Oklahoma Democratic Party's new chairperson plans to put diversity first

Oklahoma Democratic Party's new chairperson plans to put diversity first
© Courtney DeSpain 2016

Twenty-four-year-old Anna Langthorn began her political career at age 17, volunteering on local and state political campaigns. Seven years later, she’s still advocating for Democratic leadership in the state of Oklahoma, and now she’s doing it as the youngest chairperson in Oklahoma Democratic Party history.

Oklahoma Gazette: Tell me about yourself and how you got into politics.

Anna Langthorn: When I was 17, I joined the Young Democrats of Oklahoma and I went to Girls State, and then that summer and fall, I started volunteering for campaigns — both Jari Askins’ gubernatorial campaign and then a local state legislative campaign that I worked on. That spring of my senior year, I started interning for the state party. The following year, in 2012, I started being paid to work for Sen. Kay Floyd on her first state House campaign.

OKG: What made you decide that you wanted to run for chairperson of the state Democratic Party?

Langthorn: In all honesty, I haven’t thought about running for chair for a long time, but I’ve thought about who would be the ideal fit for chair for a long time because I firmly believe that if Democrats want to start winning again in Oklahoma, we have to rebuild our party as an organization. Candidates can’t do it all on their own. Super PACs and independent expenditures can’t build the infrastructure that’s necessary to persuade voters to vote for Democrats long-term.

I spent a lot of the last two years thinking about who would be the ideal fit, and I asked some other people to run, and they told me no. I couldn’t really think of that many people who I thought would do a good job. … I started thinking, ‘Well, why not me?’ And I couldn’t really think of a good reason other than that maybe I’m pretty young, but that wasn’t really a good reason, so I just decided to do it, and here we are.

OKG: What are your overall goals for the party?

Langthorn: Our mission is to elect Democrats; that’s our goal. So our short-term goal is we’ve got … special elections coming up, and we want to win as many of those as we can. … Long-term goals is the same goal: to elect Democrats, but to do that when we’re looking toward 2018 and 2020 and 2022. We need to be building infrastructure, we need to be communicating with voters consistently — because I firmly believe that is why we have failed in the last several decades.

We have to do a better job of communicating what it means to be a Democrat, that it means that we believe in things like hard work and fairness and equality. We’re not communicating that right now.

So basically, it’s just infrastructure-building and getting our message out there as much as we can while working in conjunction with our legislative leaders and candidates for office.

OKG: Oklahoma voter turnout isn’t the best, especially in local elections. Do you have any plans to work toward improving those numbers?

Langthorn: Absolutely. That’s another reason I don’t personally believe that Oklahomans are necessarily overly conservative people. The reality is that most Oklahomans don’t vote. We might see a change in who we’re electing based off who shows up to vote.

The way to do that, though, is to engage and educate the communities you’re talking about: youth communities, marginalized communities, people of color, people who are living in poverty. And one of the best ways to get them to vote is to make it easier to vote.

We need to pass legislation like they’ve done in Washington where everyone who has a driver’s license is automatically registered to vote. That’s a big goal, and that’s not something that I can accomplish on my own, but I think it’s something that we as a party and a state should be working to.

We need to consider all mail-in ballots. Instead of signing up to vote by mail, everyone automatically gets a ballot mailed to their house. There are a lot of states that do that, and it’s very successful. It makes it easier to vote, people have more notice of the election because they have a couple weeks to turn their ballot in and everybody that’s registered to vote knows there’s an election, which isn’t the case right now — most people are caught off guard. The average citizen of Oklahoma has a lot going on in their life. They’re not thinking about when the next election is, and no one’s telling them.

OKG: What are some of the biggest problems we’re currently seeing in the Democratic Party, in your opinion, and what kind of changes do you think we need to see within the party?

Langthorn: We’re definitely both locally and nationally going through some growing pains. The party is like any other major institution; it’s existed for a long time, and there’s a certain expectation about how it operates both within and without the party, and we’re in sort of a transition period.

We are known to be the big-tent party, though, and we want to make sure we always include a diverse set of experiences and perspectives, and I intend to do that going forward.

We want to make sure that all Oklahoma families have the opportunity to succeed. That’s what we’re advocating for, that Oklahoma families have a shot at a good life. Right now, because of the failures of Republican leadership, a lot of them don’t. Because of the failures of Republican leadership, schools are closing. Oklahoma hospitals are closing because they’re going bankrupt because our insurance system doesn’t provide Oklahoma families with the ability to get affordable health care. Our roads and bridges are crumbling.

In terms of the issues we advocate for, sometimes within the party, there is a discussion of individual pieces of policy that we disagree on, but overall, the reality is that Oklahoma Democrats are the only people that are advocating for Oklahoma families right now. … We’re advocating for the average Oklahoman to have a better life.

OKG: So, you’re only 24 years old. What’s it like to be such a young person in this position? How has that hindered or helped you?

Langthorn: I’ll be honest; my age is something that is the draw for the media. Everybody wants to talk about how young I am, but I don’t have any other experience; I don’t have any understanding on how it would be to be the chair and be 40 or how it would be to be the chair and be 60. I only know how it is to be the chair and be 24. But I think it’s just as challenging for me as it would be for anyone else.

There’s a lot of work to be done, but I don’t think the work has changed based on my age. I think my age, if anything, is a help. I’ve got a lot of energy, and I have more time than someone who has a whole career they’ve built or has a family that they have to take care of. It’s just me and the party, and that’s what’s going on in my life right now. But people are excited that I’m young, whether it’s the media, donors, volunteers or activists. They’re excited because I represent to them change. We’ve had a lot of growth in the four to six weeks I’ve been in office. I don’t think it’s been a hindrance at all; I think it’s been a help.

Print headline: No palooka, The Oklahoma Democratic Party’s chairwoman might be the youngest in the party’s history, but she said she’s determined to fight for the rights of all Oklahomans.