Mauree Turner never thought she’d run for office.
“I’m Black, Muslim, femme, queer, born and raised in Oklahoma — politics was the last thing in my crosshairs,” the 27-year-old progressive political newcomer said.
But in less than three weeks, she could become the state’s first Muslim lawmaker.
Running for state House in Oklahoma’s 88th district, Turner secured an upset win in the June primary, defeating Democratic incumbent Rep. Jason Dunnington. She will face Republican Kelly Barlean, a former attorney and Washington state legislator, in November.
“Oklahomans have representation that doesn’t have our shared lived experience — that hasn’t been in a family that had to live off SNAP benefits, [or] a single-parent household because one parent was incarcerated,” said Turner, a yearslong community organizer. “That was my upbringing, and it’s not a unique one.”
Turner’s progressive platform is centered around criminal justice reform, expanding access to affordable health care and pushing for a higher minimum wage.
Turner was raised in a single-parent household. Her mother worked up to three jobs and her father was incarcerated for years, giving Turner firsthand experience of what it’s like to struggle to make ends meet and to be affected by “a carceral system built on revenge rather than rehabilitation,” as she put it.
Turner, who now wears hijab, grew up in a multifaith household. She sang in a Baptist choir, since her mother is Baptist, and learned from her father’s Islamic faith after he converted while in prison.
She worked as a community organizer for the Council on American-Islamic Relations while attending Oklahoma State University, and later became a field director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s criminal justice reform project, Campaign for Smart Justice.
When she began recruiting candidates to run for state legislature, Turner was repeatedly told that she should consider running herself. In February, Turner announced her candidacy, saying “it has never been a more important time for those closest to our state’s problems to be structuring the solutions.”
Since Oklahoma’s redistricting in 1964, which created Oklahoma’s 88th, none of the representatives in the seat have been Black or Latinx, even as the district is about 20% Latinx and 10% Black. (Al McAffrey, who represented the district from 2007 to 2012, is Native American.)
“For a long time, we’ve had people legislating over our bodies who haven’t had our shared lived experiences,” Turner said.
If she wins, Turner will follow in the footsteps of trailblazing queer representatives who’ve held the seat: McAffrey was the first openly gay person in the state’s legislature, and was followed by Kay Floyd, who is openly lesbian and served until 2014.
Growing up, Turner had a harder time “coming out” as Muslim, as she put it, than doing so as queer. One friend she told in college called her a “towelhead,” an Islamophobic slur. Another called her “un-American.”
As the state’s potential first Muslim lawmaker, Turner thinks it would be “formative for young Muslim folks to see” her elected.
“We are no longer fighting for a seat at the table,” Turner said of her barrier-breaking candidacy. “We’re creating a whole new table where everybody eats.”
“We are no longer fighting for a seat at the table. We’re creating a whole new table where everybody eats.”
Central to Turner’s platform is criminal justice reform, in a state that has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation. On the heels of a summer of racial justice reckoning nationwide around Black people being killed by police, Turner said she “realized this isn’t a system that can be reformed. We have to reimagine and rebuild it with communities in mind.”
She notes how criminal justice issues touch every other area of political life, with some of the main factors that contribute to incarceration including homelessness, substance abuse and a lack of access to quality education and job opportunities. That’s why she’s also pushing for improved access to health care, like safe needle exchange programs, as well as raising the minimum wage. Oklahoma’s current minimum wage is $7.25 — the federal floor.
Turner has been endorsed by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — one of the first Muslim women ever in U.S. Congress — as well as famed women’s political action committee EMILY’s List.