Last Monday, I had the opportunity to interview my state representative, Kyle Hilbert. Some of my family and I had the opportunity to help him in his campaign last year, and developed a relationship with him and his wife.
Before his work in the Oklahoma legislature, he served as President of the OSU Student Government Association, and was named an OSU Senior of Significance. He came last week to do a interview with me about his involvement in politics, what it’s like being a twenty-three year old representative, and his encouragement to the next generation of leaders.
Learn and Enjoy!
Julia: How long have you been interested and/or involved in politics?
Kyle: I’ve been interested in politics all my life. I remember when I was younger staying up late to see if George Bush won the presidency or not, and then come to find out, we had to wait a couple months to find out if he had won or not and everything. So, I’ve always been very interested in it — I mean growing up, history was my favorite subject, and government classes. I always thought maybe one day I would run for office, [but] never actually foresaw myself at 23 years old being in the legislature. But, when I was at Oklahoma State University, some different doors opened for me and I had the opportunity to run for Student Body President my junior year at OSU. Through that process I learned a lot about campaigning and everything, and I think the most eye opening thing through that experience was that you can’t do it on your own. It takes a team effort, and there were a lot of people that put in a lot of hours, volunteer hours, to help us be successful, and I couldn’t have done it without them. Then my wife, at the time girlfriend, Alexis, put in a lot of time coordinating everything and making sure that we had people in the various voting stations at the right time and everything. But that kind of opened the door to where I am now.
Julia: What inspired you to get into politics?
Kyle: So, my inspiration to run was — I was finishing up my senior year at OSU and was, like I said, not planning on running right after graduation from OSU; but my state representative at the time, James Leewright, had decided that he was going to run for the state senate. Whenever that happened, I got a few phone calls. The first one was from my dad, telling me, “Kyle, there’s people around here that think you would make a great candidate for this position.” And at first, I thought, “That’s just my dad talking, whatever.” But then, my AG teacher called me and told me the same thing, and my AG teacher is like a second dad to me almost. And hearing that from a second person, telling me the same thing. Then, a couple weeks later, Representative Leewright called me and said the same thing – “Hey, I think you’d make a great candidate. You should really think about this.” So, at that time I really prayed about it, and spent a lot of time trying to decide, because everybody that had talked to me had said the same thing: “Kyle, we think you’d make a great candidate.” To me, I guess my inspiration was that I did not want to be a good candidate — I think that what we have is too many people that are really good candidates, but they’re not necessarily really good representatives. To me, I wanted to make sure that I could not only be a good candidate, but that, if elected, also be a good representative. I had some good inspirations that helped me, like Skye McNeil — she served for eight years in the seat that I currently hold — and she wasn’t 21 when she decided to first run, but she was in her mid-twenties. She was able to be very successful, was majority whip and some other things in her eight years in the legislature. So, seeing that and how she was able to be successful from a young age was a huge inspiration to me. I decided to run, and hopefully make a difference.
Julia: Why did you want to run for representative at your age?
Kyle: To me, you know, I wanted to make sure that our district had somebody that was conservative, that was going to stand up for fiscally responsible government, but also for family values and for things like that. But, as far as being younger, I think a lot of people can use that as a disadvantage, but also, I kind of see it as an advantage, because the state government makes laws for people of all ages, both young and old. I don’t think it would be right if every single person in the legislature was 70-plus years old, because then you don’t have the perspective of the younger generation. Something that I’ve gotten to see being in the legislature is how the intergenerational mix really works effectively. And I do not think it would be a good idea to have an all-millennial legislature. That would be a terrible idea! You see, YouTube wasn’t good enough for us, so we had to go to Vine, because our attention spans were only six seconds. So, we would have an ADD legislature if we did that. But, having the younger generation as well as older individuals helps us to have different perspectives and be able to see things through a different lens. I know my eyes have been opened, just from older members of the legislature, and I know I’ve been able to help them to see things from my perspective. Which, I think, just makes for better government.
Julia: What was running for office like?
Kyle: So, within ten days of filing a candidate committee, to run, you have to file with the Ethics Commission at the state Capitol. So I got dressed up in a suit, and headed to Oklahoma City, and I was very excited to go and file to run for office. But I go into the basement of the Capitol, the Ethics Commission, with my paperwork in hand, and the lady — the receptionist there — in just the nicest voice possible looks up at me and says, “Oh, are you here to apply for a scholarship?” And I was like, “No, actually I’m here to run for office.” So that was kind of a funny moment, but also a reality check for me of what, you know, was in store for me running at a younger age. That was something that I faced a lot on the doorstep. People would look at my pushcard and look at me and say, “Are you even old enough to do this?” I got asked that question many times. But to me, I appreciated getting asked that question, because then I could discuss some of my experiences that I’ve had, that have helped prepare me for this position, both working for the family business growing up, and my experience at Oklahoma State, and different things. Then, on top of that, my ideas and willingness to work hard to be a good legislator, those were things I was able to talk about when they would ask those questions.
