Counting Beans at the County Fair

by Donna Schoenkopf

Jo thought of it. Kenneth built it. And it’s beautiful.

Jo had seen it on the Internet. It was from the Episcopal Peace Fellowship and had been inspired by the Quakers. Being the extraordinarily creative person she is, she saw a way to reach out and empower people at the Pottawatomie County Free Fair—a gizmo to let people express their thoughts and feelings about how their tax money should be spent. Through beans.

The gizmo is a wooden box. It’s about 34"x30"x1". It has a front of Plexiglas. There are eight divisions at the top—Transportation, Foreign Aid, Interest on the Debt, Education, Defense/Veterans, Environment, Medicare, Medicaid. It looks like this:

bean counter

Jo and Kenneth are quite a team. Jo thinks things up and Kenneth turns them into reality. And not only does Jo think things up, she puts in tons and tons of labor, too. She is the heart and soul of our feisty little Democratic Club. She writes letters and puts up billboards and makes phone calls and walks in parades and rents offices for headquarters and begs for volunteers and goes to conventions and meetings and all such things. And Kenneth is her right hand man.

Well, they put that gizmo together, painted it up real purdy, and hauled it to the nicely decorated Democratic Booth at the Pottawatomie County Free Fair. (Did I mention that all the stuff in the booth is designed and made by the two Davises? And hauled there in Kenneth’s pickup? Every year?)

Anyway, it was the day of my volunteering for the 5:00 to 7:00 PM slot on the last day of the Fair. Doyal was to be my partner. Doyal, with the leprechaun face. Doyal with tales of his life in Hawaii (33 years!) and of the Air Force and of his dog and of life as an Episcopalian deacon. That Doyal. I adore Doyal.

We relieved Cecil and Louise, who had had a really great time in the two hours before we arrived. Louise said that Cecil had had someone complaining bitterly about the fact that there wasn’t a Debt Payment column and another guy who complained about there being no Agriculture heading and another guy who liked the bean counter so much he thought the whole thing should be on television.

Kenneth and Doyal
Kenneth and Doyal

And Doyal and I had a great time, too. I was the huckster who captured people as they walked by and drew them in to vote. Doyal was the bean counter, refilling little plastic cups of beans with exactly ten beans to be used in the voting, and also nabbed folks.

I guess you already know that the general population is skeptical when a complete stranger approaches them and offers them something good with no strings attached. Some are just plain not gonna go for it. No matter what. It kinda makes me feel sad when that happens, but we must carry on.

Even though some folks were reluctant, I managed to get almost everyone over to vote with their beans. Folks like to make their opinions known, even though they think they might be exposed to some kind of hard sell.

So I would say, “Come on over for a fantasy vote! You can decide exactly how our tax money is spent. Pretend you are the person who has the power. Here’s some beans! You can put all your beans in one category or spread them out anyway you want. Put them in categories that are important to you. And, yes, your kids can vote, too!”

The results of the Bean Count were very surprising. They were surprising because Oklahoma is the reddest state in the Union. Not one single county voted for Obama. It’s also a state that pays teachers poorly. As a substitute teacher, I was paid less than minimum wage. I’ve met people who have actually volunteered to substitute for free.

But Education was by far the winner in our Bean Count. Education had almost twice as many beans as the runner-up.

Oklahoma State Representative Josh Cockcroft didn’t vote for education. I saw him walking through and waved hello and invited him to vote. Being an elected official he was gracious and smiled and walked right over to our bean board and held his little plastic cup up and poured all his beans into the Defense/Veterans slot. All of them.

Here’s a little background on Josh. He’s very young (just old enough to vote), tall and blond, and wears a big silver cowboy belt buckle with a Christian cross on it. He was elected in 2010 as part of the wave of anti-Obama feeling in this state.

But it’s his education that is of interest. He was home-schooled. He is deeply, deeply, deeply Christian and when he was a teenager he attended TeenPact, which is a training school for young folks to learn how to get elected to public office so they could change our society, government, country into a Christian one, a theocracy. Seriously. Here’s a little blurb from the TeenPact website:

TeenPact continues to teach a hands on approach to government and leadership and encourages students to be involved at a time in their lives when, typically, they do not care about such things. We teach students that the answer to the problems in America is spiritual revivalnot politics. [My italics.] That is the reason that our teaching of government is based on clear Biblical principles.

