freshmen Democrats
Sen. Jo Anna Dossett, Rep. Jose Cruz, Rep. Mauree Turner share their transitions to office and how they're preparing to represent the 'super minority.' (NonDoc)

Freshmen Democrats Sen. Jo Anna Dossett (D-Tulsa), Rep. Jose Cruz (D-OKC) and Rep. Mauree Turner (D-OKC) are eager to work together and across partisan lines after their Nov. 3 victories.

Dossett defeated Republican Cheryl Baber in Tulsa’s contentious Senate District 35 race, winning with a narrow margin of 50.9 percent of the vote. House District 89’s seat was vacant during the 2020 legislative session after Rep. Shane Stone resigned, and Cruz defeated Republican challenger John Hutton in November, garnering 66.4 percent of the vote. Turner won a general election landslide with 71.4 percent of the vote after ousting House District 88 incumbent Democrat Jason Dunnington by 248 votes in June.

The first few weeks: transitions and constituent calls

Before being sworn in Nov. 17, Dossett resigned from her teaching position of 16 years as required by a statute prohibiting lawmakers from holding other state jobs. Teaching, she said, had become part of her identity, but the prospect of impacting the Oklahoma State Senate dulls the sting of nostalgia.

“There’s been sadness in the transition, but when we understand what our purpose and our responsibility is, we can take heart in that,” Dossett said. “Navigating this transition in a very interesting time has been challenging but inspiring (…) but here we are. It’s 2020.”

Calls of congratulations and COVID-19 concerns top the list of Dossett’s first few weeks of constituent talks. COVID-19 issues regarding in-person education, health care and Medicaid expansion seem to be most pressing, Dossett said.

Add wedding planning to the list and you have Cruz’s transition to being state representative. Unlike Dossett, Cruz is able to maintain his career as an attorney — at the same firm where Republican Rep. Chris Kannady works — but explained that he is winding down his cases in preparation for his first session. The biggest decision on his plate was whether to cancel his wedding reception because of COVID-19.

“We need to set an example,” Cruz explained, disheartened about the change of plans but acknowledging the severity of the pandemic.

He chuckled when asked about constituent calls, saying he had yet to get an office let alone receive constituent calls, but he is ready.

Turner said they have received constituent DMs — or direct messages on social media platforms — as opposed to calls. “The OG&E monopoly” tops concerns with Turner’s constituents currently.

“I represent central Oklahoma City, which seems like one of the hardest places hit by the ice storm we had a couple of weeks ago,” Turner said.

Oklahoma legislative session preparation

Jose Cruz
Jose Cruz, then a candidate for House District 89, speaks during a National Voter Registration Day event at Wheeler Park in Oklahoma City on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020.

Cruz and Turner attended the House Democratic Caucus retreat this November, and both feel that they will be ready for their first session. Within the caucus, Cruz opted to join the health care policy group.

“We have a super minority,” Cruz said, referring to the 82-19 split between Republicans and Democrats in the House. “Trying to figure out how best to proceed is what the last few days had been. It’s not intimidating, but it’s the big elephant in the room — no pun intended.”

Cruz said he and Turner — who has received significant national press coverage after being elected as the first nonbinary, Black, Muslim in Oklahoma — have stayed in contact since their campaign victories. He also hopes to work with House Republicans.

In preparation for the 2021 session, Turner is setting up meetings with attorneys and research groups to create legislation moving forward. Their biggest priority right now is “dusting off [my] Parli-pro and Mason’s rules.”

“I’ve got a cohort of really amazing people who are drafting some really progressive legislation,” Turner said.

Dossett anticipates that her first session will be dominated by COVID-19 response in terms of health and safety and economic recovery. All other legislation, Dossett said, will probably be seen through the lens of COVID-19.

“At this point, if anyone has any partisan ideas, that’s just not in the best interest of Oklahoma,” Dossett said. “We really do need to be finding collaborative ways to get ourselves through this crisis and all the underlying crises prior to COVID-19.”

Turner and Cruz both attributed their victories to igniting hope in constituents who may now feel seen or truly represented by their representatives.

Born in Mexico, Cruz is a naturalized U.S. citizen and speaks fluent Spanish. Cruz knocked on doors for 15 months in preparation for Nov. 3 and says he is proud to represent HD 89. Turner said their presence has “created a seat at the table” and that their community organizing during the past five years resonated with people.

“This campaign only works because the people work,” Turner said, commenting on how “people power” is too often neglected. “This campaign is restoring the voice of the people to the Capitol.”

Current congratulations, future collaborations

Cruz commended Turner’s community organizing and the work put in before the election. He said he is excited to work with both Turner and Dossett in the future.

“Sen. Dossett had a really tough race,” Cruz said. “She kept it really nice and civil with a smile on her face.”

All three expressed gratitude for their victories, congratulations to their fellow freshmen, and hope for the future of the Oklahoma Legislature. Despite pressing matters regarding COVID-19, the freshmen Democrats also remain committed to their original campaign platforms.

Dossett cited the teacher shortage and overcrowded prisons as crises Oklahoma faced prior to COVID-19. Both issues, she said, must not be put on the back-burner.

“I will remain intentional and focused on criminal justice reform,” Dossett said.

Just a handful of weeks into their new positions, all three freshmen say they are handling the transition well. Juggling COVID-19, wedding plans, offices that have yet to be established and constituent calls from the kitchen are all part of the process.

“Write it down in the memory book,” Dossett said, laughing. “When I started serving as a senator, the kids were here by my side, attending to their needs with virtual learning.”

Dossett, Cruz and Turner will begin their first regular session of the Oklahoma Legislature at noon on Feb. 1.