Meet Oklahoma’s Anti-Privatization, Pro-Pot Candidate for Governor

Progressive Connie Johnson—and a medical marijuana legalization initiative—will be on the Oklahoma ballot June 26.

Valerie Vande Panne June 19, 2018

Johnson speaking at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma County. (Connie Johnson for Oklahoma)

OKLA­HOMA CITY— Con­nie John­son is a for­mer Okla­homa state sen­a­tor, now the Our Rev­o­lu­tion-endorsed can­di­date for gov­er­nor. She is known across the state for her vocal sup­port of mar­i­jua­na, which was con­sid­ered quite con­tro­ver­sial just 11 years ago when she intro­duced Oklahoma’s first med­ical mar­i­jua­na bill. She intro­duced it every two years while she served in the state’s leg­is­la­ture, but it nev­er passed. Now, med­ical mar­i­jua­na is on the bal­lot June 26 — the same bal­lot she’s on in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic primary.

"“Processing. Budtenders. There is no reason that someone with a felony background shouldn’t be able to occupy some of those high-paying jobs."

Nation­wide, John­son is per­haps best known for her 2012 semen” amend­ment. When an Okla­homa bill said that a person’s rights began at con­cep­tion, she sim­ply took the idea fur­ther, attach­ing an amend­ment claim­ing that if killing a zygote is mur­der, so is killing sperm. Her amend­ment would’ve out­lawed plac­ing sperm any­where but in a woman’s vagi­na — and land­ed her on The Dai­ly Show with Jon Stew­art. Nei­ther the orig­i­nal bill nor the semen amend­ment passed.

We met Con­nie John­son at her cam­paign head­quar­ters — a for­mer beau­ty salon — on the East­side of Okla­homa City, a pre­dom­i­nant­ly African-Amer­i­can part of town. There is the usu­al cam­paign office swag stacked and orga­nized, but­tons, posters and signs; plac­ards, brochures and busi­ness cards.

But her office also has a table teem­ing with infor­ma­tion about mar­i­jua­na and hemp. Con­nie (as every­one calls her) is known as the god­moth­er of the state’s med­ical mar­i­jua­na move­ment, and is run­ning on a pro-pot plat­form. She wants to reg­u­late and tax hemp and med­ical mar­i­jua­na, and use that mon­ey to fund Oklahoma’s ema­ci­at­ed schools and state agen­cies, pro­vid­ing a boost for teach­ers and state workers.

John­son spent 30 years in state gov­ern­ment, most of it as a leg­isla­tive ana­lyst for the state sen­ate, then first run­ning for office in 2005. She’s tired of Okla­homa being one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to edu­ca­tion, and is dis­gust­ed” that her state is the nation’s num­ber one incar­cer­a­tor of women. Accord­ing to Okla­homa Watch, African Amer­i­cans = are more like­ly to die here at the hands of law enforce­ment than in any oth­er state that tracks that data.

John­son came into elec­toral pol­i­tics inspired by grand­par­ents’ rights: the right to guardian­ship when a par­ent is inca­pac­i­tat­ed by drug use or incar­cer­a­tion. She rec­og­nized that it was mar­i­jua­na laws and a crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem stacked against peo­ple of col­or and the poor that cre­at­ed an absence of par­ents in her district.

She’s hop­ing her long rep­u­ta­tion for stand­ing advo­cat­ing for com­mon-sense reforms to crim­i­nal jus­tice — and espe­cial­ly the mar­i­jua­na reform bal­lot ini­tia­tive — will bring out her voters

She’s sure that med­ical mar­i­jua­na, she says, will be good for Okla­homa. Pro­cess­ing. Bud­ten­ders. There is no rea­son that some­one with a felony back­ground shouldn’t be able to occu­py some of those high-pay­ing jobs that don’t require a lot of train­ing. The only thing that makes [mar­i­jua­na] ille­gal is the pol­i­cy. And that’s what I’m fight­ing for.”

She sup­ports coop­er­a­tives to bring back local economies across the state, and says hemp is the per­fect com­mod­i­ty for peo­ple to col­lec­tive­ly cul­ti­vate and process. Cur­rent­ly, the Unit­ed States is the largest con­sumer of hemp prod­ucts in the world, yet it imports its hemp because in many states it is still con­sid­ered too close to mar­i­jua­na to cul­ti­vate domes­ti­cal­ly on an indus­tri­al lev­el. It’s a poten­tial eco­nom­ic boom for the state, as well as a moral boost for peo­ple who are suf­fer­ing and who are dying.”

John­son is also a fierce crit­ic of pri­va­ti­za­tion. Pri­vate con­tracts, says John­son, are suck­ing too many state resources — both mon­ey and cit­i­zen bod­ies. For exam­ple, Okla­homa has pri­vate pris­ons that are guar­an­teed a 98 per­cent occu­pan­cy, which they fill with most­ly peo­ple of color.

[Pri­vate com­pa­nies] main­tain they can do it cheap­er than a gov­ern­ment agency,” John­son says. But that’s because there’s no account­abil­i­ty. They don’t have to dot all the same I’s and cross all their T’s.”

Let’s end pri­va­ti­za­tion,” she adds. Let’s ana­lyze what real­ly works best. What’s cheap­est, what gives us the most account­abil­i­ty and the most pro­duc­tive out comes. Some­body is get­ting a hook-up every time there is a [pri­vate] con­tract, and hook-ups cost [the peo­ple] money.”

She also wants a new Office of Ethics and Com­pli­ance, to know to whom peo­ple belong, so when we’re sit­ting at that table and some­thing sticky comes up I can ask the ques­tion, Are you vot­ing for the peo­ple of Okla­homa or are you vot­ing for GW Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, who fund­ed your cam­paign last year?’ ”

Johnson’s oppo­nent in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry is for­mer state attor­ney gen­er­al Drew Edmond­son, who over­saw the exe­cu­tion of near­ly 100 Okla­homans. When there was a mix-up” with state exe­cu­tion drugs in 2015 (after he was out of office), Edmond­son defend­ed the Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions. Yet if you look at his cam­paign cof­fers, he’s the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty dar­ling, cur­rent­ly out-rais­ing Johnson.

Oklahoma’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has been accused of racism in the past, and many black politi­cians pri­vate­ly use the term Dix­ie­crat” — a term used for Democ­rats who opposed racial inte­gra­tion — to describe some par­ty mem­bers. John­son, who cast a super-del­e­gate vote for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 pri­ma­ry, is no estab­lish­ment favorite. But she remains dig­ni­fied and cheer­ful: You stay in the par­ty and you keep resist­ing. When you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

She’s also acces­si­ble. At a cam­paign stop in Bokoshe, where the coal byprod­uct fly ash has turned the lit­tle town into an envi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter, peo­ple came from up to hun­dreds of miles away to meet her. Amy Hin­ton, 49, of Prague, was one of them.

I am against cor­po­ra­tions screw­ing the lit­tle peo­ple,” Hin­ton tells In These Times. As long as every­body lives here, every­body should have a say. Not just big cor­po­ra­tions. We all live here.”

Hin­ton became a John­son sup­port­er a few years ago when she was vis­it­ing the state cap­i­tal. I had a ques­tion, and she just hap­pened to be walk­ing by,” she says. “[John­son] took her time and helped. She’s a good per­son. She’s fun. She’s extreme­ly intel­li­gent. She cares about the peo­ple of the state. For me, it’s a no-brainer.”

Valerie Vande Panne is an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.
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