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

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.

BY Valerie Vande Panne

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

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.

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 award-winning freelance journalist. She is the former editor-in-chief of Detroit’s altweekly, the Metro Times, and has covered Detroit’s alternative economies for Bloomberg.

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