From a distance, Oklahoma Senate District 22 doesn’t look like friendly territory for Democrats hoping to wrest control of the seat from the GOP.
Former Sen. Stephanie Bice, now representing Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District, represented the district for six years after winning her 2014 race with 73 percent of the vote. Republicans have held the seat for decades.
But Democrats Dylan Billings and Molly Ooten see opportunity in SD 22, which spans Oklahoma and Canadian counties and includes parts of Edmond, Piedmont, Yukon and Oklahoma City.
A special general election to fill the seat, which was vacated by Bice’s election to Congress, will take place on April 6. But first, candidates will compete in primaries on Feb. 9. You can read about the Republican candidates here.
Here’s a look at the two people vying for the Democratic nomination. The candidates, who both spoke with NonDoc, are presented in alphabetical order.
Born and raised in Edmond, Billings graduated from Santa Fe High School and later studied at the University of Central Oklahoma and the University of Oklahoma, where he earned a Ph.D. in political science. He currently serves as a professor at Oklahoma State University.
Billings said he decided to run in part because of his own life experiences struggling economically.
“Many of our leaders are ignoring the struggles everyday Oklahomans are going through,” he said. “Having lived through those, having lived paycheck to paycheck, having to pay for medications out of pocket and having graduated from school with a mountain of debt, I understand those challenges.”
Billings said improving the state’s response to COVID-19 would be among his top priorities.
“The state hasn’t handled it well, and some parts of this district have the highest rate of infection in the entire state,” he said. “We need a mask mandate. We need laws that don’t set us back in terms of spreading the virus. We can do all of this while keeping schools open.”
Beyond the pandemic, Billings said the state’s education system, health-care system and employee rights were among his biggest priorities.
“A lot of the issues with K-12 really come down to the state and how it hasn’t funded our education system properly,” he said. “We’re still below Great Recession funding. We never really fully recovered from tax cuts in terms of funding education, and that’s why we’re among the lowest per-pupil in spending in the country.”
Billings has served on the Edmond Parks and Recreation Board and the city’s Capital Improvements Advisory Board. He said that experience has prepared him well for holding public office.
“With so many disasters piling up, there’s not much time for a learning curve,” he said.
Ooten has worked as a speech pathologist for Sooner Start, an early education intervention program. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Central Oklahoma.
Ooten said working with families and children for a state-run program inspired her to run for the State Senate.
“My experiences with families was one of the reasons I decided to run,” she said. “You see the obstacles and the problems. I’m like a dog with a bone when I find a problem. I have to see it through and find out why.”
Beyond controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, Ooten identified the state’s education and health-care systems as the two things she would focus on most as a state senator.
“Access to health care is really personal to me,” she said. “I have a brother with chronic epilepsy, and trying to get him covered and having to fight for disability has been eye-opening for me. I had a dear friend die from suicide because she lacked mental health care coverage and didn’t have money for a therapist.”
Ooten said boosting small businesses, especially during a pandemic, is another priority.
“My volunteer coordinator is the owner of a small business, and I have seen those struggles,” she said. “Watching what happened with the county CARES Act funds was concerning to me. I think during the pandemic it’s important to have legislators who will protect small businesses.”
Ooten said the ability to reach out to other legislators is another asset she would bring to the legislature.
“One of my strengths is my interpersonal skills, and that’s really important if you’re going to work with the other side in a minority party,” she said. “You have to be able to work together, and at times, compromise. Communication is my specialty.”