SD 34, J.J. Dossett, Dana Prieto
Democratic Sen. J.J. Dossett, left, is defending his State Senate District 34 seat against Republican Dana Prieto, right, in Oklahoma's general election Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. (NonDoc)

The battle for Senate District 34 in the Owasso area is expected to be the closest State Senate race in Oklahoma’s Nov. 8 general election, and questions about the education sector highlight a difference between the two candidates. Beyond that, however, the outcome in SD 34 will also affect an internal Senate battle for leader of the Legislature’s upper chamber.

After winning a January 2016 special election, current Sen. J.J. Dossett (D-Owasso) is the closest thing to a “rural Democrat” in the Oklahoma State Senate. SD 34 runs along the east edge of Tulsa, covering the heart of Owasso and jutting west to the town of Sperry. When Dossett came up reelection in 2018, no one filed against him.

Back then, Dana Prieto was running in a Republican primary for Senate District 36, a race he lost to now-Sen. John Haste (R-Broken Arrow). Four years later, Prieto won the SD 34 Republican primary over Brad Peixotto this June, leading him to a November matchup against Dossett in a seat that leans Republican by voter registration but that could remain in Dossett’s control owing to his family’s deep ties to Owasso’s education community.

“It’s not just that folks knew me from my (time teaching) school, it’s that folks knew me when I was a little kid,” Dossett said. “All politics is local, and I can get Democrats, Republicans and Independents to support me. I’ve never been an overly partisan person.”

Prieto, on the other hand, considers himself “very conservative” and on the “far right,” a political position that could make him a swing vote in a subsequent and lesser-known election if he defeats Dossett: the Republican Senate Caucus’ vote for president pro tempore, or the leader of the body.

Greg Treat, the current president pro tempore from Oklahoma City, has been challenged in his caucus by Sen. Rob Standridge of Norman. The paramount yet private vote is expected to occur after the Nov. 8 election and before the end of the year, but it’s unlikely that many SD 34 resident even know that electing Prieto would increase the caucus vote count and place him in a position to affect the outcome.

“That sounds like a Kafka-esque world,” Prieto said with a laugh. “People get thrown into these situations where they know nothing, and they are you like, ‘Which one are you: the left or the right?’ And it’s like, ‘Left or right of what?’”

Prieto said he only recently learned of the campaign between Treat and Standridge, which he said could explain why Treat called him recently to “get together.”

“I didn’t even know that was happening,” Prieto said.

‘All different kinds of people’

Four members of the Oklahoma State Senate won reelection Tuesday, June 28, 2022. (Michael Duncan)

The inner-caucus drama of the Oklahoma State Senate is not the only thing Prieto has learned while seeking office this year. Campaigning in a general election, for instance, is different than running in a Republican primary.

“In the primary, it was just like, ‘Hey, I’m the one who is most like Trump.’ And everybody was like, ‘OK, great. We’ll vote for you then,’” Prieto said. “But in the general election, that’s not the case. So I guess if anything I’m learning to work with all different kinds of people.”

Dossett said his six years representing SD 34 in the State Senate have offered him similar wisdom.

“I speak for the people. I’m going to do what my constituents want. If that’s clear to me, then it’s always been easy for me,” Dossett said, noting that his executive assistant keeps tallies for constituent phone calls and emails regarding controversial bills. “Doing what’s right? Hopefully those two things align. But I will always speak for the people who send me to Oklahoma City.”

That is always easier said than done, however, particularly with polarized politics in Oklahoma and nationally.

“That’s the beauty of the job,” Dossett said. “The 83,000 folks I speak for, they don’t all agree on everything. But people who disagree with me, whether they are far left or far right, I still have the conversation, and we still talk about what we do agree on.”

Dossett, 38, said he tried to have that conversation with Prieto directly after he filed against him.

