November’s City Council runoff elections won’t look anything like Tuesday’s general election.
Not only will just three Council seats be up for grabs, versus seven last week, but Donald Trump and Joe Biden will be on the ballot in another election of consequence.
Turnout will be huge. That was not the case Tuesday, when approximately 34% of the city’s registered voters cast ballots. Historically, turnout in the city of Tulsa and Tulsa County as a whole for presidential elections has been closer to 50% and higher.
In the 2016 election that swept Trump into office, 58% of the county’s registered voters cast ballots.
What will the larger turnout mean for council elections? Everyone has a theory, but it is hard to tell. Sometimes local elections get lost in presidential contests, sometimes they gain clarity because more people are paying attention.
No one knows for sure, but it’s not too early to remind voters in Council Districts 5, 6 and 7 who the candidates are and that, in many ways, those who sit on the City Council have a more direct impact on their day-to-day lives than Donald Trump or Joe Biden ever will.
Here’s a summary of the races and some of the issues they’ll revolve around.
In a repeat of their 2018 runoff election, Councilor Cass Fahler faces MyKey Arthrell. Fahler, 48, is a residential real estate lender. Arthrell, 36, is an education specialist with Urban Strategies Inc. Fahler captured 36% of the vote in Tuesday’s five-person general election. Arthrell came in at nearly 30%, but says the overall vote tells a more revealing story.
“I think the important difference for District 5 to notice is that Cass was outvoted 3-to-1, and that is a significant number, in my opinion, for an incumbent,” Arthrell said. “And that is the direct result of the decisions he has made for our district.”
Fahler has also failed to deliver on the priorities he set for District 5, Arthrell said, including uplifting law enforcement and bringing in new businesses.
The city councilor claims to support police officers, but “they have never been in more jeopardy because of the polarization he has created in our district. That is not safe for officers,” Arthrell said. “I think that you need someone who fairly represents everyone, can listen to everyone, can relate to everyone, doesn’t block people or tune them out when they are asking him hard questions.”
Fahler said Arthrell’s assertions hold no water. As a lifelong resident of District 5, Fahler said, he knows the district well and has worked in a variety of jobs there from a very young age. He knows business and is using that experience to partner with city officials to advance new business opportunities throughout the district.
He points to a new car wash at 23rd Street and Sheridan Avenue and a new storage unit facility at 15th Street and Memorial Drive as two examples of his effective advocacy. He said he also worked with city officials to close the deal on the redevelopment of Remington Tower.
“I have spoken to and encouraged time and time again to real estate developers and real estate attorneys to let them know that they have an advocate that will go to bat for them to help bring in business,” Fahler said.
He called Arthrell’s assertion that he has been a polarizing figure when it comes to policing false.
“That’s grandstanding to patronize his base, “ Fahler said. “No fact behind that.”
What he is hearing from his constituents, Fahler said, is “get me more officers in our neighborhood, get me more officers in our district, bring down the crime in our district.”
Incumbent Connie Dodson earned more than 46% of the vote in Tuesday’s general election, just shy of the 50% plus one vote she needed to win. Christian Bengel will join her on the runoff ballot after earning nearly 34% of the vote.
“We’re having to unseat a 6-year incumbent, so actually I was pretty pleased,” Bengel said.
Bengel, 52, is a U.S. Army veteran and former Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office reserve deputy who is employed at CenturyLink Communications.
He said one difference between Dodson and himself is that he will always take responsibility for his decisions. After voting against the city’s mask ordinance, Dodson explained her decision by saying she personally supported the ordinance but that a majority of her constituents did not, Bengel said.
“I don’t try to play both sides of the fence; if I make a decision, I put it on me,” he said.
Dodson, 53, defended her vote and her explanation.
“That is my job as an elected official, not to go and fight for my personal beliefs but to represent the people that have voted me into office,” she said. “And that is one of the biggest things I feel like he would come up short on because he is very stuck in his personal beliefs and unwilling sometimes to listen to the will of the people.”
Bengel said he did not believe the citywide mask requirement was constitutional and that he would have liked to have seen the city handle it a different way. It’s not unusual, he noted, for businesses to have “No shoes, no shirt, no service” signs.
“They have the right to throw you out, and if you refuse to leave, you are criminally trespassing, it’s that simple,” Bengel said.
The city’s mask ordinance essentially works that way, leaving it up to business owners to report individuals not wearing masks who refuse to leave when asked.
Dodson said she’s concerned Bengel does not understand how city government works and the authority and responsibilities granted to the City Council. She pointed to her work in helping secure funding for a new east Tulsa fire station in the Vision Tulsa sales tax package.
“Working through the planning of a bond (package) and the process of going through the projects on those provides a deeper depth of knowledge than what is available on the outside looking in,” Dodson said.
Councilor Lori Decter Wright won her seat in 2018 in a seven-person special election. In that winner-take-all race, she captured approximately 27% of the vote. She did 20 percentage points better on Tuesday, but still didn’t earn enough votes to avoid a runoff.
Her opponent is businessman Justin Van Kirk. Van Kirk earned 38% of the vote Tuesday in a three-person race.
Wright, 45, is executive director of Kendall Whittier Inc. The former professional opera singer also worked as an executive at Sweet Adelines International and has operated her own business.
Van Kirk, 29, is the owner of Affordable Auto.
Wright describes herself as a public servant, not a politician, and said her focus is on the “kitchen table” issues that affect her constituents' lives.
“I am a very pragmatic and practical and down-to-earth, common-ground, commonsense-solution councilor,” she said.
Van Kirk said he and Wright are alike in their desire to improve life for District 7 residents but that they approach the work with different values and viewpoints.
“I lean more conservative,” he said. “... I am conservative in my budgeting, I am conservative in my mindset. And I am very critical of our leaders and I am critical of decisions and I want to make educated decisions.”
Van Kirk, like Wright, said he wants to work with the entire community to find common sense solutions to problems but is conservative “in the amount of authority I want the government to have over me as a person.”
He described the city’s mask ordinance as overreach but stressed that he is not opposed to the use of masks and does not question their effectiveness. In fact, he and his wife donated 1,000 N95 masks to a local church.
“I don’t think it is OK for our local government to criminalize our own citizens for not wearing one,” Van Kirk said.
Wright said the ordinance does not criminalize the issue. She noted that the ordinance was created in consultation with business leaders and educators and was stripped of any financial penalty.
“We have chosen the path of least regulation with balancing the fact that the governor has asked local control to implement the regulations necessary,” Wright said. “You can have limited government, but at some point, somebody has to take responsibility for keeping the public safe, healthy and protecting their welfare. That is the oath we take.”
Featured video: Tulsa World editorials editor Wayne Greene talks about election night
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