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Governor candidates on their opponent: 'Mary Fallin lite' vs. 'bigger government and higher taxes'

Voters sometimes complain they don’t see much difference between Republican and Democratic candidates.

That’s not likely to be a problem in the general election campaign for governor that began Wednesday, only hours after Kevin Stitt secured the GOP nomination over Mick Cornett.

Stitt is the political newcomer, the businessman who believes only an outsider can straighten out state government.

Democrat Drew Edmondson is the grizzled political veteran, the former attorney general who believes the state’s chief executive should know first-hand how state government works.

And if neither of those suits, Libertarian Chris Powell offers a third alternative.

The big fight, though, will be between Stitt and Edmondson.

“I’m going against an opponent who’s spent 40 years in government,” Stitt said Wednesday afternoon. “(Edmondson) thinks bigger government and higher taxes are the answer to everything.”

Edmondson calls Stitt “Mary Fallin lite.”

Edmondson wants to keep the focus on the trials and tribulations of the past decade, presided over primarily by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin and a Republican-controlled Legislature.

Stitt can say he has had nothing to do with the previous administration — or anything else that’s gone on at the state Capitol.

And, Stitt can always invoke the name “Donald Trump.”

Trump’s popularity in the state has made him an obvious go-to for Republican candidates, and a form of kryptonite for many Democrats.

On Wednesday, Stitt seemed to dismiss, or at least minimize, the notion that Trump will be a major part of his campaign message.

“We’re obviously very pro-Trump,” he said. “Oklahomans are very patriotic. They’re constitutionalists. But running state government is different than running the federal government.”

In public appearances during the primary and runoff campaigns, Stitt did not talk that much about Trump, except to assure his Republican audiences he supports the president and especially likes Trump’s tax cuts.

Stitt’s advertising, though, relentlessly attacked Cornett as a “never-Trump” Republican who opposed the administration’s immigration policies.

There is a risk of using such tactics in the general election. Trump tends to be a polarizing figure, even in Oklahoma, and leaning too heavily on him could wind up driving more Democrats to the polls than it inspires Republicans.

Edmondson knows he’ll take some hits over Trump, but said governors have to work with presidents, regardless of party.

“Whether a Democrat or Republican president, I will support the president when what he is proposing is in the best interest of the state of Oklahoma,” Edmondson said. “And I will oppose the president when what he is proposing is not in the best interest of the people of the state of Oklahoma.

“Everyone knows he was not my choice for president. I am a Democrat and I supported the nominee of my party. That does not mean I can’t work with him. Governors have worked with presidents they didn’t vote for since statehood.”

Stitt said he prefers to continue focusing on state issues and how he would apply his business experience to running the state.

“In reality we’re competing against 50 other ‘companies’ out there called states,” he said.

Edmondson said the ideological differences between him and Stitt are “stark,” and used education as an example.

Stitt has repeatedly said he would not have signed House Bill 1010XX, the tax hike bill that supplied funding for a teacher pay raise that averaged $6,100. While Stitt said he supports increases, he has offered no alternative, Edmondson said.

Edmondson said he would have restored the gross production tax to 7 percent, eliminated the capital gains tax loophole for millionaires and added another 50 cents to a pack of cigarettes to get more money into the classroom to reduce class sizes, hire teachers and pay for operational costs.

Stitt has said he would appoint pro-life justices to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which has repeatedly tossed out legislation seeking additional restrictions on abortion.

Edmondson said the Oklahoma Legislature, which doesn’t have any obstetrician/gynocologists among its members, has spent far too much time on women’s reproductive health.

Voters won’t be hearing just from the candidates, either. Already Wednesday, a nonprofit independent expenditure organization launched an advertising campaign against Edmondson. The ad features dire warnings about Edmondson’s “economic plan” and shows a wrecking ball shattering a barn into splinters and reducing an oil rig to a burst of flame.

The nonprofit, the Foundation for Economic Prosperity, is a little late to the Stitt bandwagon, having previously backed first Todd Lamb and then Cornett in the GOP primary.

Stitt, who made a point of discouraging independent expenditures in the primary and runoff, said Wednesday he had nothing to do with the Edmondson ad.

By law, candidates are prohibited from coordinating with independent expenditure groups; in practice, the walls between the two can be pretty thin.

“I’ve been very clear I wasn’t going to set up one of those,” Stitt said. “I don’t know who’s behind it.”

Osage Casinos unveils $160 million expansion project just north of downtown Tulsa

The lavishness of the Tulsa Osage Casino’s new $160 million casino and hotel expansion was on full display Wednesday, leaving at least one member of tribe’s leadership floored.

“This has kind of been my dream,” said Mark Simms, chairman of the Osage Nation Gaming Enterprise Board. “I’ve been on it since the beginning.