“I honestly don’t know much about him. I don’t have anything negative or positive to say about him,” Dossett said of Prieto. “He’s from New York, I saw. I don’t know much about him, so I can’t tell you much about him. He’s not from here, and he wouldn’t have a conversation with me.”

Prieto, 65, grew up in western New York and ran a floor cleaning company before moving to Oklahoma in 1991 to attend Rhema Bible College in Broken Arrow. He worked for motivational speakers and sales trainers for years before entering the digital marketing industry, with an emphasis on search engine optimization and, subsequently, website development.

“I’m not a politician. I’m a business person, so I tend to see everything from a business perspective,” Prieto said. “For instance, profit has become a bad word, but profit is what makes the world go ‘round, in my view.”

Prieto’s journey from a business person to a prospective politician making a second effort at elected office started because the sister of Sen. Nathan Dahm (R-Broken Arrow) asked Prieto’s wife whether Prieto might want to go door-to-door to help Dahm on the campaign trail.

“I said, ‘Nah, that’s crazy. I don’t want to do that.’ My wife said, ‘You have such strong feelings, why don’t you go help him and see what you think?’ So I went and helped him one night, and I said, ‘Hey, I can go three nights a week and two Saturdays a month. I ended up liking it a real lot, and so his sister said, ‘You ought to run for office’”

Prieto finished third in the 2018 GOP primary for SD 36, a seat that Haste ultimately won. In the 2020 redistricting process, the Collinsville and Skiatook areas were removed from SD 34, but a few precincts in Broken Arrow and Tulsa were added.

“I had a couple senators ask me, they said — when they gerrymandered it and put us up against Owasso — they said, ‘Hey, would you take this guy out?’’ So I said alright, that’s what I’m going to do,” Prieto said, laughing and expressing some political cynicism about how district lines are drawn. “I’ve been told that when it’s the Republicans who gerrymandered it, it’s called redistricting. If it’s the Democrats, then it’s called gerrymandering. Or vice-versa, depending on your party.”

Eyes on education

Despite the changes to SD 34, Dossett’s hometown of Owasso remains the district’s population base, and he is relying on his roots to keep him planted in office. Dossett’s father was the principal at Owasso High School for 29 years, and his mother taught special education at the elementary level and swimming lessons in the community.

After deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and other trips around the globe as a member of the 138th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard, Dossett returned to Owasso and became an educator himself, teaching world and medieval history while serving as an assistant basketball coach. In a coincidence that has put Owasso’s legislative representation in the best possible position to beat a full-court press in the Oklahoma Legislature, Dossett’s head coach was Mark Vancuren, who was elected to the Oklahoma House as a Republican in 2018.

“What is the defense giving us? Where is the defense weak?” Dossett joked when asked how basketball is analogous to politics. “I would say there are some layups to be had right here. Like this school choice thing and these vouchers. It’s clear that Oklahomans don’t want that.”

During this year’s legislative session, the State Senate’s top drama involved SB 1647, a proposal by Treat to create some variation of a voucher program that would provide parents with public funding to assist with private school tuition and other education expenses. Dossett voted against the proposal and referenced the saga of Epic Youth Services when asked about his position.

“Beyond even the idea of school vouchers, looking at mainly Epic, I don’t think we are ready to send more unaccounted-for money into the education realm and hope for better outcomes. Because once we send unaccounted money off the grid, we have seen what happens to it,” Dossett said. “It’s pretty straightforward and pretty easy. Oklahomans, in general, support their public schools, and they don’t want to send their tax dollars off the grid to where they aren’t sure if that money is educating kids or not.”

Prieto, said he has been learning about the concept of school vouchers — and, more broadly, school choice efforts — which he called a complicated topic that should require a great deal of discussion to get the details right.

“You can’t just say, ‘Oh, we’re going to do vouchers!'” Prieto said. “One of the problems that the Republicans had with the vouchers was that it would have still been federal decisions being made over homeschooling [children]. That’s why so many Republicans were against it, and Greg Treat tried to take that out of there to get it to pass, but they were still too leery of it, and that’s why I’m more in favor of a tax credit, which would be more like a medical savings account.”

