In this Thursday, June 14, 2018 photo, elementary school principal Sherrie Conley, who is running for state representative in District 20, places up a campaign sign on a road in Goldsby, Okla. Conley is part of a wave of about 100 educators, including dozens of Republicans, who are running for office in the aftermath of a teacher walk-out that shut down public schools for two weeks this spring and opened an unusually bitter chasm in the state’s ruling party. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Oklahoma teacher candidates pass first political test

June 27, 2018 - 7:32 pm
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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Dozens of schoolteachers running for seats in the Oklahoma Legislature passed their first test in the state's primary election, flexing political muscles that knocked incumbents out of office and could lead to more surprising victories in the months ahead.

Oklahoma's primary election on Tuesday smashed turnout records and followed a tumultuous year in which tens of thousands of teachers frustrated with low pay and funding for schools walked off the job . At the end of the night, six sitting Republican legislators lost their jobs and the candidate the GOP establishment favored in the governor's race was defeated. Several other Republican incumbents were dragged into primary runoffs, many of them against teachers angry about their vote against a tax hike to fund teacher pay raises.

"I think a record number of teachers came out and voted," said Alberto Morejon, a junior high history teacher from Stillwater, Oklahoma, who launched a teacher walkout page on Facebook that has become an online meeting place for teachers and their supporters. "And I think it really showed teachers that their vote matters and that teachers can sway an election just by getting out and voting."

It was also a difficult night for incumbent Republicans, many of whom found themselves targets of voters who wanted to shake up the status quo. A medical marijuana state question on the ballot also drew a lot of new voters to the polls, and many of them could have fueled the anti-incumbency sentiment among voters.

"It's a horrible year to be on the ballot if you're associated with state government," said State Auditor Gary Jones, who finished fifth in the 10-man Republican primary for governor with about 6 percent of the vote. "There are problems out there, and they think the way to fix it is to throw everybody out and vote in someone new."

Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb was perhaps the biggest casualty among Republican losses Tuesday. A former state senator and two-term lieutenant governor, Lamb was the early favorite with a huge fundraising advantage and the backing of some of the state's most powerful business leaders. But he ended up finishing third behind a former Oklahoma City mayor and a Tulsa businessman who ran as an outsider, neither of whom have a connection to state government.

Of the nearly 100 schoolteachers and administrators who filed for office, at least 55 survived Tuesday's primary election. Bigger tests will come for them in either the Aug. 28 primary runoff or in November. Many of them were motivated by the Republican-led Legislature's cuts to funding for public schools in recent years and nearly a decade without a pay raise.

One teacher candidate already secured his seat in the Legislature. Sperry High School science teacher Mark Vancuren, 54, won his Republican primary election on Tuesday and no Democrats filed for office.

"I would say the majority of the people we talked to, education was extremely high on their list," said Vancuren, whose kids attend public schools and who campaigned on more funding for education. "It's important to the people and the constituents here that we have strong schools."

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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