Oklahoma's Monson Is Political Pioneer

Angela Monson is chalking up up a list of "firsts."

When the Oklahoma state Senate convenes on Feb. 3, Monson, D-Oklahoma City, will become first assistant majority floor leader. She's the first woman and first African-American to hold such an exalted post in the Sooner legislature.

Monson currently is also serving as the first black woman president of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a bipartisan national forum for state lawmakers to meet, discuss and research issues and ideas.

Monson, 47, says her new legislative leadership job brings with it a lot of responsibility.

"Being the first always requires that one make sure they do their very, very best and to demonstrate, in this case, that color and gender make no difference in terms of one's ability to serve and serve well," Monson told Stateline.org.

Monson was reelected to the Oklahoma state Senate seat in November with 75 percent of the vote, but it's possible she may only be able to serve two years of her four-year term.

After a challenge from Monson's Republican opponent, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled last September that Monson could run for a third term even though term limits restrict Oklahoma lawmakers to 12 years in office.

But the court left open whether the term limits law could prevent her from holding office beyond the maximum number of years of legislative service. Monson has served in the state Senate for nine years and and was in the House for one year before that.

Whenever her term is up, Monson said she doesn't plan to continue in elective office she's considering teaching elementary school.

But her friends and admirers wish she would keep breaking the glass ceiling all the way to the governor's office. Oklahoma has never elected a woman or African American governor.

"I don't know if Oklahoma is ready for (that). But her friends are," said Sam Bomwan, program officer for the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, a former colleague of Monson's.

As a state senator, Monson has won a national reputation for her work on healthcare reform. Her legislative successes include a state law that improves health benefits for people with mental illnesses by requiring insurance companies to provide equal benefits.

"The mental health parity bill was so significant for those who were in need of mental health services, who had coverage, but that coverage treated them differently and discriminated against them just because they had a brain disorder versus a heart or lung disorder," Monson said.

Another Monson-sponsored law allows absentee voting to be conducted on Saturdays before elections.

But not every legislative battle has ended in victory. In 1999, Monson proposed a bill to place a cap on automatic teller machine fees.

"That was fun-- we got trounced on that one," she said.

But Monson says ATM service cost increases slowed down, perhaps due to legislative attention. Later, Monson was ranked as the least pro-business state lawmaker by the Edmond, Okla., Research Institute for Economic Development.

Oklahoma Sen. President Pro Tempore Cal Hobson, D-Lexington, said, "I would bet if you did a search of legislation introduced and carried to success, Angela every year would rank in the top three as far as work accomplished. She's a workhorse, not a show horse. She's learned one of the most important rules of politics: You can get almost anything done in a legislature if you don't care who gets the credit.

"Angela could give a flip about credit. She wants results," he said

Hobson said Monson has an advantage in dealing with other legislators because she stands over 6 feet tall. "These men who are used to towering over the few women we have in the legislature, physically, can't do that to Angela," he said.

When Monson isn't at the capitol, she's often found at the Baptist church where her mother serves as pastor. Monson's sister died of lung cancer five years ago, and Monsonwho is single-- became an "instant mom" to niece Danielle, 7, and nephew Donovan, 15.

"They significantly changed my life when they came to live with me," Monson said. "I was the doting auntie, always, but when they actually become, permanently, in your care, maybe one's perspective on the things that are of value in life tend to change. They certainly did for me."

Monson's career has included working as a parole officer for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, fiscal analyst for the Oklahoma State Legislature, and executive director of the Oklahoma Health Care Project.