Julia: Were there any challenges you had to overcome by running at your age? What were the advantages to running at your age?
his answer combines these two questions
Kyle: Kyle: I think the biggest challenge was — I guess I had a really unique scenario, because I ran unopposed for five months. I declared in November and filing wasn’t until April, and it was for that full five months, I was totally unopposed. So, one of the challenges at that time was convincing people that I was qualified for the job, and have the experience and the ideas necessary to complete the job. But, leading into the next question, combined, one of the advantages I had is actually after the democrat primary wrapped up, I ended up being the oldest person running by a few months. So, what started out as a weakness actually kind of turned into an advantage, with having more experience and things of that nature. But, the downsides of being young is it’s harder to get people convinced in the first place. On the flip side, if you do your homework and show people that you know what you’re talking about, I think it impresses people even more, because they probably don’t expect it. So, that’s something that helps. A lot of young people work a lot harder in campaigns, and I’ve seen that. [A] Representative out of Lawton, with just a few thousand dollars beat somebody a lot older than him, who spent tens of thousands of dollars, just because he out-worked him and knocked on more doors. I think that’s an advantage that the younger generation has, and also just having a better understanding of social media and today’s forms of communication I think helps as well. Not just in campaigning, but also in the legislature, because I see all the time people who aren’t used to social media, who may be older, they get elected and now they start using it and they might not be as familiar with it, and they might be more susceptible to making mistakes. Saying things online that you probably shouldn’t say, you know. It might sound good if you’re saying it in person, over text and Facebook, it might not be the best thing to say. So, some of those experiences have been helpful.
Julia: Why should this next generation do what they can to be involved?
Kyle: I think it’s important — I mean, I think we’re seeing around the country now, younger generations are more engaged in the political process than even just a few years ago, and that’s something we’re seeing across the board. Well I think that’s great, and something that’s really important to understand, because the laws of, whether it’s the country or the state, affect, not just those that are older, but it also affects those that are younger and those that aren’t eighteen, and aren’t even old enough to vote yet. The laws still affect you. Getting engaged in the process helps and is important, and is something that is going to be beneficial for years and years to come.
Julia: How can they be involved?
Kyle: Before getting involved, I think something that is very easy to do is to be informed. There are so many more elected officials in Oklahoma [that] are using social media to engage with people, and so I think just following different elected officials online – both sides, republicans and democrats, and that way you kind of get a perspective of what people are saying and being informed. Then as far as helping goes, I would say, going to events, because there are events all the time. I know I had a town hall one time, that outside of my family and campaign helpers, I think I had one person show up, and I think he was just showing up at the building – he wasn’t actually trying to show up to my event, he just happened to be in the building. But, he stayed because he felt bad. So, I think going to events is important because, you know, not everyone goes to those, and getting to be there you get to say first hand what issues you think are important and also hear what issues other people are facing. So I would say, be informed, go to events, and then if you’re wanting to help, I mean, knocking doors is what all these elections really come down to. Especially state house [and] state senate races are who knocks the most doors typically wins.
Julia: What is your advice to those young people who may not see the importance of staying informed about the issues or being politically active?
Kyle: I would just say that it’s incredibly important, and you know, one of the reasons that I thought it didn’t matter is because I didn’t think my voice mattered. You know, whenever I was not involved in the process because, you know, there’s millions of people voting in presidential elections, and thousands of people voting in a state legislature election. What difference does my one vote make? Well, actually, your one opinion does make a lot of difference, and there’s been so many issues in the state Capitol — you know, the big issues that come down the pipe, we might get a lot of phone calls about, but that’s 1% of the bills that get voted on. The other 99% hardly get any phone calls, or if they do, I get one phone call. And a lot of times on those issues, it’s that one phone call [that] comes from a constituent. Say it’s a bill affecting the optometry industry, and I get a phone call from an eye doctor in the district, and he tells me, “Oh, this bill is terrible,” then I’m probably going to listen to my optometrist who is an expert, and a constituent. That one person’s opinion made a difference. So, if there’s a particular area that someone is experienced in, and they voice that, than their opinion is going to make a difference. I mean, a lot of younger people, whatever they might be involved in, just need to let their elected officials know the importance [of] especially the bills that come down the pipe.
Julia: Should young people develop a relationship with their legislators; and if so, how can they do that?
Kyle: The easiest way is to show up to different events that might be held in the area. I mean, a lot of legislators go to town halls, or if it’s not a town hall so to speak, they’ll be at different festivals. Like here in Bristow, we have the Tabouli Festival, but around the state, especially in small towns, there’s a festival for just about everything, and every small town has a festival at some point in the summer. So go to those, and meet your elected official there, and from there, you can just develop a relationship and it can be helpful for a lot of things. Maybe for those people that read this blog, or people that are really interested in politics to begin with and might have an interest in getting into politics, I know I had a friend who told me he was in his senior year of college and he wanted an internship at the Capitol, but he didn’t know where to go. It just so happened, the very next day, I got an email that the state chamber was accepting interns. So I forwarded the email to him, and he applies and gets accepted. You know, I didn’t do anything special, I just forwarded an email. But he wouldn’t have known about that had he not asked me first. So, that’s what I would say: go to events, meet your legislator, and then if you’re looking to get involved, whether it’s with their campaign or just with politics in general, talk to them and they can help you get connected. They might not be able to guarantee you a job, but they can at least hopefully open the door for you to at least get an interview, to get your foot at least in the door.
