Willa Johnson really wanted to be a jazz singer when she was growing up. City and county politics was the last thing on her mind. She actually started singing at different events and did quite well, mostly big band jazz music. She loved it, but she said she didn’t make much money at it. The problem was, she was working a full-time job in the daytime, doing a little part-time work in the evenings, and then singing on the weekends. She said all that ended when her son, who was about five years old at the time, asked her why she couldn’t stay home with him like the other kids’ mamas stayed home with them. That did it, Willa said she quit right after that and he became her lifelong buddy. Politics didn’t come into the picture until she retired. Then a whole new career took off.
Why did you run for City Council?
I retired from Tinker in 1986 and started my consulting business and I was good at it. People in the community liked my services, but they always wanted me to do consulting for them for free. I couldn’t afford to do that, so I quit and just started volunteering. I volunteered for two years and during that time, I started paying attention to municipal politics. Then folks started asking me to be on their boards and I did and had fun doing it.
What or who was your motivation?
I went to a City Council meeting and heard Mr. Goree James, talk to a little old lady so bad, it just hurt my feelings. I don’t even remember what it was about, but he just talked to her so bad, I hurt for her. After that, I tried to find somebody to run against him, but nobody wanted to run against him. All I knew about politics was if you saw a Black person with a sign, that meant they were running for something, then you would just help them. That’s what my children and I did, I would gather them up and we would pass out flyers, lick envelopes and do all of that stuff for those people because we had faith in them. But secondly, I knew that we needed some Black faces at the table where they made decisions.
I tried to get some people to run, but they would not run, so I decided to do it myself. When we had the election, we had some problems, it was awful. I contested his (Goree James) 7 vote win and they did a recount and after all the ballots were in, I tied him. We had to have another run off and he won, so I said I’m coming back. Four years later I went after him and guess what, 5 of those voters that I had tried to get to run against him before decided they were running. Also, there were three lawyers, a preacher and a bus driver and I was scared to death, these people were much younger than me. We went for our first public debate that was held at Rose State College. They filmed it because they were going to show it to their public policy classes. I was scared, I didn’t know what lawyers did, but I talked to God and I said please don’t let me be first, please don’t make me be first, and he didn’t. He let the bright, young lawyers do it and after they answered the question, I said “I got this” and off I went, I won the election and beat them all in the primary.
Did you set any goals?
City politics is just like working at Tinker, see I worked at Tinker 20 years, where I ran the Social Recreation Program. I had to be responsible for parks, playgrounds, childcare and recreation. Those things were in my background. I had won national awards at Tinker. The first thing they did when I got there, was put me on the MAPS committee, which was awesome. I loved being in that environment, because it gave me an opportunity to not only learn, but to make sure that it included everybody, and in that everybody, some of them looked like me.
Edwards Addition was a mess then, it was just going down. I determined that the only way I could save it was to put it on the National Register of Historic Places. We did that and made the This Old House magazine, then we put the park in and the second thing was the golf course. I couldn’t play tennis because of my astigmatism, I couldn’t follow the ball, so I was looking for another sport or something that my family and I could participate in together.
Willa Johnson is the District 1 Oklahoma County Commissioner