State voters weighing candidates for governor

June 08–As the June 26 Oklahoma primary balloting looms, members of the state’s three political parties — and even independents — are weighing their options.

Only two Democrats are running for the governor’s office in 2018; they are actually outnumbered by Libertarian candidates. Drew Edmondson and Connie Johnson will try to carry the banner for a Democratic Party that is badly outnumbered at the Oklahoma Capitol, where it only holds 26 seats in the House, eight in the Senate, and no statewide offices.

Edmondson has name recognition, and local connections as a graduate of Northeastern State University and litigator in the effort to protect the Illinois River watershed. He is a naval Vietnam veteran, and served as Muskogee County district attorney and state attorney general.

During the gubernatorial forum at Northeastern State University on April 3, Edmondson said Oklahoma is letting potential revenue get away.

“The [oil and gas] gross production tax should be at 7 [percent],” Edmondson said. “The capital gains tax deduction should be done away with. … The House of Representatives could do that tomorrow.”

Johnson has unabashedly articulated many of her liberal stances. She served in the Oklahoma Legislature from 2005-’14, and debated against bills that proposed restrictions to abortion. She opposes the death penalty and has voiced her support for many of the criminal justice reform efforts underway in the statehouse. She supports marijuana legalization.

“[The leadership] proposes short-term, quick-fix solutions,” Johnson said during the Tahlequah forum. “We have a system where basically two people decide what policies we will have, and that’s the Speaker of the House and the Senate Pro Tem. Many times these are incentivized people who are supporting the caucus to ensure these policies are the way they are. …”

Deb Proctor, chair of the Cherokee County Democratic Party, said the candidates are strong options, and reminded independent voters they can participate in the Democratic primaries.

“Connie is focused on revenue reform, especially regarding marijuana,” Proctor said. “She believes that is a source of revenue that is not being looked at. Drew is more big-picture. He has his background as attorney general and thinks education is the No. 1 problem. He believes we need to accept the Medicaid expansion, he believes in prison reform, and people around here know that the environment is an important issue to him.”

The fight for Democrats may seem discouraging with so few of the party in state office, but Proctor believes voters are weary of GOP policy.

“We are urging non-stop,” she said. “We are using social media and going door-to-door. We are registering voters — though, of course, we can’t force them to register Democrat. We have so much momentum, but the trick is all that momentum has to translate into votes. That is our challenge.”

The May SoonerPoll indicated Edmondson had a lead of 43.5 percent to 13.6 percent among Democrats and independents, but 42.9 percent said they were undecided.

Thanks to the efforts of its members, the Libertarian Party is on the ballot and will field three candidates for its primary.

“Come November, Oklahomans will have a new choice for real change in our great state,” said Dr. Shannon Grimes, chair of the Cherokee County Libertarian Party. “The Libertarian Party is now on the ballot, and within the party there is a competitive gubernatorial primary between three great candidates: Rex Lawhorn, Chris Powell, and Joe Maldonado. Go to their respective websites and social media pages to check out more details and see why one of these candidates is the agent of state government change we need, instead of going down the same old worn paths we’ve circled for decades in this state.”

Rex Lawhorn is a business owner and supports reduced government regulation. He has claimed the election of President Donald Trump is evidence that the population is more libertarian than it realizes.

“I’ve been a libertarian along, but the thing was, there was no Libertarian Party to join,” Lawhorn said during a March 29 forum at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha. “Most of Oklahoma are libertarians. Most Oklahomans want to live their lives. Most Oklahomans don’t care what their neighbor does, as long as their neighbor is not doing anything to harm them or their property.”

Joe Maldonado goes by the name “Joe Exotic,” and is the entertainment director of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. As a gay man, he supports LGBT rights. He is opposed to abortion restrictions, but also opposes tightening the state’s firearm laws.

“What we need in Oklahoma is not a politician; we need someone who is going to hold them hostage and rattle their cage,” Maldonado said during the USAO forum. “It is going to take a business person because Oklahoma has to get on track to sustain itself as a proper business. Right now, they’re using you as a slush fund.”

Chris Powell is an evidence specialist for the Oklahoma City Police Department and a former Libertarian state chair. During the Tahlequah forum, he explained his belief that funding can be reallocated.

“I would look at incentives — we have $450 million in incentives before the rubber stamp Incentive Evaluation Commission,” Powell said. “None of that is being talked about. Our Legislature apparently thinks every red cent of that is essential to the state government, rather than moving that to our core funding. … We could increase what school districts could raise from millage or local property taxes. That would have to be voted on locally.”