“I’ve looked at the plans. I saw the pictures. But everything didn’t look like this. It didn’t do it justice.”

Several hundred people turned out for the opening of the Osage Casino Hotel, a site four minutes north of downtown that will eventually employ at least 400 people and feature an entertainment venue, gaming floor, 141-room hotel, sports bar, cafe, pool and Nine Band Brewing Co., a full-service brewery.

The largest Osage Casinos footprint, the entire complex at 951 W. 36th St. North encompasses 247,000 square feet. It will bring an estimated economic impact of $32 million annually in wages and salaries, said Mike Neal, president and CEO of the Tulsa Regional Chamber.

It also puts the Osage on comparable entertainment and gaming footing with the Cherokee Nation and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Those two tribes already have mega-footprints in the area, the Cherokees with the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa in Catoosa and the Creeks with Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville offerings at River Spirit Casino Resort near 81st Street and Riverside Parkway.

Revenues from the Osages’ casinos provide the tribe with funding for health care, education and cultural programs.

“The new facility here adds to gaming opportunities in the Tulsa area,” said Osage Nation Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear. “Indian gaming has been nothing but positive for the tribes, for the city of Tulsa and for the state of Oklahoma.

“This is a big step forward in our growth and strengthens our ability to be self-sufficient.”

The new facilities, which include nearly 66,000 square feet of casino space, will give the Tulsa metro area an estimated 366,000 square feet of casinos.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said he went on a walk-through of the Osage Nation complex a couple of weeks ago.

“A $160 million investment in a quarter-million square-foot facility. … That, in and of itself, is remarkable,” he told the crowd Wednesday. “When you hear numbers like that at a scale like that, it’s easy to not appreciate the eye for detail that went into every one of those square feet.”

While at the microphone, Bynum singled out longtime Tulsa civic servant Jack Henderson, who was in the audience.

“Jack Henderson served on our City Council longer than anyone has ever served on it in the history of the city of Tulsa,” the mayor said. “Every one of those days, he was advocating for the economic growth of north Tulsa. Now, here we are today.

“It gives me goosebumps to see all the work that people like Jack put in all those years advocating for something like this.”

Gentner Drummond concedes after falling 269 votes short in race for Republican attorney general nomination

Tulsa lawyer Gentner Drummond on Wednesday conceded the GOP nomination for attorney general after narrowly losing a runoff race to incumbent Mike Hunter.

The decision, announced at the Tulsa Press Club, comes after Drummond said late Tuesday that he would wait until provisional ballots were counted before deciding whether to seek a recount.

“After considering whether to seek a recount and researching what that would entail I have decided instead to concede the election today in an effort to bring unity to the Republican Party,” Drummond said.

Hunter led Drummond by 269 votes in statewide balloting at the close of the polls in the Tuesday runoff election. In complete, unofficial results, Hunter finished with 148,354 votes to 148,085 for Drummond.

Drummond, 54, said he called Hunter to concede the election prior to holding the news conference. In conceding the race, Drummond endorsed Hunter in the general election.

“The upcoming elections are critically important for the future of Oklahoma and a statewide recount would simply serve as a prolonging distraction,” Drummond said, reading from prepared remarks.

Hunter, 62, will face Oklahoma City attorney Mark Myles, a Democrat, in the Nov. 6 general election.

Drummond said he had “no regrets” about the race, which featured negative ads aimed at both campaigns.

“The primary election cycle was negative and divisive,” Drummond said. “Now is the time for healing and unity.”

“To my opponent Mr. Hunter, I want to say congratulations on the hard-fought victories,” Drummond said. “I wish you the very best of luck in November.”

Drummond thanked his backers and lastly his family members for their support during the campaign.

“You have stood with me an endured all of the ugliness that is politics today,” Drummond said.

Both Hunter and Drummond advanced to the runoff election after easily beating out fellow GOP challenger Angela Bonilla. Hunter had nearly a 26,000 winning vote margin over Drummond in the primary but was forced into a runoff after winning only 44 percent of the total vote.

Examples of just how close the race was could be found in several areas.

For instance, Drummond noted Wednesday that he was encouraged with the election-day vote, but in the end realized it was not enough.

Drummond received 2,177 more votes than Hunter in Tuesday balloting, but Hunter made up the difference and then some in absentee balloting.

Drummond received more votes than Hunter in 56 of the 77 counties in the state, while strong support for Hunter in the Oklahoma City metro area allowed him to prevail.

In two counties, the winning margin was one vote for each candidate.

Hunter won Oklahoma County by 12,633 votes, while Drummond’s largest winning margin was 5,241 in Tulsa County.

While state Election Board officials couldn’t cite any past statewide elections that were as close as the Tuesday attorney general runoff race, Drummond said the vote margin was “historically close.”

