- Associated Press - Saturday, July 5, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - With efforts underway to place initiatives involving storm shelters and marijuana sales on this November’s ballot, Oklahoma Democrats are wondering if the issues can benefit them this fall.

The proposals’ backers are gathering signatures in an effort to put the issues before voters in the general election. A cockfighting initiative on the 2002 ballot drew large numbers of rural Democrats to the polls, and that was the year an underdog Democratic state senator from Shawnee named Brad Henry won the governor’s mansion.

Whether this year’s measures would help one candidate or party is unclear.

Like Henry, state Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, is a longtime state legislator and a conservative Democrat from a rural area who is considered an underdog in a race for governor against incumbent Republican Mary Fallin. Dorman has long been a champion for a $500 million bond issue to help local school districts put more safe rooms and tornado shelters in schools. Fallin and other Republicans have complained about the cost.

Dorman said he’s distancing himself from the signature-gathering effort that was launched last week because he doesn’t want politics to torpedo the plan, but there’s little doubt people associate him with the proposal.

“It’s really the issue that changed my direction and made me decide to look at the race for governor,” Dorman said.

As for the two pro-marijuana initiatives - one calling for the medicinal use of pot and the other for outright legalization - supporters say they think the issue could draw younger, more liberal-leaning voters to the polls who may be more inclined to vote for Democrats.

“I think the issue is more associated with Democrats than Republicans, and by virtue of that association, the Democratic candidates will benefit,” said Chip Paul, who is spearheading the initiative to put the medicinal marijuana question on the ballot. “Candidates that come out in favor of it, I think they’re certainly going to drag some voters to their side in the general election.”

State Sen. Connie Johnson, who is vying to become the Democratic nominee in the race for Oklahoma’s open U.S. Senate seat, is one of the few Democrats who has openly supported both marijuana initiatives.

Dorman, meanwhile, is less enthusiastic.

“I will say this one will be up to the voters, and Oklahomans will get to decide if this is a policy that should go into effect or not,” Dorman said. “I’m working on other issues on the campaign trail and looking forward to seeing what Oklahoma voters decide on that.”

Oklahoma Republicans also have used state questions as an effective way to energize their base. In 2010, when Republicans swept every statewide elected office on the ballot and increased their margins in the House and Senate, questions on the ballot included a ban on Sharia law, making English the official state language and an attempt to prohibit forced participation in the federal health care law.

Keith Gaddie, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Oklahoma, said that while Dorman could get a bump at the polls if the school shelter initiative makes it onto the ballot, he said he doesn’t see the marijuana initiative being much of a factor.

“You have to have a wedge issue that’s sufficiently powerful to motivate people to turn out, and there’s just not this great clamoring mass in the state that’s determined to push pot. It’s just not there,” Gaddie said. “Now shelters, that’s a good one.”

Jacintha Bachman, the president of the Young Democrats of Oklahoma, says that while pro-marijuana voters likely will be younger and more liberal, she says the school shelter proposal seems to be gaining more traction with young Democrats.

“It’s easy for young people to remember being in school and having tornado drills, and we had tons of high school and college students who were helping with holding signature drives and doing data entry on that issue,” Bachman said. “I think that will motivate a lot of young people.”


Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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