Julia: In your opinion, what are a couple issues that my generation will have to overcome?
Kyle: Well, I’m trying to think of the biggest ones, because there’s a lot. I think one of the ones that gets talked about a lot is education and what we’re going to do in that area. I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t know what the answer is. We have a lot of problems and I don’t know what the answer is, but we need to focus on the things that we do well, and make sure we don’t jeopardize that. Like Career Tech — we have one of the best Career Tech systems in the entire nation, but you never hear that. You always hear how terribly funded our common Ed system and higher Ed is, but you never hear how great our Career Tech system is. We need to make sure we continue that, because…As we move into the future, more and more, the work force industry requires either a certificate or a degree of some kind, which wasn’t the case thirty years ago. So for our generation, I mean, it’s important to have access to those Career Tech programs and higher education, you know. Knowing what we’re going to do in that area is something that’s important. A lot of these issues are very deep and entrenched, and they can’t be fixed in a two-year election cycle. They just can’t. So many things that happen in Oklahoma City, we see knee-jerk reactions where people just do something in order to get reelected. What we need to see happen now for the future’s sake is things to happen that will set us up for long-term success. They might not pay off in one year, might not even pay off in five years, but twenty years down the road, we’ll see positive dividends being paid out because of decisions that we made today. I’m hopeful that that will happen. In the legislature right now, we have 33 freshman representatives and 13 freshmen senators, so one-third of the legislature is new, and the big consensus amongst this group is that being told “Why do we do it this way,” and the answer being “Because that’s why it’s always been done” is unacceptable, and the status quo is unacceptable. If the way we’ve always done it is because that’s the best way to do it, then let’s keep doing it that way, but if it’s not, then let’s improve. And so, I’m optimistic about the future. This legislative session was really hard and difficult, but I’m optimistic of what the next few years are going to look like, because we have some great freshman legislators that aren’t there in order to just get reelected, but are there to better the state.
Julia: Lastly, what is it like be a newlywed and have this role, and what have you enjoyed most about your time in office?
Kyle: Well if anyone wants a whole lot of excitement, then get married and run for office all in the same year. But, if you do that, make sure you have a very great spouse, that can take care of a lot of things that you are not able to do. But it’s been great! I mean, on that note, it was definitely an experience. So we got married in August and the general election was in November. So we get married and we went to our honeymoon in Jamaica, came back, and my hometown of Depew, which is 500 people — the whole town was covered with purple signs. And my signs weren’t purple, so we had to get to work right after we got back. I mean, I’d been knocking on doors, but I don’t know if it was coincidence or if my opponent knew that I was going to be gone that week, but she came to my hometown the week we happened to be gone. But it’s definitely been an incredible year, I’ve learned a lot, and as I’ve told you before, if somebody’s there for the right reasons, they can make a difference in the legislature. All you have to do is three things, and that’s 1) find what you’re passionate about and work at that, 2) work hard and do your homework, and 3) tell the truth. Do those three things, and you’re able to be successful. If you don’t find your passion, then it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll do anything wrong, but it means you won’t ever do anything right because you’re not standing for something. If you don’t work hard and do your homework, then you’re going to get in front of a committee or on the house floor, and you’re gonna make a fool of yourself when you start getting asked questions. If you don’t tell the truth, people are going to find out and it’s going to backfire. One of the things about being honest with people is when you disagree with them, you’ve got to tell them up front. If that’s another lawmaker asking you to vote ‘yes’ on a bill that you can’t support, you gotta tell them up front, and say “No, I can’t support you.” Or if that’s a constituent that’s calling and wanting you to one way, and you have to tell them you disagree, I mean, you have to have a backbone to be honest, and a person of integrity, and you can’t cave just because one person comes against you. Because in this job, you can’t make everyone happy, and if you were making everyone happy, you’re probably not doing your job right. So be willing to stand for things, and be someone of integrity, and that’s something I try to do. I’m definitely not perfect, but I try my best to do those three things. With that, I mean, another thing: I’m twenty-three years old and I had five bills this session that have been signed by the Governor and into law, and I’m not gonna lie – that is a really cool feeling to have law that is now the law in the state because I carried the bill. It’s just really exciting, and kind of takes me back over the last two and a half years of deciding to run; campaigning; and all the people that helped knock on doors; all the people that encouraged me; all the people that told me, not what I wanted to hear, but what I needed to hear when I needed some constructive criticism; and just so many people that helped along the way. I mean, just seeing those bills signed – it kind of just brings it all back and I’m just happy that I’ve been able to make a difference for constituents, and hopefully for the State of Oklahoma.
I trust you enjoyed that as much as I did! Kyle has been a blessing and inspiration to many, and I would like to extend a hearty “Thank you!” to him, both for his service, and for taking the time to share with us today!
Photo Credit: https://www.facebook.com/HilbertForTheHouse/