McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

Local News

June 19, 2014

Teachers mix primary colors

Pittsburg County educators, along with others statewide, switch their party affiliations to vote in the June 24 Primary Election

ENID (CNHI) — Buddy Wood always has been a Democrat. Always.

Just not now.

Like most voters in Beckham County, a rural plain that straddles Interstate 40 on the Texas line, Wood registered with the Democratic Party when it came time to vote. It’s a family tradition going back to when his father was in politics.

But as 2014’s election cycle approached, the Elk City superintendent wrestled with a decision that has crossed many educators’ minds this year. He checked the box to become one of Oklahoma’s newest Republicans.

“My dad would probably roll over in his grave,” Wood said last week.

It took about a second for him to rethink that statement.

“No, he wouldn’t, because he knows that I’m trying to make a good decision here,” he said. “I feel like the change that needs to be made from the state level is very necessary.”

Wood is one of dozens of superintendents who have become Republican in advance of the June 24 primary between incumbent Janet Barresi, Joy Hofmeister and Brian Kelly.

He plans to switch back after the election.

‘Somebody new’

Local superintendents aren’t alone when it comes to switching parties. An Enid News & Eagle study of teacher certification and voter data showed more than 1,200 educators re-registered with the GOP since May 2013.

That’s somewhere between one in six and one-fifth of all converts.

Lawton school district had the most number of teachers join the GOP, but Elk City came in second with 50, roughly 27 percent of their certified staff.

These figures do not include teachers who already were Republican or who weren’t registered to vote last year.

“I made the switch because I want to do what’s best for Oklahoma. And what’s best for Oklahoma is getting somebody new in that position of state superintendent of public instruction,” said Enid High School government teacher Matt Holtzen, who was one of seven in his district to switch.

Voting in the GOP primary, he said, will ensure better options come November.

“We’re the ones on the front lines. We’re the ones who see the impacts of the decisions made by our elected officials,” Holtzen said. “Teachers are the first to respond to any problems they see coming down the pike.”

As Oklahoma’s superintendent of public instruction, Barresi has sustained withering attacks from the education community since she was first elected four years ago. She’s led a State Department of Education that has been criticized for the way it implemented student testing and evaluated school districts. She now faces a well-funded primary opponent in Hofmeister, who described Barresi’s first term as a “reign of terror.”

“The morale in public education, in Elk City, is as low as I’ve ever seen it,” Wood said. “Ever. In 34 years.”

Hofmeister previously served on the state Board of Education. The other Republican in the race, Brian Kelly, is a longtime educator who lives in Edmond.

Barresi has maintained her commitment to improve education and says the changes in education policy have been to raise the bar and increase accountability. In February, she told an Enid News & Eagle reporter that policy changes are hard to accept.

“My primary opposition is focused on making adults happy,” she said.

Barresi’s campaign was asked to comment on this story but had not replied before deadline Saturday.

First chance

If non-GOP teachers were eager to oust Barresi, they could hypothetically do it at November’s general election.

In Byng, a small community north of Ada, Superintendent Todd Crabtree can’t wait that long.

“A lot of people are looking at it like they’ve got two opportunities” to vote against her, Crabtree said.

And if Barresi gets out of the primary intact, she would face one of four Democrats who altogether reported less money to spend than either Barresi or Hofmeister, according to their most recent finance reports. It’s also a year where Republicans could gain even more ground in the state Legislature. In turn, Crabtree said, he knows some Democrats who don’t want to risk Barresi reaching the general election.

“Some of the thought is that Oklahoma is going to vote Republican due to the anti-Obama movement. People are fearful that whoever wins the Republican primary will win in November because of straight-party voting,” he said.

Crabtree said chatter about switching parties came about organically — first at a meeting of public school administrators in June last year, then at a conference of the state’s school board association.

“We decided it was worth that to see if we could make a difference, because our people are just at the breaking point,” he said.

When he changed parties last fall, Crabtree handed out voter registration forms to each of his principals and anyone who asked. According to the analysis, 19 certified educators in his district converted.

Playing catch-up

Barresi has accused Hofmeister of consorting with Democrats and persuading them to switch parties for this election.

“We didn’t have to do anything to get people to switch parties,” the challenger replied when reached Thursday.

Hofmeister’s campaign plans on 280,000 people voting in the GOP primary, which is significantly more than the number of new Republicans. She said it probably won’t impact the race unless election night comes down to a photo finish.

“It’s going to take Republicans voting in order to really take on a sitting incumbent,” she said.

There is no guarantee Barresi is the only reason, or even the main reason for the number of teachers switching parties. For the past half century, Oklahoma has been known to harbor Democratic voters who want Republicans for major seats. The GOP didn’t win majorities in the state House and Senate until the past decade, and Barresi was in the first class of Republicans to hold every executive branch office.

“A lot of people have yet to change their registration, even though they consistently in the past several election cycles voted Republican,” said Brandon Lenoir, a visiting professor of political science at Oklahoma State University. “Some of what you’re seeing, I have to assume, is people catching up with their voting pattern.”

Lenoir cited the importance of this month’s primary election as a reason why voters would make the switch. Along with the superintendent’s race, Oklahoma Republicans across the state will nominate two U.S. Senate candidates and a governor.

When a primary voter looks at their candidates, he said, they will first draw toward one they like best. As it gets to crunch time, though, they’ll consider viability. Lenoir said polls of the superintendent race have bounded around with no clear favorite.

“[Barresi’s] got a fight on her hands within her own primary, let alone if she survives and makes it into the general election,” said Lenoir.

He acknowledges that some teachers have joined the GOP just to vote in that primary, “but the average voter isn’t that strategic.”

Keith Gaddie, OU political science professor, described this year’s shift as part of a larger trend of realignment, and said he thinks many Oklahoma educators are switching to effect change in the pivotal statewide race.

“You usually don’t find this level of coordination when it comes to switching registration,” Gaddie said.

Gaddie described the registration switch as a concentrated effort of educators to get into a race that directly affects them.

“Barresi should expect a sizable amount of these 1,200 voters to be against her,” Gaddie said.

He also wonders if spouses and siblings will also defect against the incumbent superintendent.

“This gives Barresi one more thing to worry about,” Gaddie said.

Dale Denwalt is a staff writer at the Enid News & Eagle.

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