Asked if he thinks a tax credit system for school choice would still result in fewer dollars going to a local school district, Prieto called that “a good question.”

“I think technically it does, because you would be taking money out of a public school,” Prieto said. “But there should be less students in the school, too.”

Prieto, whose website lists 117 of Dossett’s votes on a “time for change” page, said he has not fully made his mind up on any specific education proposal because he feels the issues are complicated and he has a lot to learn.

“If the state ran on business principles we’d be in a lot better shape. So when you dial that down to schools, if you had tax credits for schools, you would put schools in competition, which is a good thing in my opinion,” he said. “But tax credits are not necessarily the answer either because it doesn’t help inner-city kids who live in apartments.”

Prieto pointed to Oklahoma’s high number of school districts — more than 500 — as a concern about administrative bloat in the public education sector. By comparison, Florida has about 70 districts.

“As a business person, you look at that and say, ‘Wait a minute, what is going on?’” Prieto said. “I have to look at that and say, ‘What is Florida doing that it is costing them far, far less per student?’”

While Prieto was referring to administrative costs per school district, three different rankings about “per-pupil spending” by state show that Florida spends about $1,000 more per student than Oklahoma.

Dossett said Oklahoma needs to increase its spending on public education.

“The biggest problem we face — at least one of the top three — is our teacher shortage. It’s national. It’s not just us,” Dossett said. “But we traditionally underinvest in that category (and) that makes it worse here than in surrounding states.”

Dossett said Oklahoma made gains with significant education investments in 2018, 2019 and 2021, but he found this year’s legislative session disappointing.

“This year, we put zero new dollars into the school funding formula,” he said. “I’m frustrated that it has come to a halt. Something like funding the public school has to be something you do every year.”

In 2018, the Oklahoma Legislature struck a historic bipartisan agreement to raise taxes for a dramatic increase in school funding and two straight years of teacher pay raises. The deal was struck and passed into law days before a planned teacher walkout, which Dossett said should not be required for lawmakers to meet local school needs.

Still, Dossett’s praise of the historic 2018 school funding agreement — and any criticism for it raising voters’ taxes — lands a bit awkwardly because he actually voted against the funding measure.

“At the time, educators and education supporters wanted to be part of that conversation,” said Dossett, whose sister, Jo Anna was elected to Tulsa’s SD 35 in 2020. “They did what they thought was right to avoid having conversations with educators. I wanted educators at the table. I didn’t like how that went down. We needed to wait until the next week.”

Prieto said he is trying to learn as much as he can about the various topics on which he would have to vote as senator, including education. To that end, he said he recently met with former state superintendent of public instruction candidate Linda Murphy, whom he called a wealth of information and experience.

“As a business person, what I do is try to get in touch with people like that,” he said, emphasizing an interest in keeping an open mind. “People ask me at the door, ‘What are your plans when you get in?’ I say, ‘My plans? Absolutely nothing. My plan is to get in, listen and vote right.’”

Prieto said he has become a supporter of state superintendent of public instruction candidate Ryan Walters and agrees with the concept of supporting “parental rights.” He said he appreciates Gov. Kevin Stitt, saying he “really likes” about 85 percent of Stitt’s actions.

Dossett, meanwhile, has been a critic of the Stitt administration. But asked his thoughts on the gubernatorial election, he declined to say whom he supports for governor or state superintendent of public instruction.

“I’m not supporting nobody but myself. That’s how I keep politics local here. The only person I’m asking my constituents to vote for is me. They can make all those other decisions for themselves,” Dossett said. “I will be voting, and I will be picking who I think is best for the job, but I don’t go around and tell people when I’m running for office who I think they should be voting for besides me. I think a lot of people appreciate that, honestly.”