Both candidates loaned hundreds of thousands of dollars to their campaigns for a job with annual pay of $132,825. Hunter loaned his campaign at least $700,00 while Drummond loaned over $2 million.

Hunter has the backing of the Republican Attorneys General Association. Independent expenditures through the association’s dark money group supporting Hunter have exceeded $1 million.

Hunter has been endorsed by his prior bosses — Gov. Frank Keating and former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla.

Drummond’s campaign said his endorsements come from Tulsa community and business leaders.

Meanwhile, state election board officials were working Wednesday to determine an initial tally on provisional ballots that were submitted statewide. Individual county election board officials vet which provisional ballots are eventually counted.

Provisional ballots are opened and counted after 5 p.m. Friday when each county election board meets to certify the final tally.

However, state election laws require a recount to be filed prior to 5 p.m. the Friday after an election, which means before any provisional ballots are tallied.

Voters can cast a provisional ballot for a number of reasons.

People who don’t provide photo identification or their voter ID card when they show up at the polls may case a provisional ballot after completing an affidavit.

If information provided on the affidavit matches voter registry data, the ballot is counted.

Provisional ballots are also cast when the would-be voter is not listed in the precinct registry.

In the state primary, 2,589 provisional ballots were cast out of a statewide total of about 900,000, Oklahoma Election Board spokesman Bryan Dean said.

Election board officials ended up counting about 970 provisional ballots in the primary election, Dean said.

Oversight panel accuses DHS of failing to protect children, not making good-faith efforts to reform

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services has failed even to make “good faith efforts” to improve services and protect children in state custody, according to a panel of experts who have been appointed by a federal court to oversee reforms in the agency.

DHS, in turn, accused the panel of omitting facts to portray the agency “in as unfavorable a light as possible.” And Gov. Mary Fallin expressed concern over the “tone” of the report, noting it seemed to contradict findings that the same panel issued only months ago.

Children in DHS custody “experience abuse and neglect at an alarmingly high rate,” the three-member panel said in a report released Wednesday.

“The continued high incidence of child maltreatment in Oklahoma,” the panel wrote, “raises serious concerns about the rigor, focus and urgency of the state’s efforts to ensure the safety and well-being of the children it has been charged to protect.”

Appointed in 2012 as part of a settlement in a federal class-action lawsuit, the oversight panel releases reports, or “commentaries,” every six months to critique DHS efforts to implement the terms of the settlement, known as the Pinnacle Plan. While noting “sustained progress in some areas,” the report describes what it calls “the absence of good faith” in other areas.

The state, for example, has “made important strides” toward keeping pre-school children out of shelters, the report said. But a shortage of foster homes has resulted in children age 6 and above being “placed too often in shelters,” the report said.

Child-welfare workers also continue to face unmanageable caseloads, the report said.

“It is unacceptable that foster children in Oklahoma are still not safe while in state care,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, who was the lead plaintiff’s attorney in the class-action lawsuit that led to the Pinnacle Plan. She’s now the executive director of a New York-based advocacy group called A Better Childhood. “It may well be that the only thing that will result in better and stronger actions from the state agency will have to come in explicit orders from the federal court.”

DHS responded with a page-by-page rebuttal of the oversight panel’s report, suggesting that the report often left out information that would have shown how the agency was making a good-faith effort to meet the terms of the settlement. When the report, for example, criticizes DHS for not opening more therapeutic foster homes for children with special needs, DHS lists more than a dozen initiatives that it has undertaken to address the shortage.

“This report contains a number of misleading comments, isolated facts stated without important context, hindsight bias, and inconsistencies with prior reports,” said DHS Director Ed Lake.

The out-of-state panelists who wrote the report “appear to be crafting a narrative that is at odds with the actual efforts of the agency and, at times, directly conflicts with their previous good-faith findings,” Lake said. “We do not believe full and fair assessments of our good faith efforts can be made from a distance.”

Fallin noted that the same panelists, known in court documents as “co-neutrals,” had previously found that DHS was working in good faith to improve standards.

“The reversal in assessment from their last report raises a lot of questions,” the governor said through a spokesman. “It’s important the co-neutrals give DHS a consistent objective standard of what good faith is.”

The governor also noted several accomplishments that DHS has made since the lawsuit was settled in 2012, adding more than 840 new case workers and supervisors to lower caseloads. More than 11,500 children have been adopted from the foster care system and more than 15,000 have been reunited with their families since 2012, Fallin said.

The co-neutrals acknowledge some of those improvements but say DHS still isn’t doing enough.

“Some of the most disturbing findings are a continuing high rate of abuse and neglect for children in foster homes and institutions as well as the increase in the number of children spending nights housed in shelters,” said Frederic Dorwart, a Tulsa attorney who helped lead the federal lawsuit that led to the Pinnacle Plan to reform DHS. “The state can and must do better in caring for our most vulnerable children.”