Two candidates vying for the Democratic Party nomination in 2018 for Oklahoma governor revealed significant contrasts of ideas Tuesday night in front of about 100 in Oklahoma City.
It was the first big event for Our Revolution OK since forming as a 501(c)4 nonprofit in August.
Drew Edmondson represents the traditional core of the party from the 1990s.
Connie Johnson has many years of political experience in the Democratic Party, but is also one of the founding members of Our Revolution OK, organizing group of Tuesday’s forum.
The event marked another step forward for what had been a collection of individuals in the state who supported Bernie Sanders in his bid for the Democratic nomination for president.
The group seeks to bring heavy progressive reform to the left of the political spectrum in Oklahoma which includes the Democratic Party.
Although strongest in Oklahoma and Cleveland counties, Our Revolution OK is attempting to extend its reach out into the state.
Oklahoma City attorney Mark Henricksen is the board chairperson for Our Revolution OK.
He led off the evening with a speech clearly intended to mark political territory the group wants to command.
“Our members come from many backgrounds,” said Henricksen. “But I think we share a belief that unites us and it is that this experiment of American democracy presently is in grave danger of being extinguished by the polluting influence of huge money corrupting our political system.”
Henricksen warned about the influence of large donations in the political process.
“A few more cycles of domination by the Koch Brothers, the Mercers, and locally by the Harold Hamms and Larry Nichols, by big oil and big pharma, and the bottomless money of Wall Street and we will transform into being a democracy in name only,” Henricksen said.
And then he made his case for the Our Revolution OK.
“I would suggest to you my fellow progressives that we are what stands between that reality happening in America and it not happening.”
Johnson versus Edmondson
Drew Edmondson, long at the center of traditional Democratic Party work in Oklahoma, is running against Connie Johnson, also a seasoned politician on the left, but decidedly different in her current views of how to address massive problems in the state.
She is better known in the metro, having represented the east side Senate District 48 in the Legislature for years.
Johnson had the advantage because she was a strong Sanders supporter and then one of the founding leaders of Our Revolution OK.
Edmondson has better name recognition across the state because of his successful campaigns for Attorney General of Oklahoma. He served in that position from 1995 to 2011.
He showed a more traditional big-tent approach Democrats took in the 1980s and 1990s, an approach some perceive was the downfall of the once-majority Democratic Party in Oklahoma.
They took turns presenting their platforms and ideas to a little over 100 people who attended a candidate forum organized by Our Revolution OK.
Drew Edmondson led off after organizers and candidates had a lengthy discussion over the outcome of the coin toss itself.
The central theme of his comments had to do with the functioning of the Legislature, about to go back into the second special session over low revenues and their inability to come up with a solution.
“This is not a poor state. It’s a poorly-run state,” said Edmondson.
He said that “job one” was to “get the budget back in order” and restore the gross production tax back to the 7 percent level.
Those comments got the most applause from the attentive audience.
Edmondson warned about the influence of big oil companies in Oklahoma.
“The chairman for the leading Republican candidate is also CEO of Devon Oil. If that gives you any idea of what’s going to happen if the other side gets elected in November of 2018.”
Inexplicably, Edmondson burnt a large segment of his time touting his work on the tobacco settlement during his time as Attorney General of the state which drew bland stares from many in the audience.
None of the speeches from the evening could be called barn-burners.
But Johnson produced the boldest statements clearly pitching to the group that she knows well and is counting on for support in the metro.
“In Oklahoma, we don’t have a budget problem, we have a revenue problem,” said Johnson.
“Our current governor and legislature systematically dismantled our revenue sources to the point to where we are now operating with a budget that is 15 percent less than what it was in 2007.”
Johnson told of the problems the state is having with education, health care and mass incarceration.
And she coached those present on what to do with candidates who make promises about those sets of problems.
“When a person who’s running for office says to you, I will fund and improve education and infrastructure, make them tell you how they’re going to do that. Budget cuts and increasing the gross production tax will not make up the deficit.”
She dismissed the idea of returning to a 7 percent GPT as “not enough” and proposed raising it to 10 percent.
Johnson received the most applause of the evening touching a topic most traditional Democrats in the state have been staying away from.
“Legalize hemp as a way to make sure we are using our god given resources in a way that will fund Oklahoma citizens.”
She referred to medical marijuana as “miracle marijuana” and argued that legalized marijuana could cut down on the opioid crisis by giving an effective means of pain control and could bring in large sums of tax revenue.
“I believe we are going to pass SQ 788 next year and legalize medical marijuana. This will add $200 to $500 million dollars to state tax revenues.”
She also argued for the expansion of Medicaid, which has been blocked by the Republican super majority in the Legislature.
“Right now we are leaving $600 million dollars on the table of our tax money that can mean help for Oklahomans who are suffering; it will lead to jobs and save our rural hospitals.”
She also called for “repeal or restructure” of SQ 640 that requires 75 percent vote in both houses in order to raise taxes and “return balance and common sense” to the revenue process.
Ilea Shutter quietly arrived at the forum and studiously listened to the presentations.
Free Press talked with her about why she came.
She said she knew a little about both candidates because they had been in state politics for so long.
But she got a different perspective on Johnson saying she “really did come on strong.”
“I walked in here thinking that I supported Drew Edmondson more, but then Connie really did come on strong. Now I’m more torn than I was.”
She said she has not made a decision, but the forum made her want to “definitely hear more from both of them.”