Dorman focuses on child advocacy after legislative career
To successfully talk to a legislator, Joe Dorman suggests a friendly interaction with their assistant, a 90-second speech and a firm handshake.
These tips were part of a list he gave advocates who assembled at the Capitol last week for the third annual Child Advocacy Day, an event co-hosted by the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, of which Dorman is CEO.
“Let your voice be heard. Don’t be afraid or intimidated,” he said to those who attended training before going to find their district’s lawmakers. “Legislators need to know that people care.”
Dorman, a longtime state representative and 2014 Democratic candidate for governor, has used his political experience to push bipartisan legislation that impacts children and families at all levels. And OICA has grown in influence and membership despite a $1 million budget reduction since Dorman moved to the helm in 2016.
“I want to be there as a resource and to help promote the good,” Dorman said. “When we agree, we
work together. When we disagree, we find a way to argue these things out, come up with solutions and still work for the people of Oklahoma.”
Before Dorman was a state representative, he served as a staffer for seven years, attending to the needs of whatever state legislator he was assigned to. Staff positions are nonpartisan, Dorman said, so he learned early on how to navigate compromises and have tough conversations.
But before Dorman was a staffer, he was a kid with poor parents in the small, rural town of Rush Springs
Dorman was still able to be involved — something that can be hard for kids with poor parents. He participated in his local church, Cub Scouts, 4-H and more. When it was time for school trips or other extras, Dorman’s community would rally to help him raise money and find opportunities to grow and succeed.
“That’s the message we are trying to send. When kids don’t have a stable family unit — they’re in foster care, their parents are incarcerated, whatever the situation might be — it’s going to take a community effort to step up and help make a difference.”
Dorman’s life before elected office shaped him into the political influencer he is today. His firsthand experience made him sympathetic to the needs of kids without privilege, and his interactions with all types of viewpoints pushed him to be creative to accomplish his goals.
“I’ve never had a problem working across the aisle,” Dorman said. “That’s helped with this position. That’s how people know me.”
OICA’s legislative agenda for 2019 focuses on policies and legislation that are typically higher up on the Democratic to-do list, such as increasing funding for school counselors and mental health resources, passing criminal justice reforms, expanding affordable housing and growing food resources for kids and families during the summer, among others.
Sen. Greg McCortney, R-Ada, said since he was elected in 2016 and Dorman took over OICA, the two have found ways to work behind the scenes to collaborate across party ideologies. McCortney has supported bills Dorman advocates for and has participated in conversations to explore bipartisan solutions.
“It’s been good to be able to talk with Joe and have some of those conversations that are sometimes hard to have inside (the Capitol),” McCortney said. “The parties are going to have different ways they want to go about solving problems, and I think that’s why building some of those relationships between Democrats and Republicans so we can have those conversations and find the best ways to do these things is important.”
Dorman said his organization has to focus comprehensively on issues affecting kids because there are so many layers to what makes a healthy childhood, from food and shelter to loving and supportive relationships. And this allows for legislators from both sides to find an issue they are interested in or feel comfortable with, look at a solution that they’d be willing to back and go from there.
But legislators have to deal with many problems, and this can be overwhelming, so Dorman lives by the idea that something is better than nothing.
“I remember that, as a lawmaker, you wonder if you can do something that really will make a difference,” Dorman said. “I truly believe we can make things better in this state. The camaraderie that is at the Capitol right now is good and we are overcoming some partisan issues. And OICA is there to remind them that children are not a partisan issue.”
McCortney said it can be difficult to keep track of all the issues that demand attention as a lawmaker, so advocacy groups that act as experts to provide data, analysis and policy suggestions are invaluable.
“We have so many things that we have to focus on up here, and a lot of times, something like child advocacy is not the burning dumpster fire right in front of us at the moment and so it can get pushed to the back,” McCortney said. “Having organizations that help advocate for that to stay on the top of our minds and stay a focus is huge because we have no shortage of things that we have to take care of today, right now.
“I would hate to see us forget the next generation because we are just so busy trying to take care of today’s problem.”
During last week’s OICA advocacy day, Paige Henderson took Dorman’s advice to heart. She walked into Rep. Lewis Moore’s office, greeted his assistant, shook Moore’s hand and gave him a pitch about why she had come to the Capitol and her passion for vulnerable children in Oklahoma.
“This wasn’t my first time up at the Capitol during a day like this, but it was the first time I’ve gotten the courage to come and find my representative,” she said. “(The training session) helped me to hone in in my mind what is important to me and to make sure that I put my representative on the spot and actually ask, ‘What are you doing?’”
Child Advocacy Day is one of many events hosted by OICA throughout the year to promote legislation, train advocates and get face time with political figures.
Dorman has helped bring the group, which was created after a lawsuit against the state because of inadequate juvenile prison conditions, back to its original mission of advocating at the state Capitol. He was hired specifically because of his legislative background, and in 2017, when the organization lost $1 million in grants and shrunk in scope and employee size, he saw it as an opportunity.
Now, OICA has only three full-time staffers and five contract employees to monitor all bills that go through the Legislature, make amendment suggestions, decide which issues they will advocate for, host training and events, do community outreach, organize programs for needy kids, fund-raise and more. But Dorman said they are doing better and more impactful work.
There are plenty of other organizations that work with children, but Dorman’s group is unique in the intensity of its advocacy, said Annette Jacobi, director of the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth.
Jacobi said there are strict guidelines on who can advocate or lobby at the Capitol, meaning most state employees can’t be involved, so OICA is the public arm to children’s issues.
“The partnership is really nice because when we see systems failing or we see problems we think need a fix that is broader than a little tweak, then we can call upon Joe’s organization to either be an advocate or facilitate and bring people together to find solutions,” Jacobi said. “It’s a really great partnership.”
Dorman’s contract with OICA is up in September, but he said he plans to stick around. There are issues he still wants to fight for, like school suspension time limits and returning the Earned Income Tax Credit to families, among hundreds of others.
“I’ve got one of the toughest jobs,” Dorman said with a laugh. “I advocate for 900,000 Oklahomans and not a single one of them can vote. ... But I’m happy here.
“I’ve said I won’t ever run for political office again as long as I feel like I’m in a place where I’m making a difference and doing the best I can for my mission. And as long as I feel like I’m making that difference for kids here at OICA, then I want to stay here for the long haul.”