True Story: I Was Progressive State Senator In A Deeply Red State

What's it REALLY like to work in politics? What are the day-to-day duties? A fascinating interview from former Oklahoma state senator Andrew Rice >>

Tell us a bit about yourself!
I was born in Oklahoma City in 1973. As a white heterosexual, affluent, male born in a red state at the beginning a massive expansion of American wealth it is a miracle I ended up a liberal Democrat. Maybe not a miracle. My parents always emphasized being curious about the world outside our little parochial bubble and their devout Catholic faith actually instilled an unintended passion for social justice in my siblings and me.

I change careers about every three years which is both refreshing and stimulating, and maybe concerning at the same time. I was a religious studies major at a small New England college, made a documentary in India, went Harvard Divinity School, and worked for a BCC show in NYC about American film.

Then I worked at a Austin-based watchdog group of the religious right, was a State Senator, worked in community health, and now I am doing an online news/media hybrid site called Non Doc with some wildly talented collaborators (think: Wu Tang Clan meets Prairie Home Companion).

For fun I cart my sons around to various sports practices, ride out tornadoes in our storm shelter and make my wife Earl Grey tea every morning.

Can you tell us about the path that led you to politics?
My path to politics wasn’t a typical one. I don’t think I ever took a political science class in college. I did some light activism, but never worked on a campaign.

It was really a personal and public tragedy that shifted me in that direction. My older brother David Rice worked in the World Trade Center and was killed on Sept. 11th , 2001. I lived in NYC at the time as well. It made the political world and all the policy messes associated with it much more personal to me after that.

After some emotionally driven involvement in some 9/11 family groups around the Iraq war, the establishment of the 9/11 commission and concerns with the Patriot Act, I became more focused on “red state” issues when my wife and I moved back home to Oklahoma City.

The Oklahoma legislature had term limits put on its members by a vote of the people. I found myself in a relatively progressive state senate district with an incumbent being forced out by term limits. Some friends encouraged me to go for it and I was young enough and idealistic enough to take the plunge.


What made you decide to run for office rather than remaining in the role of community organizer?
At the time (2004-2006) it seemed one’s influence was so limited from the outside looking in. But in fact, just getting a seat at the table as a legislator didn’t mean my passion for the issues would easily translate into policy changes.

This was even more difficult being a progressive Democrat in Oklahoma, where a chunk of my own caucus didn’t see eye to eye with me on several important issues like marriage equality and women’s reproductive right

But the motivating factor was simple: those resistant to Oklahoma evolving into the 21st century would have a more difficult time “dealing with” someone like me if I were a legislator rather than just a community advocate who they could choose to not call or email back.

How does one put together a political campaign?
It’s not dissimilar from putting together a small start-up business. Donors are like investors. And the failures are similar too: spending money on things that don’t persuade voters but make you (the candidate, team and staff) feel good… campaign merch, fancy offices. It is all very similar to what cause private venture start-ups to fail.

The candidate needs to live and breath personal voter contact and fundraising day in and day out. Therefore, you need a good manager who can manage your motivated volunteers well (unpaid staff = not easy!), and keep you focused on your two objectives: one-to-one voter contact and fundraising. The more inspiring you are as a candidate, the bigger the return on a committed passionate volunteer and donor base.

Local campaigns, municipal or legislative, play to a talented inter-personal candidate more. He or she can get out and meet people one on one. Negative attacks backfire more often in this context where many voters have had a chance to meet the candidate. Large, media-driven campaigns like presidential ones, are where you see negative branding work better.

The swift boaters were successfully able to turn a war veteran into a traitor (John Kerry) because 98% of Americans had never personally met Kerry- their impressions were more easily shaped through emotional manipulation.

In my first legislative race I met probably 40-50% of the likely voters, so it was a much more personal experience for them and I had more control over my image than on a big stage, ironically

How much does it cost to run a campaign for state senate?
It all depends. A State Senate race in California, where some districts are as big as a congressional one, is much more expensive than most in Oklahoma. The bulk of the budget goes to field staff (your voter engagement people who stalk your favorable voters on the phone and on their front porch to turn out and actually vote for your candidate) and paid communications (direct mail, phone programs, radio ads and in some large races TV ads). I think my first race cost about $125,000 for the primary election and general election.

You were elected twice, by a significant margin each time. How did you feel when you won?
I was a good fit politically for the unique demographics of the district, and I worked very hard. I generally like people, so getting out and about, knocking on their door, and engaging with them was enjoyable (except for the angry dogs I encountered!) Then I won… and the actual job of being a legislator, wow, that’s another story.

Could you walk us through an average day in the life of a state senator?
In Oklahoma the legislature is in session from late January to about Memorial day, Monday through half day on Thur. The state capitol is located in my old district so I could have rode my bike to work, but I didn’t want my bike helmet to mess up my perfectly “producted” hair 🙂 …. Some days of session are slower, with a few committee meetings and some constituent work, returning calls and emails.

Other days and weeks are very chaotic, no time to take a breath. Frankly, it is not an efficient and thorough process, it is almost impossible to adequately study every bill. And in a state like Oklahoma with a small budget, there are no funds for a large staff to help you review legislation.A lot of the work is relationship-based: informal and formal meetings, chit chat.

I am a social person so I enjoyed that part of it. I also liked confusing some of the most conservative members by getting to know them and indeed showing them I didn’t have horns on my head as a liberal. In all seriousness, this was important than it sounds!