The Republican field is crowded with 10 candidates. Among them is a Tahlequah resident, Blake “Cowboy” Stephens, who was a counselor with Locust Grove schools for 21 years and took part in the teacher demonstrations at the Oklahoma Capitol.

“We need to tear the walls down and change the way we do business,” Stephens said during the April 28 GOP gubernatorial forum at the Tahlequah Municipal Armory Center. “There is a tight clique they call the [legislative] leadership, that is usually run by three to five people. You can be the smartest guy in the room and write the best bill ever, and if people don’t like you, it dies in committee. Petty stuff like that has to change.”

In the May SoonerPoll, 31.3 percent of Republican respondents said they remained undecided about the GOP primary hopefuls. Among those who had decided, Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb led with 23.3 percent, followed by former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett with 20.4 percent. The only other candidate polling above 10 percent was business owner Kevin Stitt, at 13.5 percent.

Lamb said during a GOP gubernatorial candidate forum hosted by The Oklahoman on April 23 that a central plank in his platform was to reform the mechanisms for creating the state budget, having lawmakers openly working on the budget during the last three months.

“There are 149 legislators elected by the people of Oklahoma,” Lamb said. “Five negotiate the budget every single year in a closed room. … With two weeks to go, they walk out and force the rest of the Legislature to vote on that budget.”

Cornett hopes the growth experienced by Oklahoma City during his tenure won’t go unnoticed by voters. During the April 23 forum, he supported criminal justice reform and said the state needs economic diversification.

“How many cyclical cycles do we have to go through in this state to realize we can’t be so heavily reliant on the oil and gas industry?” Cornett said. “It has happened for more than 100 years now, one issue after another as the economy just goes up and down. … We haven’t been making any significant changes in that area.”

Kevin Stitt started Gateway Mortgage in 2000 and now does business nationwide. He says he is as a non-politician who can apply business principles to build more responsive government. He supports greater executive power to oversee agencies.

“There are these ‘blue ribbon’ studies that go back five governors ago that all say the same thing, but they never execute them,” Stitt said in Tahlequah. “They all say the governor needs more power to hire and fire these agency heads. On Day 1, I will ask the Legislature for the power … and I will hold those people accountable.”

Stitt believes audits could be helpful, as does Gary Richardson. The GOP candidate has made audits a big part of his campaign message. Richardson, like many of the gubernatorial candidates, favors criminal justice reform to reduce prison populations.

“Texas is closing nine prisons, and we are building two new prisons,” Richardson said at the Tahlequah GOP forum. “Some bills have been passed about sentencing, and that is a step in the right direction. I am opposed to private prisons. We have contracts to make sure they are getting so many prisoners a year or [we pay them].”

Talk of audits might vex candidate Gary Jones, who is completing his stint as state auditor. He is in the doghouse for some within the state’s Republican power structure because of frequent and outspoken criticism of Gov. Mary Fallin and House and Senate leadership. Jones is also crossways with former Oklahoma attorney general and EPA head Scott Pruitt over Jones’ federally mandated investigation — which might now seem prophetic — of alleged corruption and waste within the Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust, intended for Tar Creek land buyouts.

Pruitt allegedly ordered the audit’s findings not be released and declined to file any charges. Ryan Jackson, Pruitt’s chief of staff, described Jones’ audit as “shoddy” to The Oklahoman. But Pruitt is now making international headlines and the subject of a dozen federal probes.

“For 7-1/2 years, we’ve asked for the authority and the resources to do performance audits,” Jones said during the April 23 forum. “We’ve had four different bills that got killed by a particular senator. One bill finally got through and the governor vetoed it. … You need people who not only understand business, but understand how government business works.”

Other GOP candidates include Dan Fisher, a Baptist pastor for the Liberty Church of Yukon who served as a state representative from 2012-’16; and Chris Barnett, a Tulsa business owner who found himself entangled in controversy due to a post on his Facebook page stating people on government benefits should be euthanized or allowed to “starve and die.” Barnett, who is gay and married, said his page was hacked and that he did not write the post. Eric Foutch and Barry Gowdy round out the Republican field.

An email sent to Justin Kennedy, chair of the Cherokee County Young Republicans, had not been returned by press time. A phone call to Kari Barnes, GOP county chair, on Thursday evening was not answered.

This article provided by NewsEdge.