TULSA, Okla. — “I live in the oil patch,” said Oklahoma musician John Williams as he swung a guitar around his front and introduced his acoustic song “The Good Earth” to an Oklahoma Sierra Club crowd in mid-October. “We had a good well — good drinking water. Then the fracking boom hit, and they started injecting [wastewater] all in our area. Our little aquifer became a saltwater basin.”
He turned to Ashley Nicole McCray, the Democratic nominee for the state’s corporation commissioner.
“I’ve had my dealings with the Corporation Commission,” he said. “And I’m on your side.”
The race for corporation commissioner — a powerful but obscure statewide position — is one of Oklahoma’s most interesting this election cycle, largely because of McCray, who has brought more awareness to the office than perhaps any other candidate in its history.
In this deeply red state, the 34-year-old McCray is running against Bob Anthony, a 30-year Republican incumbent and the longest-tenured utility commissioner in the country. Anthony, a fixture in the state’s Republican Party, has high name recognition for the position and a well-funded campaign. (His campaign did not agree to an interview.)
As a Democrat, McCray’s chances here would seem easy enough to predict, if not for several variables: a citizen base increasingly frustrated with preferential treatment for fossil fuel interests, poor funding for education (often blamed on unfair tax advantages for the oil and gas industry) and a decadeslong swarm of earthquakes due to wastewater injection wells, a byproduct of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) — which the commissioners have the power to approve or reject.
She and her supporters believe she has more than a fighting chance. While even moderate political platforms are tough bets in conservative Oklahoma, many residents who have never voted for a Democrat have signaled their support for her. Striking a chord with the state’s populist roots, McCray — an enrolled member of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma — advocates for greater transparency from the very powerful, behind-closed-doors Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
The OCC’s mandate is to regulate industries deemed necessary for public welfare. Its tasks include regulating utility companies for rates and reliability, overseeing oil and gas drilling and wastewater disposal, overseeing underground petroleum storage and regulating telecom companies. Its commissioners are the most powerful economic regulators in the state, and the decisions they make affect all Oklahomans, whether through utility costs or the regulation of businesses and projects that affect air and water quality.
The OCC has historically regulated with an industry-friendly approach, the idea being that what’s good for business is good for the economy. But many environmental advocates see a necessary conflict between the commission’s ostensible commitment to public welfare and the politically powerful fossil fuel industry interests that have long had the OCC’s ear. And with the power to approve or reject wastewater injection wells, the commissioners essentially hold their fingers over Oklahoma’s earthquake button.
“The OCC has direct oversight of the earthquake issue,” said Johnson Grimm-Bridgewater, the director of the Oklahoma Sierra Club. “They are not taking it seriously enough.”
A U.S. Geological Survey report published in June found that ancient faults may have been reactivated by wastewater injection, which is known to induce earthquakes. Oklahoma has experienced high seismic activity since 2009, similar to hazard levels in active California areas. Last summer it was the most seismically active state in the Lower 48.
McCray’s pledge to limit the approval of wastewater injection wells rings positive with many Oklahomans affected by dropping property values in communities with injection wells, contaminated well water — on which many of those communities depend — and frequent earthquakes and the damage they cause.
Stop Fracking Payne County — a citizen-run organization working to end the practice in the county, which is largely agricultural and is home to two reservoirs — supports McCray.
“[McCray] is highly educated and has a lot of experience … She will be an advocate for the people,” said Kel Pickens, one of five co-founders of the Payne County group, the motto of which is, “They underestimate the persistence of our red dirt resistance.”
“Unless [McCray] gets in,” Pickens said, “it’ll be the same old, same old.”
Several other residents in affected communities were unwilling to be quoted as supporting her, citing fears of retaliation from the commission and Anthony if she is not elected.
“The people I’ve found to support me are unlikely,” McCray said, such as “conservative Republicans in rural Oklahoma, like in Fay and Bridge Creek.” She added, “Affluent white communities involved in eminent domain cases are concerned about their house values plummeting, and they’re concerned about the water.”
McCray hopes to bring her advocacy for renewable energy to the commission as well.
