Patrick B. McGuigan, Publisher
In July, independent journalist Stacy Martin reported on a Bixby Public Schools-based effort, organized by teacher union members, that impacted the results in three state legislative primary elections on June 26.
As I reported separately for CapitolBeatOK in mid-July, “The referenced districts were House districts 67 (Scott McEachin, incumbent), 69 (Chuck Strohm, incumbent) and 80 (Mike Ritze, incumbent). Apparently targeted for opposing the largest tax increase in state history (enacted days before the teacher stike/walkout at the state Capitol during the spring legislative session), Reps. McEachin and Strohm were defeated. Rep. Ritze, however, made the August 28 runoff and hopes to return for a sixth and final term at the Capitol.”
In a recent exchange with Ms. Martin, following up on the Bixby Public Schools use of school resources to trigger increased turnout, Superintendent Rob Miller continued to downplay the nature of the direct communication with registered voters.
He said the teacher’s union was not given the school district’s private list of school patrons to utilize in its “get out of the vote’’ push. However, he did say he recorded messages urging people to vote and set up the robocalls using the school’s patron list. In his message, he said he did not suggest who to vote for or how to vote on the state question. Rather, he characterized his message as simply a reminder to vote. The messages ran several days before the election.
In that interview, he commented, “There was a phone call that I put out that went to all people that have a phone number. It was simply a reminder that primary election was coming up and we’re encouraging all Bixby patrons to vote. Again, no party affiliation, no vote one way or the other.
“Our PLAC is very active in trying to get the vote out. That’s out parent legislative action committee. The Bixby education association does not have access to our district phone list.”
As for Martin’s requests for all emails touching the election issues, he responded, “We found two emails. Basically Jessica (Danielle) had sent information about the get out the vote effort that we forwarded to certified staff.”
Bixby resident Peggy Burgess says she received calls from the school district’s phone number urging her to remember to vote in that primary election.
Burgess, who has grandchildren in the district, told Ms. Martin the calls did not suggest whom she might vote for or how to vote on the state question on that primary ballot. She said the Jenks public school district pressed similar themes in phone calls to district patrons.
In greater detail during that interview, Burgess reflected, “It was a get-out-the-vote call. It did not name any specific candidates.” (Burgess said she also attended a voter forum where teachers quizzed the candidates with their own questions).
“I think it’s an improper use of school facilities. If you’re going to use the school to do forums and you’re going to use school email and school phone system which are paid for by all taxpayers, then you better call every voter in the district and you’d better email all voters in the district. It’s wrong to limit to those calls to people who happen to have kids in the school. There are a lot of people in the school district, retirees and people whose kids go to private school or who have no children and they never get notified by the school of these elections. But their taxpayer dollars pay for it. I think this kind of targeting using taxpayer dollars is wrong.”
In an earlier email exchange with CapitolBeatOK.com, Burgess also said, “Teacher unions held ‘candidate forums’ in these House Districts. The forums were very biased. No dissenting opinions were allowed. They were obviously targeting Strohm and McEachin.”
For the primary, as both Martin and I have reported, the Bixby Education Association, the OEA affiliate, organized the phone bank, flyer drops and door-to-door canvassing, and also held meetings at a school site. A widely-noted “march on Memorial” promoted the union’s agenda of getting those designated “education-friendly” legislators nominated in the GOP primaries held June 26. (The phone bank and union organizing meetings were held at the Media Center at Bixby North Intermediate High School.)
The school-based political work was the work of the aforementioned Jessica Danielle, president of the BEA and a recently-elected member of the statewide OEA board of directors. In Facebook posts touting her effort before the June 26 primary, Danielle said the team of workers had been provided a “strategic” list from the school district, but use of that word was soon dropped from her later missives.
Ms. Martin’s subsequent attempts to reach Danielle were unsuccessful.
My colleague had intended to ask why the word “strategic” was removed from the Bixby Education Association Facebook page, in reference to the get-out-the-vote drive held with district support.
As noted in earlier reporting, turnout in the primary election was up considerably over 2014 levels, according to the State Election Board. While many credit higher turnout to the Medical Marijuana initiative (State Question 788) on the ballot, targeted turnout efforts aimed at advancing allies of the union likely contributed to an incremental boost in voter participation.
NOTE: Stacy Martin, an independent journalist, contributed to this report. She is the former editor of The City Sentinel newspaper, and has written frequently for CapitolBeatOK. Her stories, including this one, have also been published or posted by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA).