Open to debate
Stitt admits ‘Top 10 state’ is ‘aspirational’ in meetup with challenger Joy Hofmeister
Incumbent Republican Governor Kevin Stitt clashed with Democratic challenger and State Superintendent for Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister on issues like corruption, tribal concerns, medical marijuana and abortion during last Wednesday’s gubernatorial debate.
The 90-minute debate at the Will Rogers Theater was hosted by News9 and NonDoc, an independent Oklahoma journalism publication operated by the Sustainable Journalism Foundation, a nonprofit entity. NonDoc’s Editor-in-Chief Tres Savage and News9’s Storme Jones moderated the debate.
“You know, we’ve gone from budget deficits to a record savings account. From four-day school weeks and teacher walkouts to now the largest investment of education and teachers in the history of our state,” Governor Stitt said in his opening statement. “Folks, Oklahoma’s turnaround is working. We cannot go backwards.”
Hofmeister said in her opening statement that for Oklahoma to flourish, Oklahomans need to respect one another and work together.
The first question was addressed toward Governor Stitt.
“You campaigned for office in 2018 on making OKlahoma a top 10 state. I think everybody’s heard that. But four years later, we remain ranked around the bottom 10 states on key education and health care issues,” moderator Savage said. “As you make your case for reelection. Tell us specifically where have you moved the needle the most on making Oklahoma top 10 and where have you been unable to?”
Governor Stitt said as a leader and governor, you have to set a vision for all your employees in all the states and that being Top 10 is an aspirational goal.
“So being Top 10 is an aspirational goal. It’s something that we’re never going to hit but it directs us in that we live in the greatest state in the country,” Governor Stitt said. “What my opponent needs to answer is why are we 49 in education right now?”
Hofmeister said a shortage of teachers and Governor Stitt’s school voucher scheme has left Oklahoma woefully unprepared for its future in education.
When confronted about her party switch from Republican to Democrat, Hofmeister defended herself. She said Governor Stitt hijacked the Republican party, and that he is driving Oklahoma into the ground.
“If you’re a Democrat, the Democratic Party in the state has a 94-page party platform. How much of that do you subscribe to?” News 9’s Storme Jones asked Hofmeister.
Hofmeister said she is an independent thinker, and that she is running as an Oklahoman for team Oklahoma.
“I stand here today representing Oklahoma families regardless of their party affiliation,” Hofmeister said. “And I will also say that I was a Republican longer than Governor Stitt was registered to vote.”
She said one of the reasons she is running for governor is because the state is missing out on opportunities to not only draw industry leaders toward Oklahoma, but also opportunities to keep them here.
Stitt said Hofmeister was lying to the public.
“We have the lowest unemployment in our state’s history. We have an economy that is growing right now,” Stitt said. “Oklahoma is number eleven in the country…eleventh in migration–people moving to the great state of Oklahoma because of our pro business pro freedom policies. We don’t want to put Biden’s party back in control of Oklahoma for higher taxes and more regulation.”
When asked if she would support State Question 820, which would legalize and tax recreational marijuana, on the March special election ballot, Hofmeister said she was not certain but that she thinks it should be on the ballot and the people should have the opportunity to have their voices heard.
Stitt signed an executive proclamation Oct 18 declaring that SQ 820 be submitted to qualified electors of the State of Oklahoma for their approval or rejection at a special election to be held statewide on March 7, 2023. Governor Sitt said he was not supporting the measure and that it is still illegal.
“Federally, we should not have a checkerboard of jurisdictions across the states so I’m not supporting recreational marijuana,” he said.
Superintendent Hofmeister said she is not in favor of the Southern Turnpike Expansion Governor Stitt announced earlier this year. The plan is expected to cost around $5 billion over 15 years, and has caused controversy among Oklahomans for its plans to displace citizens from their homes through eminent domain.
“So I think part of what we have to do is reform,” she said. “We need to have the Open Meetings Act to apply to the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and I am calling for the state auditor to do the first-ever external state audit of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.”
Additionally, Hofmeister said when it comes to the Oklahoma Democratic Party Platform’s support for action to reduce carbon emissions, she disagrees.
“We need more energy, not less. And frankly, there is no such thing as good energy or bad energy and clean energy or not,” she said.
Hofmeister was critical of President Biden and said that the federal government hasn’t done enough to meet the needs of Oklahoma and the energy industry.
Governor Stitt was asked if he agreed with the statement that human activity is causing climate change. He said that “the climate is always changing,” but that Oklahoma is an industry leader in renewable energy.
“We’re number two in wind energy,” he said. “I’ve signed an MOU with the governors of Arkansas and Louisiana to get a hydrogen hub right here in OKlahoma. So folks, our energy grid–we’re a net exporter, and we’re one of four states that can say that over 40% of our energy comes from renewables.”
Hofmeister said she will uphold the death penalty if elected governor.
“This is a subtle matter in Oklahoma,” she said. “The voters made it very clear when they voted for the death penalty and it is part of our Constitution.”
She said it is important that Oklahoma has a governor that commits to due diligence in regards to pardons and parole recommendations. She said Stitt’s commutation of Lawrence Anderson and parole grant for the crossbow killer of Tulsa are evidence that Stitt doesn’t do his homework.
Stitt defended himself. He said there are people that get out of prison every day, and that his administration cannot control when something bad will happen. Additionally, he claimed the work his office has done in the realm of criminal justice reform has put Oklahoma in the leading spot for recidivism, or the rate at which people are going back to prison.
“We released the low-level drug offenders last time — the largest commutation in U.S. history, back in 2019,” he said. “Right now we are leading the country in the lowest recidivism rate.”
Hofmeister said under Stitt’s watch, violent crime rates are higher in Oklahoma than they are in New York or California. Stitt responded, saying, “That’s not true.”
“Safety and security is my top priority, and it will be as governor,” she said.
Hofmeister’s claim is true. Violent crime rates are higher in Oklahoma than they are in New York or California, but that’s been the case for much of the last 20 years, according to The Frontier’s analysis of the FBI’s uniform crime data.
When asked if he would sign into law exceptions for abortion pertaining to rape, incest, or addiction, Stitt said he would sign the law.
Hofmesiter said she is pro-life, but that the governor has criminalized healthcare by signing “the most extreme ban on abortion in this country.”
“We need to repeal what the governor has done. He has criminalized healthcare. He has criminalized standard medical care,” she said. “He has assualted women and doctors and when he was confronted by a rape victime who said, ‘Governor what would you do to help me?’ He had no answer. He had no help…and I will.”
Hofmeister said Stitt’s actions following the Supreme Court Ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma sowed chaos and division. Stitt spoke out against the ruling and said it was a federalization of eastern Oklahoma. The United States Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 opinion that the state cannot prosecute an enrolled member of the Creek Tribe for crimes committed within the historical Creek boundaries.
“Our sovereign tribal nations represent a $15.5 billion economic impact a year to the state collectively. They are the largest employer in the state, but this governor burned the bridges before midterms, and then he had nothing to walk back over when it was time to keep Oklahomans safe.”
Hofmeister’s claim that Oklahoma tribes are collectively the largest employer in the state is false, according to analysis of data from the Oklahoma Department of Commerce by The Frontier.
Leaders of the five largest tribes in Oklahoma announced Oct 11 their official endorsement of Hofmeister for governor. When asked if she believed that the McGirt decision applied to civil matters, environmental regulations, and taxation, Superintendent Hofmeisteir said “that’s not a yes or no answer.”
“Because those are different tribes that all have a different view on this,” she said. “You collectively lump those people together–that is not the kind of leader that understands that we have 39 unique sovereign tribal nations in the state and they don’t speak with one voice.”
Savage asked Stitt if he believed in tribal sovereignty for the 39 tribes.
“I’m actually a member of the Cherokee Nation–I’m proud of our heritage,” Stitt said. “So again, yes, we all want to work together, but does that mean that I don’t believe in Oklahoma’s rule of law and the district attorneys in Tulsa being able to prosecute all crimes the same–that actually protects tribal members…We have one set of rules.”