You were a progressive politician in a traditionally conservative state. What was that like?
About what you would expect: extremely frustrating in trying to achieve progressive policy issues and more rewarding in symbolic battles and being a champion for a small but passionate segment of the public.

Being very publicly on the right side of some important issues that the courts have corrected, like marriage equality, has been rewarding. There were no short-term political advantages like the other side was capitalizing on, but in the end history has vindicated these positions.

The toxic policy inertia was made even more difficult with the over the top xenophobia of Obama in Oklahoma. The state GOP could do no wrong and Obama could do no right, and this dynamic consumed the democratic party brand here as well. So the other side was unwilling to even appear bi-partisan with us. Or more specifically, their idea of bi-partisanship was: “agree to what we want”. This untenable environment was part of why I walked away from it.

What surprised you most about your time in office?
How much personal relationships and being a principled competitor was important to me. I was an activist prior to being elected so I was naive about it all. It’s easy to be a purist from the outside looking in, when you don’t have to deal with the realities and limits of sausage making. It is easy to vilify the other side when you don’t have to go to work with them every day and build relationships, and learn about each other’s families and communities.

I think an underreported factor behind our broken political system is how unreasonable the base of each party are about what they expect policy-wise from their preferred elected officials. Compromise and pragmatism are an inevitable reality of the process and to demand no compromise or else, then the incentives in gerrymandered districts get skewed dramatically to rigid partisanship and just a bunch of people trying to be purist heroes who don’t accomplish anything.

Ted Cruz is a great example. He hasn’t accomplished anything policy-wise, but is a messianic figure for the fringe. I actually think Brene Brown would have some fascinating things to say about this urge for external validation and meaning.

You accomplished a lot of important things during your time in the senate. What are you most proud of?
Not sure I actually accomplished much. But I did get permission from my colleagues one day to take my shoes off for 5 mins on the senate floor in recognition of TOMS shoes “day without shoes”, along with a very conservative Republican colleague Steve Russell, who is now my congressman here in OKC, by the way.

But I am most proud of how well my small staff made themselves accessible and accountable to my constituents, particularly those on the margins who would really need a well-connected advocate to help them navigate some bureaucratic agency from time to time.

An older senator told me when I was brand new, “you can always explain some controversial vote, but you better keep the roads well-maintained back home or they will throw you out.” That is to say, trying to work hard for the people in my district (and not just for the ones who voted for me, which is a key distinction now with our hyper-partisan culture) and being accessible was important to me.

I had constituents that made it clear they can deal with not totally agreeing with my politics as long as I had their back when it really mattered.

What’s one thing you learned from your time as a politician that any of us could apply to our daily lives – regardless of our career?
No matter how much you live and breathe and love your job, leave it at work, don’t take it home. Have clear boundaries between work and personal life.Like anything, moderation and balance are important. I let it consume me at times and I became too emotionally invested in my political work.

I took some of it too personally, in the end you fight for what you believe but ultimately you don’t have control over the results, especially if you are a progressive legislator in a deep red state. This leads to early burnout and can have a toxic impact on your personal life.Work hard, love hard and let go.

Thanks so much for sharing, Andrew! Do you guys have any questions for him? 

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  1. Sarah

    Loved this post — so interesting! I live in Texas and feel like there are probably a lot of similarities in how our state legislature operates, and that makes me frustrated and sad. We’ve got to get past the extreme partisanship at all levels because it’s just not helping anyone! I wonder if Andrew has any ideas on whether that is even possible in today’s political environment, and what it would take?

    • Andrew Rice

      I have no silver bullet solution but I do think it centers around more reasonable voters, engaging in the electoral and legislative process more intensely/actively. By that I mean, volunteering on a campaign, writing an email to your rep about an issue, etc… The current environment incentives are being driven by the extremes who don’t typically have realistic or flexible expectations of what can be accomplished. But if they are the only ones talking to you (as a politician), then most will cater to what those folks want.

  2. Linda Bostick

    I worked with Sen. Rice and he was an excellent Senator and and a breath of fresh air in a very red and stifling atmosphere! Still there and even more red than ever.

  3. Erin

    What a fascinating career path! I gravitate towards the “career hopper” mindset, though I don’t really like that term and I’m wondering if you have any insight on how you make those shifts work for you, Andrew? I’m curious specifically during the hiring process, how to not sound like a crazy person who thinks if they’ve been an organic farmer that they can surely do anything! Thanks!

    • Andrew Rice

      really good question! I think we own our unique profile so to speak. Project your authenticity of who you are as an individual, who is creative and looking to apply a diverse skill set to an org/company/project. That is what you bring to the table, and smart employers and partners will see that as a value and asset, rather than a red flag.

  4. Christine

    I love this story, he was a great senator in Oklahoma, always willing to hear from constitutes. Considering the climate in the Oklahoma legislature now do you feel that progressives have any voice, any representation?

    • Andrew Rice

      I think it is still a tough environment, but it is slowly improving. The urban areas in Oklahoma continue to grow and their representative power in the legislature will increase more and more. Given that these areas continue to moderate and become more progressive, that will be reflected in who wins. And GOP candidates/electeds will moderate too. Sen. Stephanie Bice seems more centrist that your typical GOP legsilator. She is an urban/suburban senator. And Sen. David Holt has moderated since he was elected because he is understanding he needs to reflect his district, which is not a right wing district.

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