creekpaum spent more than $350,000 combined as of the Republican runoff primary election, and aggressive mailers saturated the homes of the Tulsa area.

Ahead of the June 30 primary, Baber approved mailers calling Creekpaum a “DC leftist,” but many other mailers arrived at residents’ doorsteps via anonymous groups, vying for or discrediting either opponent. Tensions did not stop after the runoff. On Sept. 18, someone vandalized Baber’s property, painting a red swastika in her driveway

“The difficult thing for me is and has been to recover from a primary and a runoff that were very contentious,” Baber said. “I think a lot of people got the wrong idea of who I am and what I stand for. I’m doing my best to win back those voters that were misinformed.”

In an effort to adapt to the mudslinging, Baber’s campaign ran a TV commercial to “show voters a positive view” of who she is in juxtaposition to the negative mailers. Meanwhile, a dark-money group issued mailers attacking Creekpaum and another spent $85,00 working against Baber. In her interview with NonDoc, Baber denounced certain mailers and the dark-money groups that had issued such content.

“A lot of people still don’t understand that the campaign finance laws are such that candidates can’t have coordination, collusion, or communication really with any of those committees,” Baber said, reiterating her concern about the runoff election. “They have been more harmful than helpful in some ways.”

As of a Sept. 17 Ethics Commission report, Baber’s campaign had spent more than $150,000 in 2020.

Dossett has also had her fair share of run-ins with mailers. The Oklahoma MAGA Coalition released mailers claiming that Dossett “stands with antifa” and wants to bring “lawlessness” to Oklahoma. On Sept. 21, a new mailer campaign hit doorsteps featuring caricatures of her children, which she says is “mocking to mothers” and damaging to the public. Amidst the turmoil, Dossett says she is committed to staying “laser focused” to the platform and path to November. 

“At the end of the day, that mail was just racist, fear-mongering, and escalatory,” Dossett said. “But money poured in after that mailer.”

As of a Sept. 14 Ethics Commission report, Dossett’s campaign finances tally to more than $83,000.

A difference in backgrounds: The legal field vs. the classroom

In regards to her opponent, Baber said Dossett is a “delightful woman” and that she respects Dossett’s career in teaching. Baber sees the primary difference between her and Dossett to be their backgrounds, specifically hers in law and Dossett’s in education. 

Dossett declined to comment on her opponent but said she has the hands-on experience to provide people-based policy for her potential constituents.

“I think that (education advocacy experience) will be incredibly valuable on the Senate floor,” Dossett said. “I have a lot of hands-on experience sitting down across the table from folks, hammering out negotiations together.”

Baber said she has the proper experience to lead America onto a better path.

“It’ll be easier for me to get up to speed on legislation because of that background,” Baber said. “It’s no longer a safe seat, as people used to say it might be. I still think I have the advantage.”

When declining to comment on Baber, Dossett said her campaign goal is to focus on the topics of education, health care and criminal justice relentlessly, but she acknowledged other issues plaguing the public.

“This spring and summer was such a turbulent time with COVID-19, the murder of Breonna Taylor, the murder of George Floyd (…) I’ve been reeling from all of that in my own personal way just like every person,” Dossett said. “But for campaign purposes, I stuck really hard to those three issues.”

The SD 35 election will be decided Nov. 3.