She was part of the Ready for 100 campaign, which helped Norman become the first city in the state to commit to 100 percent renewable energy (by 2035), and she said the issue is not only an environmental necessity but also good politics.
Oklahoma trails the rest of the nation in solar power, the fastest-growing energy industry in the country and one that enjoys bipartisan appeal because of its potential for economic development and self-sufficiency. Though the state is ranked in the top 10 for solar potential, it sits in the bottom 10 for production.
While commissioners are not empowered to order that renewable energy be developed, they may state strong preferences for the utility companies they regulate (and for which they set rates).
An Activist Seeks Political Office
McCray, who holds a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees, has worked as an activist and community organizer since 2015. Most recently, she worked as an environmental consultant with Indigenous Life Ways, seeking to educate Oklahomans about renewable resources and sustainability.
She founded a camp protesting an oil and gas pipeline in southeastern Oklahoma in March 2017. In February of this year, she unfurled a banner over the balcony in the Oklahoma State Capitol gallery during Gov. Mary Fallin’s final State of the State address. The banner pictured Fallin’s face and read, “State of despair,” referring to Oklahoma’s environmental, educational and budget crises.
Though she cut her teeth in activism, McCray has reduced her involvement as she has focused on influencing the political process in different ways.
“I’m running for this office because I feel like I’ve reached the apex of my activism career,” she said. “I’ve been in situations since the banner drop where I’ve been targeted by police, so it’s not safe for me to continue. Because they’ve changed their tactics and strategies here in Oklahoma — especially as far as big oil is concerned, pushing down against anybody resistant to that — we’ve also had to adjust our tactics and strategies.”
McCray is the first to acknowledge that although her platform has resonated with potential voters, her campaign has been a decidedly do-it-yourself operation.
“This is a completely grassroots campaign,” she told the crowd at the Sierra Club event. According to her most recent Oklahoma Ethics Commission filing, she has raised a little over $12,000, compared with Anthony’s $56,000, plus $435,000 in loans. In the Democratic primary, she beat her closest Democratic opponent by some 100,000 votes, while Anthony beat his by only about 36,500. In runoffs, Anthony got 53.61 percent of the Republican vote, and McCray had 65.08 percent on the Democratic side.
“I’ve been doing a lot of this by myself and with the help of my friends,” she said, though she has since hired one staff person. “We are building a plane in midflight.”
A Seat At The Table
While she said her campaign can appeal to citizens concerned about the OCC and the industries it regulates, McCray also said it’s important for indigenous people like her to have a seat at the table.
“I think it’s important for us to identify the places where we can have an impact,” she said. “Oklahoma has 39 federally recognized tribes, and yet we don’t have a voice in our statewide electorate.”
According to a 2016 national study done by the Women Donors Network, out of 41,000 elected officials, 0.03 percent were Native American. If elected, McCray would be just the second Native American woman elected to statewide office in Oklahoma.
Native American women across the country are running for public office in record numbers. More than 50 are seeking legislative or statewide offices. (Sharice Davids, running in Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District, and Deb Haaland, in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, will be the first Native American women elected to Congress if they win next week.)
“If we make our voices heard in these more mainstream political spaces — and more non-Native people are paying attention to that — those are the people we’re trying to get the message to,” McCray said.
A few days after her Sierra Club talk, I saw Anthony at a party in Oklahoma City passing out printed copies of an article from OK Energy Today, an online publication friendly to the oil and gas industry. Titled “Environmental activist vows to bring ‘revolution’ to the corporation commission,” the piece takes aim at her activist past, mentions a protest against a “Cowboys and Indians” themed party at the University of Oklahoma and shows a photo of her wearing a shirt reading “Return stolen Native land.”
That photo and much of the same content is also on a website intended to be inflammatory and created in McCray’s name, though she said she doesn’t know who made it.
She said she is not surprised that her career in activism has drawn the ire of conservatives.
“They want to paint me as a radical. If you consider concern for our water, future, land, people and properties radical, then, yes, I’m very radical,” she said. “But opening up the door for corporations at the expense of life, water and longevity? I think that’s radical.”