Standing on a busy street corner in Midwest City, Jim Rogers, waves to passing cars as he fights to hold on to two large handmade campaign signs in the Oklahoma wind.
The signs Rogers holds are white poster board scrawled with various political messages written in black permanent marker. Emblazoned in white letters on his bright red sweater, its shoulders beaten by the sun, are the words “Oklahoma Jim Rogers U.S. Senate 2004.”
“I get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and on the street by 5 o’clock, and I campaign at restaurant centers and on the corner and wherever I can find a crowd gathering or leaving,” Rogers said. “I stay with it all day.”
Rogers, 79, faces state Sen. Constance Johnson in a runoff election Aug. 26 for the Democratic nomination in a U.S. Senate race that is garnering national attention. The winner will face U.S. Rep. James Lankford for the seat being vacated by Sen. Tom Coburn.
The occasional passing car will honk, and rarely, someone walking past will stop and talk for a moment before moving on, said Mark, a taxi driver who asked that his last name not be used. He drives the yellow taxi that takes Rogers from corner to corner to campaign, as he puts it.
Mark said Rogers pays him about $30 an hour to wait in his car as he waves to what he hopes will be his future constituents.
Rogers has run for office in Oklahoma for more than a decade, getting tens of thousands of votes as a candidate for not only the U.S. Senate, but also lieutenant governor and president. In 2010, he beat Democratic challenger Mark Myles in the primary, eventually losing to Coburn.
A past educator
Rogers, who has proven elusive over the years, prefers to do his interviews in person, refuses to be videotaped, and is often guarded when asked personal questions. Rogers told The Oklahoman in 2010 he was a professor, but refused to say where he had taught. His secrecy has fueled speculation about his past.
“I heard the story — a dying rich man — about me. Scratch out the rich and scratch out the dying, and you probably have it right,” Rogers said. “This year it was the severe handicap thing. Well, I may be severe handicap, but I’m almost 80. What do you expect me to be?”
A spokeswoman for the University of Wyoming confirmed Rogers received a master’s degree in physics in 1973. He received an additional graduate degree in curriculum instruction the following year. Rogers said he taught at several colleges, including Seminole State College, Connors State College and Langston University. Spokeswomen at all three schools confirmed he had taught there.
Rogers said he left teaching decades ago and now relies on income from oil and gas rights to survive and to fund his various campaigns.
Rogers said if elected he would work to keep money and jobs in the U.S. His focus is economic and debt-related issues. He said he would put more emphasis on helping smaller businesses and lower-income workers.
“I’m sorry, if they’re living today and in politics, I don’t think they’re making a great enough effort to start at the bottom,” Rogers said. “We’ve always had this trickle down. How about bubble up? Let’s have some bubble up, from the bottom, grassroots level, so the guy down at the bottom, he gets his first for awhile.”
Candidates like Rogers serve a valuable purpose, said Keith Gaddie, chairman of the University of Oklahoma political science department. They make sure no one in their district wins an election without facing an opponent.
“Every state, every community has got a guy like Jim Rogers,” Gaddie said.
“The literature calls them hopeless amateurs, in that they don’t have a lot of political experience and there’s no hope that they’ll win. But nonetheless these are real citizens doing what real citizens do, which is participating, making sure that we have alternatives.”
Rogers smiles when asked about being labeled a perennial candidate, someone who never wins.
“It doesn’t make any difference how many times you lose. The thing that counts is the time you win,” Rogers said. “How’s that for an answer?”
In 1932, an Oklahoma schoolteacher named William Rogers declared candidacy for congressman-at-large, using the abbreviated first name “Will.” Rogers won in a landslide victory and held the seat for five consecutive terms. After all, who in Oklahoma at the time wouldn’t check the box next to the name Will Rogers?
A slew of candidates running with famous names began to emerge, from Robert E. Lee to Mae West, an Oklahoma City woman who received more than 65,000 votes for commissioner of charities and corrections in 1938.
“Rogers is an old Oklahoma name, right? And, Jim Rogers sounds like someone you ought to know, right? Well, there is something to be said for it,” said Gaddie, noting Rogers also helps build his name recognition every time he runs.
However, it does not bode well for the state of the Oklahoma Democratic Party that a man whose idea of campaigning is standing on a street corner is able to walk away with so many votes year after year, Gaddie said.
Opponent for runoff
Sitting in her campaign headquarters, two modest homes near the state Capitol, just off NE 23, Johnson’s differences from her runoff opponent couldn’t be more striking. Staffers work on computers and campaign literature and signs are stacked in the front room.
It’s clear Johnson is putting a lot of time, effort and money into her run to succeed Coburn.
“I grew up a block down that way on 22nd Street,” Johnson said. “This is where I started. So, it symbolically made sense for me. This is who I am.”
Johnson attributes Rogers’ success at gathering votes not to a struggling Democratic Party, but to a sense of disillusionment in the political process that is growing among voters.
“I’ve seen the articles and it’s amazing that his approach has just been being consistent, and so that has created some name recognition for him. But I also think it speaks to the state of mind of a lot of voters who have just checked out,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who has championed issues in the state Senate such as drug sentencing reform and decreased reliance on prison privatization, said the runoff only gives her more of an opportunity to present her message to voters. Expressing confidence in her ability to beat Rogers, she said she gives little thought to her Democratic opponent.
“What is there to think about him,” Johnson said. “I don’t know him, I’ve never seen him, I’ve never heard him speak. But I’m going to be challenging him though to step up and respect the voters enough to come to a town hall forum.”
Asked if he would break tradition and participate in a debate, Rogers said it’s a possibility.
“If my throat gets clear, I might consider it,” he said.