So, with Josh being home-schooled until his teen years and then going on to TeenPact for his “college” years, it’s no wonder that he didn’t vote for more money for education.

Josh Cockcroft
Josh Cockcroft

Yep. Defense. War. Killing. Our good Christian (with a capital “C”) representative didn’t think the government should be involved in health care, education, transportation, or any of the other things our government is involved in. The only thing good Christian conservatives think is in the purview of the federal government is ... war.

(I love working in the Democratic Booth. It’s my favorite. You really see America. And I do not mean that sarcastically.)

Here are some other interesting highlights:

A handsome, but kind of worn-out looking father and his probably nine- or ten-year-old son came by. Dad was very, very angry. No, he didn’t see anything up on the board that he’d vote for. Where was the column for Second Amendment rights? You know, gun ownership?

“Well,” I said, “that’s already guaranteed by the Constitution and doesn’t need federal tax money.”

That led to the most intense discussion of the evening, which made his son feel really embarrassed. But I kept my mouth shut after the Constitution comment.

Dad went on and on about how Obama is taking away everyone’s guns, that Obama is destroying our country, Obama is going to have everyone starving to death because he hates America and then he said that he wasn’t going to use these beans to vote with, he was going to take them home to eat, because he was surely going to starve soon.

And he stuck them in his pocket and walked away.

His son sheepishly handed me his little plastic cup with the ten beans in it and followed his dad through the crowd.

I mean, you can’t get any more real than that, Ladies and Gentlemen.

And then there was the little group of three teenage boys. Two brothers and a friend, I am supposing. The two brothers eagerly distributed their beans, but the friend held his plastic cup and looked at the board a long time and then looked at me.

“Where’s the agriculture column?” he asked.

“You’re the second person who’s asked that question,” I replied.

“You know agriculture is important and the federal government wants to destroy agriculture in this country.”

Now that statement was a truly original thought. I bit. “The government wants to destroy agriculture?”

“Yeah, they’re trying to stop plowing and all kinds of things.”

Images of the Dust Bowl of the ’30s filled my head, quickly followed by images of the dust storms this year in Arizona.

I started to talk about the Dust Bowl and how my hero, Masanobu Fukuoka, was able to grow huge amounts of food on his unplowed, unweeded, completely natural plots of ground.

He smiled a little superior smile, handed me back the plastic cup of beans, and walked smugly away.

young voters

I realized I sounded like a crazy person. Too much for that young man to swallow. And my heart loved him. That poor little guy had never heard of the Dust Bowl. He had no idea of what happens during a drought when you plow. None. Whatsoever.

And then there was the woman whose daughter poured all her beans into Education and when I laughed and said, “She must be a straight A student,” her mom said, “She sure is! Straight As.”

Then the mother poured all her beans into Medicaid.

I said, “Protecting Medicaid, I see.”

She told me she’d been unemployed for two years, was diabetic, had congenital heart disease, and had cancer problems. No one would hire her. No one wanted her. But Medicaid kept her body and soul together. I wanted to take her home with me. And, Ladies and Gentlemen, that woman did our country a huge favor. Her daughter was a straight A student.

Lots of people voted for Defense/Veterans, I think because they either were veterans or liked them and they liked war. War made them feel strong and in control.

Most children voted for education and the environment, which thrilled me, and some adults did, too. When the adults poured those beans in, they told me that if we didn’t have a healthy environment none of the other stuff would mean much. But one father disagreed with his son’s environmental choice. When his son started to put beans into the Environment slot, he angrily said, “Not in there!” And pointed to Defense. I surmise he was a climate change denier.

