Editor’s Note: This is the second of two feature stories profiling candidates for the state Senate District 22 general election set April 6. Yukon Republican Jake Merrick faces Edmond Democrat Molly Ooten in the special election to fill a vacancy in the Senate. The winner will succeed Stephanie Bice, who was elected to Congress, and complete the final 21 months of an unexpired term.
By Conrad Dudderar
Molly Ooten understands she’s battling the odds as she seeks a state Senate seat, but believes the legislature sorely needs more Democrats – and women – to represent Oklahomans.
Ooten, 31, is the Democrat nominee in the Senate District 22 special election. She will face Yukon Republican Jake Merrick, 39, in the Tuesday, April 6 general election.
“I am running to represent everyone – not just people who look like me and think like me, not just one type of family,” Ooten said. “I am running to represent the families that may not look like the ‘mainstream’.
“I’m running to represent the people that don’t have the same religion as me. I think that every single human deserves a voice.”
Ooten believes her advocacy for others and ability to collaborate and connect with people make her the preferred choice for Senate District 22 voters.
The Edmond Democrat knows she’s the underdog in the race since this is a strong Republican area. But she remains extremely confident that her message is resonating with voters across the district.
“I think people ‘write this district off’ and Republicans see it as an easy win, and Democrats don’t try,” Ooten reasoned.
“It’s not about partisanship. It’s about doing the work, getting people engaged. At the end of the day, what we will have accomplished – no matter the outcome – is that there are people out there who really care about their voice.”
Senate District 22 is comprised of eastern Canadian County and northern Oklahoma County, including parts of Yukon, Piedmont, Edmond, and Deer Creek.
The winner of the April 6th general election will finish the final 21 months of an unexpired four-year term.
There is a vacancy in the 48-member Oklahoma State Senate because former Sen. Stephanie Bice was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Bice served six years representing District 22, leaving the state office at the end of 2020 to become Oklahoma’s 5th District congresswoman.
Ooten hopes to build on the momentum she gained leading up to her primary victory. She earned 72.55% of the vote in the Feb. 9th Democratic primary, besting Edmond’s Dylan Billings by a 1,020-386 margin.
“Because we’re in the minority, we’re actually in a better position to collaborate to make decisions that are not just a ‘rubber stamp’ or ‘toeing the party line’,” Ooten explained, “but actually are representative of the people of District 22. This district is comprised of working families, just like mine.”
Ooten believes Oklahoma deserves to have a state legislature that better represents its population.
She cited the need to move Oklahoma forward while looking at issues from a bipartisan standpoint.
“Like I said, this district has been written off, but that doesn’t mean Democrats, Independents and people who care about issues that are not on the Republican agenda don’t live here,” Ooten said. “They do live here. And they do deserve a voice.
“The amount of women in our legislature is shameful, frankly. We need more women and we need a legislature that looks like Oklahoma.”
Ooten embraced her interactions with voters while canvassing neighborhoods across District 22 in the weeks leading up to the primary.
The Democrat candidate talked about key issues she’s hearing from voters.
Topping the list are COVID-19 and education.
“People are concerned that the community at large is not taking it seriously enough,” she related. “Taking precautions has meant that kids are not in school in the classroom, necessarily, full-time.
“We need our kids to be in the classroom if they can, but first and foremost, we need our kids to be safe.”
Ooten says she’ll fight for teachers to have the resources they need to do their jobs, and work with anyone who can help provide more education funding.
While campaigning, Ooten has noticed people have grown weary of the long political season.
“And they’re tired of being fed a line and they’re tired of politicians being unavailable,” she said. “They’re surprised that someone’s at their door. Many of the people whose doors I’ve knocked have never had their door knocked by anyone who’s running for office.”
Ooten described her empathetic and transformative leadership style.
“I am a people person,” she said. “I’m always going to look after people. I’m always going to want to see other people’s side because I care about them. I’m always going to put people over ideals.”
If elected, as a female Democrat she realizes she will be in the extreme minority at the state Capitol.
But she strongly believes Oklahoma’s legislature needs to be transformed to some extent.
“We need a greater deal of accountability, we need legislators who are willing to go out and knock doors and do the work and reach out to their constituents,” Ooten explained. “Keep them informed and not keep things so ‘closed door’ where they feel inaccessible.”
HUMAN RIGHT, NOT A PRIVILEGE
A speech pathologist, Ooten graduated in 2013 with a Master’s in Speech Pathology from the University of Oklahoma.
She spent about a year at a skilled nursing facility helping the elderly and then transitioned to Sooner Start where she’s worked with children for 6-1/2 years.
Working at Sooner Start helped inspire Ooten to run for office, recognizing that access to health care should be a human right – not a privilege.
She notes that Oklahomans have suffered too long without adequate and affordable access to health care, including mental health and multidisciplinary therapy services.
As a provider herself, Ooten walks through the struggles of a confusing and overwhelming health care system with parents and their families every day.
“Sooner Start is such a wonderful model of the therapist and the family getting to decide what is appropriate for the child,” she added. “Any child who has a delay or disorder in Oklahoma can get Sooner Start for free; there’s no income requirements.
“There’s nothing holding me back from seeing any child for the appropriate amount of therapy. It’s a model of how I feel healthcare should be. I never have to turn someone down because their insurance is not going to cover visits.”
Ooten is now focused on her Senate campaign while studying for another degree, a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Central Oklahoma.
She and her husband Michael have two children, ages 5 and 2.
The Senate 22 candidate served two years as a church deacon and completed the Partners in Policymaking training for disability advocates.
The Democrat contender will continue focusing her grassroots campaign on door knocking and making phone calls leading up to the April 6th general election.
Ooten’s strategy isn’t changing much as she connects with voters of all backgrounds and political parties.
“We’re going to try to reach out to everyone,” she noted.
“Getting to know people is my favorite part. We’re going to continue to meet as many people as possible. My cell phone number is on all my material, so I get phone calls and text messages from hopefully future constituents regularly.”