HD 92: Forrest Bennett ‘passionate about poverty’ (NONDOC)

By William W. Savage, III

(Editor’s note: Earlier this month, NonDoc emailed questions to more than two-dozen candidates running for various offices. More than half of those sent questions did not respond by the Oct. 20 deadline. The appearance on our site of a candidate’s responses, which have been lightly edited for style and grammar, in no way represents an endorsement from NonDoc.)

Forrest Bennett, a Democrat, currently faces Republican candidate Joe Griffin in an election to represent Oklahoma’s House District 92 in south Oklahoma City. Below, he answers general questions about his candidacy.

Despite reaching out to NonDoc on multiple occasions to criticize his opponent, Griffin did not respond to similar questions sent to him.

Why are you running for office?

I’m a fifth-generation Oklahoman. Three generations of my family live across this state today. I want my future kids to grow up and grow old here. I love my state, but we are falling behind in areas where we could be leading the nation.

We produce some of the best teachers in the country, but our schools are overcrowded and underfunded. We boast a low cost of living, but many people live at or below the poverty level. Our biggest and most innovative companies want to hire Oklahomans, but our kids aren’t getting the education they need to take the jobs, and we have a skilled-labor workforce that gets passed up in favor of out-of-state contractors. We’re seeing a renaissance in unique business districts and downtowns across the state, but our roads, bridges and infrastructure are crumbling all around us. We know that the Legislature has ignored so many of these issues for so long that people are really starting to hurt. Anyone running for office this year and knocking on doors will see that.

I’m running because, as a native Oklahoman, I know we can do better for our friends and neighbors who are struggling.

What have you done in the last 10 years that most qualifies you to hold this office?

I have been a student in Oklahoma’s public school system, and I’ve been an educator in it. I’ve worked to change policy from the outside with partners from across the political spectrum. I worked with conservative Republicans on privacy issues and with teachers and parents in low-income neighborhoods to build advocacy networks for their communities.

Most importantly, I grew up here. Oklahoma has always been and will always be my home. My parents, grandparents, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins live across the state, and I have a vested interest in making Oklahoma work for all of them.

Oklahoma’s education funding has been a topic most relevant this election cycle. Are you voting for or against SQ 779 on Nov. 8?

I’ve talked to a lot of teachers and parents on both sides of this issue. The one thing both sides can agree on is that it is unacceptable that we find ourselves in this position. This is the Legislature’s responsibility. They’ve kicked the can down the road for so long that the public understandably took matters into their own hands.

It’s not a perfect solution. I don’t like that we use sales tax as a funding source, because it is a regressive tax that puts a heavier burden on the backs of the poor and working class. And the conversation around raises for teachers makes other state employees — those who work for agencies whose budgets have been absolutely cut to the bone over the last few years — feel ignored. Many of them have gone without a raise for eight or more years as well.

I would prefer a solution that takes care of all of our state employees, that doesn’t put an undue burden on the working class, one that possibly gives teachers a raise of more than $5,000. Proponents of SQ 779 have brought this conversation to the forefront of voters’ minds, though, and I’m glad to see the debate that has ensued. We can all agree that it’s past time to treat our teachers with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Aside from education, what topic are you most passionate about?

Education is such a central talking point for so many people in part because it can be a tool to lift generations of kids out of poverty and onto a better future. But effective government can’t rely on just one policy area if our goal is to create an environment where prosperity is possible for anyone willing to work for it.

Today, struggles with mental health and substance abuse, gone unaddressed, cause families to spiral into poverty. Our criminal justice system — one where, in OKC, the number of officers on the street is the same as it was in the late 1980s, and where our prisons are overcrowded and understaffed — creates an environment where recidivism is more likely than rehabilitation, which leads to broken and struggling families.

Our economy isn’t offering good-paying jobs to working class people, making poverty an all too real threat and, in some cases, a reality. I’ve met elderly and disabled people who have to choose, month after month, whether to buy their prescriptions or buy groceries for their family. In a country that claims to have the best healthcare system in the world, we’re certainly leaving some people behind.