Some people got really angry when they saw Foreign Aid. Several mentioned Haiti and all the money and celebrities going over there when we needed help here. I could not help but think about the particularly strong strain of racism and xenophobia in Oklahoma. You know, when you have a really homogeneous culture, people who are not like you are something to either fear or hate. Maybe fear and hate are the same thing. But that’s not to say that people in Oklahoma are particularly bad. It’s just a human trait to fear The Other. In my humble opinion, we need a major influx of different ethnic groups in this state—now! We’d all intermarry and ... problem solved!

The two hours flew by. Doyal and I enjoyed it all. And we Democrats made our mark once again on the people of Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma.

(By the way, most people in Oklahoma are Democrats. They’ve been Democrats or their parents have been Democrats from way back in the Dust Bowl days when Franklin Delano Roosevelt saved their butts. Ironic, huh?)

Donna Schoenkopf recently retired from teaching at 61st Street School in South Central Los Angeles, and has moved back to Oklahoma, where she spent her teens.


Love the idea of the bean vote—sort of like the straw votes they used to hold at the fair on an election year.  You have a much gentler way of being understanding when the gray matter just doesn’t get it—I don’t—it is just overwhelmingly ugly to me that anyone has a firmly established darkened tunnel vision—not even letting in the light and fresh air of other ideas—when what Democracy is based on is compromise—without compromise and majority rule, there can’t be a Democracy.

2011-09-13 by Helen Price

Great article, Donna.  Very interesting about TeenPact.  Wow.

2011-09-13 by Gary Phillips

I can idenify with that…..Been hearing it every morning at the
coffee shop….The NRA puts out the one about guns I guess.  To
raise money no doubt.  There has never been any move or talk of
gun registration by the Obama administration….He has actually
said the second amendment is clear to him,

2011-09-13 by Jim Spurr

Don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Never ceases to amaze me how people don’t seem able to connect their own situation with the very things that are harming them.  So sad. 

But, loved the bean machine.  That’s cool.

2011-09-14 by Ann Calhoun


Doyal is spelled D-o-y-a-l.  As in “loyal.”  Or “royal.”  Which he is.

[I fixed it. -Ed.]

2011-09-14 by donna

Good story.  Good work.  As the kids say, “Cool beans.”

2011-09-14 by Don

After Education, looks like folks in Pottawatamie County would spend as much on Medicare as Defense. Interesting.

At the Laramie County Fair last month I stood with several hundred proud parents cheering their under-60 pound kids who were busting mutton. Most little cowboys and cowgirls fell off right out of the gate, but a few hung on to ride across the arena… and into glory.

County fairs are great places!

2011-09-14 by Stan

Great piece Donna, except for your sweet but excessive praise of the Davis family.  Gregg Riojas built the flag holder which is absolutely perfect for sitting on a table or in the back of a pickup and makes displaying the flag at any angle safe.  The Democratic donkey I tote around everywhere was a gift from Pat Bateman, a former county chair who admired it at a craft fair and when she told the maker what she wanted it for they gave it to her. 

Donna described the project and the fair goers reactions beautifully.  I will always remember the oil field worker who was a newly single father that put all his beans in environment.  He is working on building an off grid house for his family that will include recycling water from all sources for potable water.  I’ll always remember the young woman who put all her beans in Medicaid and remarked, I want to keep my free birth control pills.  Then there were the many other people who said without a good environment we wouldn’t have anything and the others that said without a good Defense we would be zero.  I do think the majority of folks that put all their beans in Defense/Vets were supporting Vets though.  Many were making comments like “We owe our country to the Vets” and “we wouldn’t have anything without their sacrifice.”  I should have separated those categories and will in the future.  I always encouraged both Republicans and Democrats to participate and often used the line, our country’s budget serves both Republicans and Democrats so the concerns of both should be addressed by the budget.  After everyone voted, we gave them a copy of the same budget items on a columnar graph showing what Obama submitted to Congress.  With the exception of Education, Medicaid, and Interest on the Debt, the graph was almost identical.  Many people were told and shown a short explanation about the fact that almost all of education is actually funded at the state and local level but that never deterred anyone from putting all their beans there.  The next time we use this, we will have a different mix of categories, but we will always be dealing with many people who don’t understand very much about how a budget works.  Despite that I feel sure the workers and the bean counters learned a lot and learning will eventually change most everyone involved.  The state party is considering using our project at the state fair.  I hope that happens.

