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Bolt from the blue

Karen Gaddis’s win and how the Tulsa Young Dems helped

Rep. Karen Gaddis of House District 75

Greg Bollinger

Ahead of her run for state House District 75, Karen Gaddis was thought to be an underdog. The district was so solidly Republican that, for the past decade, Democrats didn’t even bother to run candidates from their party. Gaddis’s Republican opponent, Tressa Nunley, possessed a war chest (read: campaign contributions) twice as large as that of retired public school teacher Gaddis—not to mention having the support of Oklahoma’s political establishment. So it surprised many when Karen Gaddis and her grassroots team of volunteers won the election anyway—making national headlines and proving definitively that progressive Democrats can win in so-called “red states.”

Gaddis—whose platform includes more funding for public education, criminal justice reform, and permitting medical marijuana—attributed her victory to personal contact with voters and hard work.

“We knocked over 2,000 doors,” Gaddis said. “I did over 700 myself.”

After serving 40 years in public education, Gaddis retired in 2011. Though she was relishing her time with her grandchildren, she ultimately decided to run for office after watching the state legislature neglect Oklahoma’s hardworking teachers.

“I decided, if anything was going to change, I was going to have to step in and be part of that change,” she said. “I drove to Oklahoma City and filed [to run]. The district is about 2-to-1 [registered] Republicans to Democrats, so it was unlikely I was going to win, unless I could get all the Democrats to come out. We didn’t rely on the base completely because I knew I couldn’t win unless I flipped some votes from Republicans, so, we hit independents and Republicans also. And that paid off!”

Previously, Gaddis had never considered becoming a politician.

“The only reason [I ran] was that I got tired of being mad. I’ve always been the kind of person who didn’t just complain about things. I acted.”

“One of the things I learned as a teacher is that it doesn’t matter who gets credit for the job. It’s that the job gets done. And I think that leads over to the legislature—it doesn’t matter whether it’s the Democrats or the Republicans that get credit—it’s getting the job done that’s important.”

One particular group that helped with Gaddis’s campaign was the relatively new Tulsa Young Democrats—a group that has managed to win many David and Goliath-style victories lately. Any time Gaddis needed volunteers to knock doors, TYD stepped up to help. The group also hosted a happy hour in District 75 where people could meet the straight-talking teacher.

TYD was created to encourage young people to run for office. One member was recently hired by the Democratic National Committee in Washington, DC, to be an official field organizer for the eastern region of Oklahoma.

TYD President Alera Henson said TYD’s main function is to campaign for local candidates and provide young folks with campaign training.

“We volunteer at candidates’ fundraisers and put on social events for networking purposes,” Henson said. “We do our best to get [people] trained on how to run campaigns—both others’ and their own.”

“We have a general meeting once a month. We also do a happy hour once a month. Both are open to anyone that wants to come.”

This month’s meeting will be at 6 p.m. on August 23 at the Tulsa County Democratic Party Headquarters.

A typical TYD meeting opens with a speech, often by a young candidate or the leader of an issue-based federation like the Stonewall Democrats. Meetings usually involve planning new events, and one recent meeting provided an entertaining demonstration of the best way to canvass for candidates.

Henson credited Bernie Sanders with inspiring her to create her own people-focused, grassroots organization.

“We decided we wanted to keep that momentum going, where we had all these people fired up … so we picked up the sort of defunct TYD group,” she said. “If [people] really want to get involved, the best way to do that is to come to a meeting.”

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Bolt from the blue

Karen Gaddis’s win and how the Tulsa Young Dems helped