By Matt Pearce
Oklahoma's 88th legislative district is a bright blue dot in a deep red state, a district that has sent liberal and openly gay lawmakers to the state Capitol. And last week, it came within 22 votes of electing the state's first openly transgender candidate.
Paula Sophia, 48 _ Democrat, author, retired Oklahoma City cop and Army veteran _ lost 990 to 968 in a primary runoff for a state House seat. The winner, Jason Dunnington _ sociology professor and liberal Democrat _ was prepping for a concession speech when the last precinct reported in, giving him the edge.
"It's heartbreaking," Sophia said. "But I was really satisfied with our performance. ... One of the reasons I ran was because Oklahoma has a bad reputation for having ultraconservative crazy politicians who sometimes get national attention for some outrageous things they say, and that leaves the people outside of Oklahoma to think that there's no kind of progressive presence in the state."
Gender did not play a big role on the campaign trail, according to both candidates. That is also a nod to the quirky 88th, home to Oklahoma City's LGBT community. The district boasts a history of recent barrier-breakers.
Kay Floyd, a Democrat vacating the seat to run for state Senate, became Oklahoma's first openly lesbian lawmaker when the 88th elected her in 2012. Her predecessor, Al McCaffrey, became the state House's first openly gay representative when he was elected in 2006.
That history might help explain why Republicans did not field a candidate this year, making the Democratic nominee the de facto winner of the seat in November. GOP officials did not respond to a request for comment.
"House District 88 is probably the most progressive district in Oklahoma City," said Keith Gaddie, a professor of political science at Oklahoma University. "It's a funky place, it's a neat little neighborhood, a neat community. ... It's a diverse place, racially, ethnically, also sexually."
Sophia, a 22-year police veteran, called the district voters "the NPR crowd." Her gender identity was not really an issue with the people she met while campaigning, she said. As an officer, she had patrolled neighborhoods inside the 88th since the early 1990s after serving in the Army during Operation Desert Storm, she said, and she has creative ties to the area.
"I'm a poet and an artist, I participate in the arts community, I live in this district _ I have lived in this district a good while _ so I'm a neighbor, I'm a professional, I'm a friend. And I think that matters more to people," Sophia said.
As for Dunnington, he said the media's "quick-blur" takes on the unusual race put too much emphasis on his background as a youth pastor and not enough on his career as a PhD-holding sociology professor at Oklahoma City University. One of his favorite books is "Losing My Religion," about a born-again Christian who loses his faith – somewhat of a countercultural choice in strongly evangelical Oklahoma.
Both Sophia and Dunnington are unmistakably liberal.
Dunnington advocates strengthening educational opportunities for underprivileged children, protecting arts funding and expanding access to Medicare and Medicaid.
Sophia opposes the death penalty, supports decriminalizing marijuana and wants to boost the minimum wage.
If some of those positions seem unpopular in Oklahoma, where Barack Obama won just 33% of the presidential vote in 2012, the state's fragmented Republican establishment has made it possible for Democrats to throw their weight around by forming coalitions with conservatives in the statehouse.
That's true even though the GOP holds overwhelming control in both chambers: 72 Republicans and 29 Democrats in the House, 36 Republicans and 10 Democrats in the Senate.
"There are like seven brands of conservatives in the state, and the legislature is broken into about eight factions," said Gaddie, the Oklahoma University political science professor. "The Republicans have controlled the statehouse for 10 years _ since January _ and in that time, we've had six speakers" of the House.
Sophia, who had retired from the police force to run for office, said she will now focus on finishing a collection of short stories and a film project she has been working on for 12 years.
"I've learned that there are Oklahomans who are fair-minded and are willing to give someone consideration if the issues are sound and clear, and are willing to rally behind someone who has a sincere desire for public service," she said. "I've been humbled by this process in some ways with the response from the people."
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