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Former state Senator Connie Johnson wants to create “Oklahoma 2.0”.
With a campaign focused on expanding health care, infrastructure and Oklahoma’s relationship with cannabis, Johnson is seeking a second chance to become the first Black governor of the state.
Despite her 2018 loss in Oklahoma’s Democratic Primary for Governor, Johnson became the first Democratic candidate for Oklahoma’s 2022 gubernatorial elections when she filed with the ethics commission in May, according to the Associated Press.
“I’m still running, I don’t believe I ever stopped running. I just believe it wasn’t my time yet,” Johnson said in an interview with The Black Wall St. Times.
Johnson ran in 2018 as an unapologetic progressive known for her opposition to the death penalty and her steadfast support for medicinal cannabis. She finished second in the Democratic gubernatorial nomination with 38.6 percent of the primary vote. She ultimately lost to former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, whose career included avid support for the death penalty.
Moreover, she also served as the only Oklahoma delegate in support of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 U.S. presidential run. And in 2014, she became the first African American woman nominated to statewide office when she won the Democratic primary for an Oklahoma U.S. Senator seat, though she ultimately lost to Senator James Lankford (R-OK) in the general election that year.
Progressive Johnson looks to win over conservative Oklahomans
“I was the only woman and the only Black person in the  race for governor,” Johnson said. “Needless to say, times have changed since then in dramatic ways. And coming out of that is a demand for us to change. We‘ve been changed forever by the pandemic, by what happened to George Floyd and the protests and people waking up all over the world. This change requires experience and leadership.”
It remains to be seen whether Johnson will be able to galvanize enough support to win the nomination in a state that has rarely elected Black politicians to statewide office. But she isn’t lacking experience in leadership.
Johnson was born in Holdenville but grew up in Oklahoma City and graduated from Douglass High School. She later earned a bachelor’s degree in French and a masters degree in education. Johnson also earned a masters from Langston University in rehabilitation counseling.
Decades of experience
Before joining the Oklahoma legislature in 2005, Johnson spent more than two decades working with lawmakers as a legislative analyst.
Voters re-elected her to a state senate seat in 2006 and 2010. Throughout that time, she spearheaded efforts to craft cannabis legislation as early as 2007. Johnson actively fought against the state death penalty, and pushed back against Republican efforts to craft anti-abortion legislation.
In response to Republican attempts to outlaw abortion entirely, Johnson attempted to add an amendment to the bill stating “any action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman’s vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child.” Explaining that her amendment was meant to draw attention to the “absurdity” of men legislating women’s bodies, she drew national attention and even inspired a skit called “Bro Choice” from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart depicting her proposed amendment.
Unlocking the full potential of cannabis in Oklahoma
Speaking with The Black Wall Street Times, Connie Johnson said she had planned to announce her campaign at a later date but said her campaign filing was leaked to the press.
“It took things into high gear. Turned out to be a very timely leak,” she said, explaining why she made her announcement to run for governor on the weekend of President Joe Biden’s visit to Greenwood during the Centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre at the Jazz Hall of Fame in Tulsa. Johnson said she was “grateful to God that it was on his time and not our time.”
Staking her claims for why voters should elect her, Johnson said her decades of experience shouldn’t go unnoticed. When it comes to her platform, Johnson said she views herself as a seed that God planted to help spur the acceptance of another seed: cannabis.
“We’ve barely scratched the surface”
“We are essentially recession-proof because of how well the medical cannabis industry is doing. I want to ensure it remains patient-centered care to make sure we have done everything we can to make this medicine safe, available, and usable by as many people as possible instead of the opioids that are currently posing real issues in Oklahoma with addictions,” Johnson said.
“And there’s economic benefits that have come with Black, Indigenous and other people of color going into business in this industry,” she added.
Oklahoma voters approved State Question 788 in 2018 with 57% in favor, creating the state’s medical cannabis industry. It’s the most liberal medical cannabis program in the country, despite Oklahoma being one of the most conservative states.
There isn’t a list of qualifying conditions. Instead, a doctor simply signs off on whatever reason the applying patient gives them. Johnson is hoping Oklahoma’s near-universal support for the program will translate into support for her campaign and the expansion she wants to bring the industry as governor.
