(The article was updated 1:40 p.m. Aug. 19 to correct a quotation)
While on an important phone call, a young college instructor is trying to answer questions and wrangle two small children at the same time. It’s a juggling act, one familiar to working families across the country. Dylan Billings is betting big that his experiences mean he has more in common with the average Oklahoma voter than Sen. Jim Inhofe.
“I really understand a lot of the struggles Oklahomans are going through right now. I’ve worked for minimum wage. I have student debt. I have a family. I know about worrying about putting food on the table,” Billings said. “Even healthcare, and how that can affect a person’s finances. For a long time, in my early adulthood, I had to pay out of pocket for my medicine, and I’m asthmatic, so there’s medicines I have to take every single day, so I’ve paid $300-400 out of pocket for medicine. Those are the struggles I think Oklahomans really care about, and those are things I want to talk about the most.”
These life experiences are now culminating in Billings’ announcement to run as a Democrat in the 2020 Senate race.
“It really kind of goes back to where I came from. I didn’t grow up in a very wealthy family. There were times where we didn’t even have a place to stay, we were going from family member to family member having them help us out. Both my parents were actually high school dropouts. It was tough. As hard as my dad worked, he was a truck driver working 60 hours a week sometimes, we still had to make ends meet sometimes, so we did rely on government programs to get through. There were times when we were on food stamps ... There were times where we were on SoonerCare in order to keep us healthy,” he said. “My entire life I was on the free and reduced lunch program, which allowed me to focus in class instead of sitting hungry at my desk. I really attribute a lot of my success, not just graduating high school but going on and getting my bachelor’s and my PhD to having those programs available for me. I do really feel like those kinds of programs are coming under attack – the current administration doesn’t necessarily think about the people behind the programs, just the numbers associated with them.”
Inhofe has backed the current administration almost every step of the way, and Billings wants to replace him. That would make Billings the state’s first Democratic U.S. Senator since David Boren resigned in 1994. Inhofe, who replaced Boren in 1994, has been a member of Congress since 1987, serving as the representative for Oklahoma’s 1st District. Inhofe is a known entity, and he has little trouble fundraising.
“I’m not delusional,” Billings said. “My PhD is in political science, so I definitely know what I’m getting into. Somebody told me that winning this race would be like pushing a boulder up a hill, but I feel like I’m not the only one pushing this boulder. There are thousands of Oklahomans who feel the same why I do that are going to be helping me along the way. My main goal with this race is going to empower that segment of Oklahoma that feels as if they have been left out of that conversation for so long.”
And though Inhofe is the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, on the Environment and Public Works Committee and Small Business Committee, Billings suggest that what people know publicly of Inhofe may not be that hard to overcome.
“When we’re talking about Jim Inhofe, there are obviously deep philosophical differences between him and I. He’s been in Congress for 32 years now. He is really known for bringing a snowball onto the Senate floor as if that undid years of scientific research,” Billings said. “Anytime I talk to people from out of state … if I mention Oklahoma or if Sen. Inhofe comes into the conversation, that’s what they know about him. So after 32 years, what they know about him is he doesn’t believe in basic science.”
Inhofe, however, may not even be Billings’ opponent. There’s a primary first. So far, there is Mike Workman, who was the Democratic nominee for Senate in 2016 in a race lost to incumbent Sen. James Lankford. He informally announced in April his candidacy for 2020. Ballotpedia listed a Carole Brown as a candidate but the News Press has not confirmed that race.
Before any of that, Billings has a class to teach. The Edmond native starts Monday as a visiting assistant professor in Oklahoma State University’s Political Science Department teaching government. Should he be worried about how it might be perceived to run for office while teaching political science?
“I teach people how to consider information to make their own judgments about politics. This is going to be completely separate from my career.” Billings said. “I know that some people might want to bring it up, this is going to be completely separate. I teach them the structure – the basics of American government, how to consider information when they’re forming their political judgments … I’ve been teaching for over five years now, and I’ve never had students complain. I’m going to work probably harder than necessary to make sure these two things are completely separate from each other.”