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by Marit Vike; image courtesy of James Johnson
Karen Gaddis retired from teaching in 2011. Over her 40-year teaching career, she taught classes ranging from seventh-grade math to AP calculus.
But for Gaddis, there was one thing that just didn’t add up: How the state legislature could short public education funding year after year while handing out tax breaks to corporate giants in the gas and oil industries.
Many of Oklahoma’s school districts have shifted to four-day school weeks and have unprecedented numbers of emergency-certified teachers. Oklahoma ranks 49th in the nation in teacher pay, and educators have left in droves for positions in other states.
Karen Gaddis couldn’t find a candidate to vote for who was willing to work on these problems. So she stepped up and ran for office to give educators a voice in the legislature. EdVotes caught up with her shortly after she was sworn into office.
EdVotes: What prompted you to get involved with politics?
Karen Gaddis: I got tired of being angry. I retired in 2011 and was very focused on what was going on both at the state and federal levels. It just kept getting worse and worse, and I kept getting madder and madder. It all came to a crescendo after the 2014 election, when extremist Republicans gained a veto-proof stronghold on the Oklahoma legislature. They could pass whatever they wanted to with no bipartisan effort. I heard one of the Republicans on the radio say, “We have a mandate from the people,” and I was sitting there thinking, “What people?” I didn’t even get a chance to vote since there weren’t any Democrats running in any of the elections I could’ve voted in.
EV: So the 2014 midterm election was a turning point for you.
KG: I thought, “This isn’t right. This isn’t the way democracy is supposed to work. I’m not going to let this happen again.” When the 2016 election rolled around, I watched every day to see who was filing for the House of Representatives for my district. There were no Democrats. So just before the filing period closed, I went to Oklahoma City and filed to run. It turns out that two other Democrats filed that day, too, so we ended up in a three-way primary. I won the primary with 63 percent of the vote.
I lost that race, but under some scandal my opponent resigned. I won the special election that followed. I ran on an education platform that resonated with voters because district 75 happens to be the 4th largest district in the entire state in terms of children under the age of 18. Everyone wants the best for their children or grandchildren.
EV: How do you feel that your role as an educator prepared you to run for and serve in this position?
KG: I have worked with a variety of teachers, a variety of principals, and a variety of superintendents, some of whom were wonderful to work with and some of whom were difficult to work with so I run the gambit there. I think those experiences give me the ability to work with everyone. In addition, one of the things I have been telling everyone is that in education you learn very quickly that it doesn’t really matter who gets credit for the job, it’s getting the job done that important.
EV: You mentioned that you ran with an education platform. What specifically will you be targeting now that you are in office?
KG: Oklahoma has cut taxes so drastically in this state that we don’t have any money for public services like education. Above all else, we have to address the budget. How are we going to raise long-term revenue? The best thing to do is raise our extraordinarily low taxes on corporations that deal in natural resources, such as oil and natural gas. Of course those companies are fighting this tooth and nail to try and keep those taxes down, but we’re missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars every year by taxing them at such a low rate.
EV: If the legislature does eventually raise revenues, how would you want to see them used?
KG: We have to start with teacher salaries because we have almost the worst teacher pay in the nation. Our teachers have not received any kind of raise in the last eight years and of course the cost of living has gone up considerably in that time. We currently have teachers who are visiting food banks because they can’t finish out the month feeding their own families. I even heard from a young teacher say that she had sold her blood plasma to get enough money to finish out the month.
In addition to salaries, we have to get classes down and stop our teachers from leaving the state. Right now we have a lot of unqualified people teaching in classrooms and the number of emergency certifications has just gone through the roof. We desperately need these changes, or else we’re going to end up losing a whole generation of children.
EV: Transitioning back to your campaign for a moment, was there anything that particularly surprised or challenged you when you were running for office?
KG: Well I knew running for office would be expensive, but I didn’t realize how expensive. One of the vows I made to myself when I filed was that I’m not going to bankrupt my family. Fundraising was really difficult and I did not initially have the contacts that I needed. In the last month of the special election, I brought in a professional campaign manager and it made all the difference in the world. She freed me up to make the right contacts and knock on doors and luckily volunteers from all over came to help me too.
EV: What would you say is your best piece of advice for educators looking to run?
KG: My best piece of advice for educators looking to run is to not wait until the last minute. Start to get some training now and get involved right away with any elections whether its school board or state representative or governor. Get involved so that you can see what it looks like from the inside. Then if you run and can possibly afford it, get a campaign manager. Pick somebody who knows what they are doing, who knows when it needs to be done, how it needs to be done, who needs to do it. They will take a lot of pressure off of you so that you can concentrate on getting elected.