With just over six weeks until Election Day, Republican Kevin Stitt and Drew Edmondson shared the stage Monday for the first gubernatorial debate with the two major-party candidates.
The nearly hour-long debate, hosted by The Oklahoman at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, offered few fireworks as the two largely stuck to policy issues and stayed away from personal attacks.
But their response to how they would tackle some major state issues offered a glimpse at the cases they will likely make to voters in the coming weeks.
Doubling Down on Tax Policies
Both Stitt and Edmondson found common ground on a key issue: That Oklahoma’s education funding situation needs more attention and teachers deserve a raise above the hard-fought pay bump educators won earlier this year.
But the two see different paths toward achieving that goal.
During his battle to win the GOP’s nomination, Stitt campaigned heavily on an anti-tax platform and criticized Gov. Mary Fallin’s move to sign the bill that increased taxes on tobacco, motor fuel and cigarette in order to fund the teacher pay package.
Now, speaking to a broader general-election audience, Stitt continued to argue that was the wrong choice, calling those tax increases a “Band-Aid” and criticizing proposals that tie the raises to “unsustainable revenue.”
“We have to fix this long term and look at the funding formula,” he said. “We need to put more onus on local school districts to do that.”
Edmondson, meanwhile, did not seem deterred now that he’s appealing to Republicans and independents who may be warier of tax increases than his Democratic base.
Even with a Legislature expected to remain Republican majority after Election Day, Edmondson said he still believes the state can find money for teacher raises, classroom spending and other state services by further taxing cigarettes and oil and gas production and removing tax breaks for the wealthy.
“If the Legislature won’t do it, we’ll have to submit (the tax increases) to a vote of the people,” he said. “And I’m prepared to do that.”
Much of the debate focused on how the candidates would manage the executive branch, oversee the budgeting process and approach specific policy issues.
But it also waded into social issues, including abortion, parental rights and gun control. Neither candidate, however, seemed to want to press these issues as campaign focal points.
Stitt, for example, refused to say whether he would apply a litmus test for any state Supreme Court pick to ensure they would support laws that rein in abortions.
Responding to a question on media coverage suggesting he opposed immunizations for children, Stitt said he and his wife had all their children vaccinated and that he doesn’t intend to overhaul any state laws.
“All I’ve said is that vaccination should be between a parent and their pediatrician,” he said. “I don’t support changing any law whatsoever and I have the same opinion as my opponent.”
Insider vs. Outsider
With Stitt and Edmondson, voters will have a clear choice of whether they want an outsider with a business background or a seasoned politician with decades of experience working in government.
During Monday’s debate both candidates made their case why their distinct backgrounds would better serve them in the governor’s mansion.
Stitt, who has never held elected public office, said his role in building and managing Gateway Mortgage Group outweighs any negatives from being a political novice.
“If the career politician is going fix it, they already would’ve,” he said. “It’s going to take a fresh set of eyes on state government to turn things around.”
Edmondson, who has served as a state legislator, state attorney general and county district attorney and assistant district attorney, noted that he also has private-sector experience, including working as an attorney the last eight years.
Although many legislative incumbents have fallen this year and outsiders, such as President Donald Trump, have won on the national stage, he said he hopes voters see him as a “good politician” instead of a “career politician.”
“I’m certainly proud of my record as a public servant,” he said. “And I think by and large it has been without blemish.”
Odd Man Out
There was one notable absence at the debate.
Libertarian nominee Chris Powell, the only other gubernatorial candidate on the ballot this November, was not invited to join Stitt and Edmondson on the stage.
In a press release sent out in advance, Powell sharply criticized the snub and said The Oklahoman, the sponsor, was displaying “media bias” by not allowing him to join the Republican and Democratic candidates.
Powell also spoke to a small crowd of supporters outside of the art museum as they chanted, “On the ballot, on the stage.”
“The two establishment candidates are not offering anything that represents the rest of us,” he said before the debate. “We will make a difference in November and they will hear us.”
Polling and voter registration numbers indicate the Libertarian candidate will have a tough time competing on Election Day.
A SoonerPoll survey of 407 likely voters showed just 7.5 percent of respondents said they were registered Libertarians and only 3.2 percent said they would vote for Powell if the election was held during the Sept. 5-10 sampling window.
Oklahoma remains one of 17 states that have not expanded its Medicaid program – an optional provision in the Affordable Care Act that would extend coverage to about 250,000 low-income Oklahomans.
Edmondson, who backs expanding Medicaid, said doing so would provide a lifeline to struggling rural hospitals and bring federal tax dollars home since federal funds would cover 90 percent of the cost of covering the new enrollees.
“Injecting that into the economy will create more than enough revenue to offset the 10 percent match (the state would have to pay) to get that done,” he said.
Edmondson, however, acknowledged past legislative action makes it difficult for the governor alone to expand the program. He said he would need lawmakers to “at least cooperate” or “get out of the way” to accept the federal dollars.
Stitt said he would not expand Medicaid because he’s worried about adding more people to the Medicaid rolls and what that will cost the state.
“I believe in a trampoline, something that is going to help people,” he said. “But we cannot create a hammock and create more dependency on our state.”
Both candidates pledged to reduce the state’s incarceration rate and get “smart on crime.”
But Monday’s debate offered some specific proposals on how they would accomplish that.
Edmondson said he would use the executive powers of the governor’s office to pardon or parole inmates serving time for crimes that no longer are considered felonies, including many drug possession offenses, as a result of recent legislative action or the passage of State Question 780 in 2016.
Stitt said he would like to ensure “fairness in sentencing” across all counties and add more front-end help for non-violent drug offenders.
“We need to get them better help early on,” he said. “We have to get more rehab and more facilities and drug courts instead of these really long, long sentences.”
Stitt said he also wants the state to continue to reexamine its court fees and fines while also looking at different ways to fund district attorneys, who rely largely on those costs.
The future of Oklahoma’s three private prisons could also be at stake depending on who will next be in the governor’s office.
Stitt said he wants to renegotiate contracts with the companies that run the private prisons to make sure the state is getting the best deal possible.
Edmondson, meanwhile, took a tougher stance on the private prisons industry by saying that building a “profit motive” into caring and securing inmates is “just flat wrong.”
“As we reduce private prison population, which is my goal, I intend to wean ourselves from private prisons and get out of the business of incarcerating people for profit,” he said.
Gov. Mary Fallin drew headlines earlier this year when she vetoed a law that would allow adults to carry firearms without a permit.
Stitt has previously said he would have signed that so-called “constitutional carry” bill. But he said during the debate he would still allow exemptions that give private businesses and city or county offices the right to keep guns off their property.
“I’m going to protect business owners and their rights,” he said.
Edmondson, saying he holds a concealed-carry permit, said he doesn’t believe a “constitutional carry” law is necessary because the Second Amendment already provides ample protections for gun owners. He said he also wants to make sure people “who strap on a sidearm and walk down the street” aren’t on the “terrorist-watch list,” have felony convictions, mental-health problems or are engaged in domestic violence.