Governor Stitt was asked to give a yes or no answer, to which he responded, “absolutely, yes, they have sovereignty over what they have sovereignty over”.
Governor Stitt said the notion that he and his administration are unwilling to speak with tribal leaders is untrue.
“When are you going to sit down with them and have actual meaningful conversations to find common ground and rebuild your administration’s strained relationship with tribes and tribal citizens?” moderator Trey Savage asked. “When’s that going to happen?”
Governor Stitt answered, “Tomorrow at 10 o’clock.”
Chief of the Cherokee Nation Chuck Hoskin, Jr. said in a statement to Fox 25 that there was no invitation and no meeting scheduled.
“That Governor Stitt thinks he can command tribal leaders to his office by simply declaring on live television, speaks volumes as to why he has been a failure at state, tribal relations,” he said in the statement.
Additionally, according to a recorded conversation provided to the Washington Examiner by a spokesperson for Stitt, Secretary of State and Native American Affairs Brian Bingman said Stitt was in his office but “nobody showed up.” Bingman said to a reporter that Stitt is willing to meet with them at any time.
Governor Stitt was then confronted with questions regarding the Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen Scandal. According to the Frontier, Oklahoma spent over $16.7 million to build, maintain, and operate the Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen restaurants in state parks. A review from the Frontier found the state overpaid for equipment by more than $540,000 in extra fees from Swadley’s.
In a hearing in May, the head of the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency told state lawmakers the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department lost $12.4 million in taxpayer money from improper spending on the Swadley’s deal.
Governor Stitt said the claim that his administration lost $17 million is untrue.
“If the vendor overcharged us then we’ve already – there’s lawsuits against that vendor, but today that the taxpayers lost 17 million is untrue.”
Hofmeister said Stitt has a record of squandering, mismanaging, and losing taxpayer dollars.
“The state auditor in 2021 shows $41 million in questioned costs among agencies that he has control over — $20 million dollars in missing PPE inventory, paid for, never received,” she said. “$12 million lost in Swadleys’s scandal — can’t even trust you with barbecue.”
Moderators addressed a Frontier report that super PACs and dark money groups have spent more than $12.5 million attacking Stitt and supporting Hofmeister. Additionally, Hofmeister was charged in 2016 with felony conspiracy and campaign violations related to the 2014 superintendent race. The charges were ultimately dropped.
“How can Oklahomans trust that you will work for them and not unnamed folks who are running dark money campaigns,” Savage asked Hofmeister.
She said she has earned Oklahomans’ trust by standing up to those misusing taxpayer dollars and that she doesn’t “have a thing to do with anything but my campaign.”
“I know people at home want to know who’s behind all these dark money ads,” Stitt said. “$20 million has been spent against me, attacking me, spreading lies and chaos and misinformation, supporting my opponent. I’ll give you 20 million reasons why she will be beholden to special interest and not you the people.”
In his closing statement, Stitt said his record of turning budget deficits to record savings and surplus has led to a bright economy attracting companies and people from all over the world.
“Folks, I want to keep the momentum going. We’ve balanced our budget, we gave our teachers a pay raise, law enforcement a pay raise, all while cutting taxes for Oklahomans,” he said. “Thank you so much for being here, and let’s go win this thing on November 8th.”
Superintendent Hofmeister said in her closing statement that Oklahoma is at a tipping point.
“We have a governor who has run our state into the ground through his self dealing — through his cronyism and corruption. And I’ve had a front-row seat,” she said. “All of this is about common sense, respect for one another, working together, and I say I’m aggressively moderate. Meet me in the middle, let’s get something done for the people of Oklahoma. I’m asking for your vote on November the eighth, Oklahoma belongs to you. Thank you.”
Oklahomans will take to the ballots on Nov 8 to decide the state’s next governor. The deadline to receive an absentee ballot for the Nov 8 general election is 5 p.m., October 24. Voters can request an absentee ballot using the OK Voter Portal at oklahoma.gov/elections/ovp, or by completing an absentee ballot application, which can be downloaded from the State Election Board website or obtained from your County Election board.
For information regarding what’s on the ballot, finding a polling place, or registering to vote, visit vote411.org/Oklahoma.