So I’m most passionate about lifting people out of poverty, and to do that, we need to improve in all of the above areas. We need more proactive mental health and substance abuse programs. We need a smarter criminal justice system that offers community policing and legitimate avenues to rehabilitation. We need an economy that works for the middle class and the working class. We need access to affordable, quality healthcare because it will save the state money and make our people healthier and more productive.

I’m passionate about poverty, and that means I have to be passionate about all sorts of public policy. There is no simple solution to any problem we face, but there are solutions. We just have to do the hard work to find them.

What is one piece of legislation you are considering filing next year?

I have several ideas, and if I’m elected, I want to make sure that I’m not duplicating any efforts by other new or returning legislators, which is something that happens a lot when bill filing happens.

In HD 92, an issue that I keep revisiting with many, many voters is our social safety net. Hard-working folks who fall into hard times are helped by what is left of our social services, but there isn’t anything there to help them to get back on their feet. What’s left is a system that essentially rewards people who aren’t motivated to get back to work but hurts those who do.

The gutting of the earned income tax credit (EITC) is a prime example of that. I met a single mom while knocking doors who is raising her kids by herself, and she relied on the EITC to allow her to work and afford childcare. She is one of thousands of Oklahomans who suffered when the Legislature chose to balance the budget by cutting those tax credits that help low-income families. There are millions of dollars worth of tax credits worth re-evaluating, but this wasn’t one of them. It allowed people who want to work keep their jobs and put money back in their pockets, allowing them to participate fully in our economy.

I want to work on these issues, and if that means filing legislation, I’ll do it. If I could be more effective working with other legislators to pass a bill someone else puts forth, I’ll do that instead. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter so much if my name is on a bill as much as if the people in HD 92 are getting legislation passed that works for them.

You operated the Bennett Foundation for Public Service, which had its 501(c)(3) designation granted in 2014 but revoked in May 2016 after failing to file Form 990s as required by law. What happened? What did the foundation do during those years? How much money did it raise, and how much money did it spend? Is there money remaining in the foundation’s bank account?

It was a non profit I set up a few years ago but have since closed down.

When I was growing up, our family wasn’t very political. But my grandmother, Joanne Bennett, was the first woman ever elected county commissioner in her county and among the first women elected to that position in the state of Oklahoma. She wasn’t in office anymore by the time I was old enough to walk and talk, but she remained very civically engaged. She was — and still is — dismayed by low voter turnout and the decline of civic education she sees. She talked to me about politics and policy a lot when I was growing up, and I credit her for my interest in civics. So we set this up as a tribute to her and the goal of supporting and promoting civic engagement among young people.

We know that a lot of young people are typically less enthusiastic about voting and sometimes feel left out of the process. I wanted to encourage involvement, but I quickly learned that a lot of what I had planned, like hosting educational policy workshops, was already being done by other great organizations.

I was also in graduate school at the time and realized that I wasn’t going to be able to give the project the time and attention it deserved. We had raised enough to host a policy workshop for college kids in 2014, and, after we hosted it, I decided to close the account and notified the IRS that I didn’t intend to continue on, allowing the 501(c)(3) status to lapse.

I still want to advocate for civic engagement and education, and I have supported and participated in other more established organizations that work on those issues. There are some great bipartisan organizations in Oklahoma that are working to encourage young people to get involved, like the Oklahoma Intercollegiate Legislature, where I am a board member. I encourage young people to get involved in campus groups and attend policy discussions by Oklahoma Policy Institute, Oklahoma Watch and the Young Democrats or Young Republican groups.

I’ve learned that we don’t always have to reinvent the wheel when we want to change and improve our communities, we just have to figure out where our efforts are needed the most. Through trial and error throughout my life, I’ve learned this important lesson, and if I’m elected to the legislature, it’s a lesson I’ll take with me.

HD 92: Forrest Bennett ‘passionate about poverty’

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