“We’ve barely scratched the surface,” Johnson said, pointing to the wide variety of uses that industrial hemp can bring the state. Hemp comes from the cannabis plant but is void of any THC.
“We used to lead the nation in rope production because of how well Oklahoma is suited to growing [hemp],” Johnson said. “You see why former U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner got out of the legislature and became a hemp lobbyist. We’ve barely touched the surface of what that can do for Oklahoma, and it’s amazing.”
Improving Oklahoma’s aging infrastructure
Aside from being an outspoken advocate for unleashing the herb’s latent and financial potential, Johnson wants to improve Oklahoma’s infrastructure.
“Our infrastructure, from our health care systems to our roads to broadband and water, is in need of repair. And that’s where new jobs can come from. We need to be looking at rail and equal access to broadband for rural Oklahoma,” Johnson said. Connecting long-neglected rural and urban communities in an equitable way remains one of her main goals.
“I heard stories of people having to get up at 3:00 a.m. to get a good broadband connection, and we have a need to improve our water in relation with the tribes and rural Oklahoma.”
Expanding health care beyond medicaid expansion
Perhaps most significantly, Johnson believes “healthcare is a human right.” She wants to translate that belief into practice and policy as Chief Executive Officer of the state.
“If we don’t have good health care we can’t have good education or people working good jobs. I’m a person with disabilities and how we navigate to provide care for the differently abled is important. People who have emotional issues right now–and I’m gonna say that’s all of us post-pandemic–We need a better delivery system that ensures people who are having a crisis are not murdered by the police in front of their family,” Johnson told TheBWSTimes.
Johnson said she believes Oklahomans’ approval of Medicaid Expansion is a cry for more health care.
Public safety as a public health issue
“The attempts by the legislature and governor to put it under managed care was disrespectful. We already know from the ‘90s that managed care simply manages care in ways that doctors receive pay but patients don’t receive health care. Kudos to the [Oklahoma] Supreme Court for slapping it down,” Johnson said.
Expanding end-of-life care is also something that hits close to home for the former state senator. “My mom passed in 2018 and the medical cannabis is what made a difference in her transition,” Johnson said explaining the lack of pain her mother experienced due to the natural herb. Johnson wants cannabis added to the list of approved terminal treatment options.
Going into details about the need for alternative forms of public safety, Johnson said crisis response teams represent just “a piece of the puzzle.” She wants to expand culturally competent trainings for all first responders and hospital staff. Johnson also wants to create more day treatment centers across the state for individuals in crisis and reestablish mental health hospitals.
Johnson said the COVID-19 pandemic “pulled back the sheets and exposed the inequities and failures of the past.”
“I’m submitting to the people of Oklahoma that we have an opportunity to reset and create Oklahoma 2.0. To elect someone like me who’s been there, who’s seen it , who’s helped revive it , who’s experienced and has solutions for the future. But also to recognize that the people have the power when they choose to use it,” Johnson added.
A well-known community organizer, Johnson appears to be continuing her grassroots approach to canvassing with voters. One of her first campaign stops involved a “grab and go” spaghetti dinner meet and greet that took place in Lawton, Oklahoma on June 27.
Changing the balance of power in Oklahoma
No Democratic candidate has publicly come out to challenge Johnson, yet. If she wins the primary, she’ll face steep odds in beating whichever Republican eventually challengers her. In Oklahoma, all 77 counties chose Donald Trump as president in 2020.
Currently, Republican incumbent Governor Kevin Stitt faces a primary challenge from Ervin Yen, a former state senator. Yen was the first Asian American in the Oklahoma legislature. He was also the first licensed physician in the Oklahoma Senate in 40 years. Many expect him to condemn Gov. Stitt’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moreover, perennial independent candidate Paul Tay and Libertarian Natalie Bruno have also joined the gubernatorial race. Recognizing how absentee voting helped Democrats in other conservative-leaning states, Connie Johnson is pushing for voters to apply to vote by mail.
“It’s an awareness that our campaign wants to put out in Oklahoma in order to get this done. We have a duty to help people understand their power and use that power. And I want them to use that power to vote for change and vote for me for governor in 2022,” Johnson said.