2011-09-14 by Jo Davis

That is one cool interactive polling device, and the stories of participants are truly priceless. I dont see any of them as sad, but rather quite poignant.

Also, given the parameters of the voting process, I dont see how people can be criticized for pouring all the beans in one category or other. Its their votes, and it can be argued that distributing the beans in several categories dilutes impact. The question is what pleases you, not can you emulate an actual budgeting process where beans have to be distributed to disparate categories. I think thats what makes the gizmo so visually enticing and real.

People that dont participate are, in my opinion, far more apt to be criticized than seemingly naive participants, who may not be that at all. Similarly, if someone gets something off their chest, thats not a bad thing. We have to do that sometimes, and Democrat activists should actually encourage and indulge it. It makes a difference to people, and it helps.

Donna, you have to see these images of little kids mutton bustin in Wyoming posted above by Stan. They made my day!:

2011-09-14 by Robert Hagen

Your story telling is great! Bean counting ingenious. As usual the Davis’ always have their finger on the pulse of the Democratic party and keep us engaged.

2011-09-14 by Janice Riojas

Great article Donna.  I loved sitting at the booth, trouble is, my back didn’t. I loved dragging the people in to see where they’d put their beans.  When I asked a lady if she wanted to participate to place her beans (tax dollars) where she would want them, she replied “I’m a republican” and walked off.  I replied “that’s ok”.  She looked at me like I’d lost my mind!! 
That taught me a lesson.  I went home and confronted Roy and said “don’t ever when asked something by a republican, not answer anything but I’m a democrat”.  I told him just how rude it was…blah blah blah.  He got a lecture for how that woman acted.  Oh well, I’m sure he needed it anyways. 
I was asked where were the brochures and when I told them I didn’t have any, I dug down in my purse and brought out what few Democrat cards that I did have with me.  I did wish that we had something on Obama.  Course that may or may not have bombed in our faces! 
Obama for relection for Prez!!!

2011-09-14 by Debbie Hammons

I failed to mention that I had as many as 7 people at a time there squeezing by each other to put their beans in the slots!  You would have thought we were giving away money!!  I would be counting beans and talking to the people and recounting the beans because I had lost count several times, but it was fun.  Thankx to Jo for the idea.

2011-09-14 by Debbie Hammons

Jo and her husband always do a great job for the Democratic party!
We need more people to get involved.
I really enjoy working the booth wish I could have stayed the whole day.
Was lucky everyone I approached was friendly even the Republicans Some wanted more beans but explain we didn’t want voter fraud, had a good time and really meet a lot of good people.
We really need to get our message out, a lot are miss informed, I wish I would have had a list of a lot of President Obama"s accomplishments to give them, a lot of people really don’t know what he has done.
Everyone is worried about the country and whats happening with our Representives, a lot are having a bad time with the lose of thier jobs and are concerned about not having enough money to live on.
Making a little laughter with them when talking to them made them feel better.

2011-09-14 by Lillie Pride

Did you know that Shawnee, USA, Pott. county, was the site of one of the early conventions before statehood - at which most of the delegates were “liberal” Union members and supporters who placed ideas like no child labor, safer working conditions and hopes for better education in our state’s constitution? But, even back then some people could not understand why the miners of SE Oklahoma would go on strike and walk back to their homes and families with no paycheck. Still, we are nothing if not interesting - and aggravating-in our diversity.
Great article, Donna!

2011-09-14 by sharon posey smith

Great article, Donna.  I am very proud of the Pott. County Democrats and their creativity.  Jo and Keith have super ideas and many volunteers followed the lead for the Bean Counter.  Great stories were shared. I think that will strenghen our county party because they heard first hand from the local people about the issues.
Keep up the good work, Pott. County Democrats!!!
I hope that the State Dems will be able to use this idea also.  I did
suggest to one of the staffers what a great idea this was.  The OK County people at the mtg. last night thought it was was a cleaver idea also. As 5th District Chair,I’m always proud of the hard work of our counties.

2011-09-14 by Debbie Hogue-Downing

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