Jabar Shumate survived ‘all-out face-to-face fight’ with unions

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 29-Oct-2010

In the July primary, state Rep. Jabar Shumate, a Democrat who represents north Tulsa at the state Capitol, survived an all out drive by labor union activists to defeat him. After a fierce campaign, he garnered 51% of the vote.

Although his voting record is that of a mainstream African-American Democrat, Shumate was targeted for defeat because of his steady and consistent support for parental choice in education.

In an interview with CapitolBeatOK this week, Rep. Shumate spoke candidly about the political threats he has faced as he emerged the last few years as a leading advocate of school choice.

He said, “Until this year, the threats were subtle. I can’t say that the ‘threats’ came across that way. There was some discomfort in the relationship with the teachers unions all through my time at the Capitol but until this year we indeed had a relationship.”

In Tulsa, the Oklahoma Education Association, affiliate of the NEA, is the local bargaining agent for teachers, whereas the American Federation of Teachers represents support staff.

Shumate continued his narrative: “This last year, during the legislative session, there was so much movement on school issues, most significantly choice for special needs children, that there was tension. From the start, the unions did not like the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships.”

As Shumate explained, “There were other areas where tension settled in, around ‘race to the top’ and State Question 744.  On both of those I had questions and was working with some ideas and with people the union didn’t approve of.”

Shumate said he realized by the spring that “the NEA and its affiliates, including the OEA, began looking at 2010 as some kind of a Waterloo year. In a big way, they went after three of us around the country.

“They defeated one person, Mayor Adrian Fenty in Washington, D.C. They spent $1 million to defeat him. To give it cover, they claimed it was not negative on him but that they liked the man who won in the D primary, Vincent Gray. That’s a bunch of hooey.

“Fenty had other problems, in that he had become disconnected from people, from his constituents, in some ways. He was a champion of choice and that is to be honored. His election problem this time was not just about choice, but that was a motivation for the NEA money that went against him.”

Another black legislator the national union group challenged was state Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan of Georgia. She won her primary in state House District 39 with 73.4% support.

Despite the threat of serious spending by serious people determined to defeat him, Shumate said he was confident throughout the campaign. He remarked, “I find it interesting that groups that otherwise proclaim their devotion to diversity and to the value of being culturally aware and sensitive would push back so negatively on African-American legislators who make a principled decision to promote diversity in the important sense of parental options and student options in education, support for excellence and improvement in schools.”

He noted, “I have supported teacher union positions about 81% of the time because I agreed with those positions. But to those unions the fact that I supported choice for children in terrible schools or for special needs and circumstances made them determined to defeat me.

“I know they donated $5000 to my opponent. I am confident in saying that I can discern $65-70,000 in various forms of soft money they spent to defeat me. It didn’t work.”

It did not work for was old-fashioned reasons of careful retail politics:  “They banked on me and Alisha being disconnected from our folks, from our constituents. But in both cases we are close to our people, to those we serve. The unions guessed wrong on where we were in communications with constituents.”

While Morgan in her Georgia campaign “was able to retain the traditional Democratic constituencies with the exception of the teachers unions,” Shumate’s situation was, he said, more “difficult and complex.”

In Shumate’s race, “Jimmy Frasier, a lawyer and brother of the late Tommy Dee Frasier, made a decision to come after me. The AFL-CIO and some other unions got involved. Frazier came against me with all the force they had, along with the teachers unions.

“I was interested that they decided to throw out the window all the other things I’d done to vote with them on matters where I thought they were right.”

Despite the obvious difficulties, Shumate said, “In the core Democratic establishment, many opposed me but the operations of the state party for example stayed out. I do not believe that the state Democratic headquarters did anything to try to defeat me.

“This was, it seems, very personal for Jimmy and his cronies and friends. They are deeply entrenched and deeply aligned with the teachers unions, so they tried to take me out.

“To be clear this didn’t go the way the unions wanted. For example the Oklahoma Public Employees Association was supportive, good to me. I have been with them on their concerns and they reciprocated. I also was fine within my Democratic House caucus. On the one hand I did not depend on them to run or win my races, but on the other hand at least they didn’t run or work against me.”

From his perspective, “It was a very nasty race. In the African-American community we are close and tend to know one another and have many longstanding relationships. Political communication is often direct. Certainly that is how it in north Tulsa, my home.

“My friends, constituents and voters were told flat out lies about my record. We countered by talking about what I stood for. My mother, my step-father, and whole family talked and told the truth, and when it came to the lies they told constituents to their face, ‘Those are lies you’ve been told.’ What happened was that my core supporters stood firm for me.”

Shumate’s detractors “did mail, accusations of inconsistency on my part, but we countered with mail and told the truth. All of the attacks hurt me, but I survived in a face-to-face fight with the teacher unions and with some other unions.

“I know that they did repeated mailings, phone banks and live phone calls. They even paid people to put yard signs in their yards. They had radio advertisements, but not television advertisements. They engaged in political gamesmanship and used nearly every weapon at their disposal to beat me. They failed.”

CapitolBeatOK asked Shumate what effect the campaign would have on his approach to other issues in the upcoming era in Oklahoma, when even more strength will be flowing to the Republicans.

He replied, “I can safely say I’ll represent my district to the best of my ability. And, yes, I’ll remember my friends who helped me fight this good fight.”