Four Democrats will vie for a chance to win House District 44 in a July primary 

Drive down almost any street in Norman, and you're bound to see them " bright blue signs bearing the name "VIRGIN." These little blue beacons indicate that it's primary time in Oklahoma. They're nearly impossible to miss, and that's what Emily Virgin is counting on.

"It's a conversational topic. It breaks the ice in a lot of situations," Virgin said. "And when I knock on doors, people have seen my signs. So I think it is an asset for me."

Virgin, 23, is one of the candidates seeking the Democratic House nomination for District 44, an open seat in Norman. Voters will go to the primary polls July 27 to pick the successor to Rep. Bill Nations, who's retiring after 12 years in office. The line-up this year includes a Norman City Council member, two University of Oklahoma students and a former OU employee.

Tom Kovach, 47, who has served on Norman City Council since 2008, and Isaiah McCaslin, 26, an office manager at a law firm who is also currently enrolled at OU, have also joined the primary fight along with former OU employee and Vietnam veteran Robert T. Murphy, 62.

Education is an obvious priority for the candidates, although many agree that the budget is the state's and district's most pressing problem and one that is inextricably linked to education and other potential issues.

"I don't think you'll find anyone who doesn't believe education is important, (and) a lot of people talk about improving education. But we haven't really done that," Kovach said. "The lottery was supposed to be a panacea for education, but in reality, it's not. What we need to do is get some sort of dedicated funding source for education."

With the presence of OU, education in District 44 stretches beyond the classroom and into the job market. The university is the economic lifeblood of the area, Virgin said.

But the biggest obstacle the candidates must contend with is the ever-growing state budget deficits.

Virgin said cuts to vital mental health services loom in Norman's future, and the city, despite tightening belts, can't afford to cut them.

"Not only because they employ so many people in the district," she said, "but also because if we don't spend the money upfront with these programs like mental health, we will end up spending money in the long run, and it will most likely be more money than if we treated the problem in the beginning."

Sustainability is the cause closest to McCaslin's heart. Working with the Norman Sustainability Network and as a community organizer, he's passionate about utilizing some of Oklahoma's unique characteristics " low cost of living and abundant wind resources " to make the state a leader in renewable energy, sustainable economies and local food systems.

"Sustainability is not a Democrat thing," he said. "Sustainability is a human thing."

McCaslin wants to break Oklahoma away from its reliance on oil to more renewable energy sources, and so, too, does Kovach want to diversify the Oklahoma economy, a lesson, he said, we need to re-learn from the oil bust.

A second-year OU law student who holds a bachelor's degree in political science, Virgin said she's running because public service is her calling. She doesn't see her youth as a hindrance, either.

"I have the energy that it takes to really fight for what I believe in and what my constituents believe in," she said. "I have the energy to go out and meet all the voters in District 44."

Energy is not something Kovach lacks, either. After enduring a council meeting that ended at 1:30 a.m., he said his commitment to the district is one of his biggest assets.

"I've lived in the district for 44 years," he said. "So I very well understand the character of the district, and I think that's important. If you're going to try to represent people, you need to understand them."

For McCaslin, the goal is not a political career, but the chance to make an impact, he said.

"I don't care if there's ever a bridge or a street or a school named after me," he said. "Because when I'm sitting on my porch when I'm an old man, I want to look at a community that's stronger and better because I was in the race."

Another point of agreement is what they see as the inefficient and "embarrassing" behavior of the state Legislature, passing bills like the recent spate of abortion legislation that are already being challenged in the court system.

"They're using these divisive social issues to get re-elected even when they know the outcome of these laws is they're going to get overturned," McCaslin said.

Kovach said the laws were focused more on misogyny than stopping abortions. Virgin said it was particularly important to have a women's voice in the Legislature on these issues.

Murphy has three platform issues, all of which, he said, stem from trouble with the Legislature: civil unions, women's reproductive rights and the decriminalization of drugs, starting with pot.

"The only time you can interfere with someone's freedom is when they're harming others," he said.

The candidates also stressed the importance of having a strong voice for District 44 in the Legislature.

"I think it's important that people not just vote for somebody, but vote for somebody who'll actually get something done," Kovach said. 

The Democratic nominee will face Republican Ken Hunt, 52, in the general election. "Nicole Hill

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Emily Virgin, Isaiah McCaslin, Tom Kovach, and Robert Murphy

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