State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister is running for governor — as a Democrat.
The 57-year-old lifelong Republican told the Tulsa World in an exclusive interview that she is changing her party registration on Thursday in order to launch a bid to unseat Republican incumbent Kevin Stitt.
“Gov. Stitt is running the state into the ground,” said Hofmeister. “Through extremism, partisanship, ineffective leadership, he is hurting our education system, our health care, our infrastructure.
“And unfortunately, Gov. Stitt has hijacked the Republican Party in Oklahoma.”
The former public school teacher and longtime owner of Kumon Math & Reading Centers in Tulsa was a political novice when she decided to quit as a Mary Fallin-appointee to the Oklahoma State Board of Education and challenge the unpopular Janet Barresi in 2014.
Hofmeister beat Barresi in the GOP primary, carrying all 77 counties, and defeated John Cox, superintendent of a small Cherokee County school district, in the 2014 and 2018 general elections.
Changing parties and running for governor first crossed her mind, she said, this spring after a full year of being privy to Stitt’s behind-the-scenes handling of a crisis.
“We have a global pandemic, and it mattered who was governor in 2020,” said Hofmeister. “We’ve had 10,000 Oklahomans lost. When you understand now how critical it was to have had a leader who contemplated expert advice and opinion and set an example to help protect Oklahomans, we could have avoided thousands of people dying.”
So what would she have done differently?
“I wouldn’t have churned through four state epidemiologists in the middle of a pandemic,” Hofmeister said. “The policy was that if you ignore reality, somehow it will go away — when leadership mattered in reducing spread. With that strategy, Oklahomans bore the brunt of COVID in their own lives.”
She added: “Our health care workers are disrespected and stretched to the limit. Just as we’ve seen the lack of respect for educators, our health care providers have been standing alone battling a pandemic without the kind of leadership needed from the Governor’s Office.”
As state superintendent, Hofmeister is also privy to the governor’s influence over the nearly 40 commissions and state boards that she leads or serves on. These include the state boards of Education and Career and Technology Education, the Regional University System of Oklahoma, the Board of Equalization, and Commissioners of the Land Office.
From that vantage point, she said, “It is easy to see that when you value the expertise and perspectives of Oklahomans and when you set priorities that match Oklahoma’s values — which are common sense, working together and courage — we have a roadmap that will lead to a better Oklahoma.”
Hofmeister said the state lacks a plan for long-term investments and stability for some of the most important, foundational functions of government here, including public education, health care and rural infrastructure, such as broadband.
“I’m seeing these things erode and relationships are broken, and it all begins at the top,” she said. “Oklahomans don’t like partisanship or pitting neighbor against neighbor, family against family.”
Hofmeister also thinks her leadership style could only aid in the state’s relations with tribal governments, which she said have broken down since Stitt took the helm.
“We need to respect and listen to the input, the perspective and the priorities of the tribal governments within Oklahoma. From the beginning, I have worked to understand that, to listen and to be a collaborator toward the common good of all Oklahomans,” she said before adding: “I will not betray the trust that I have personally established with our tribal nations.”
Hofmeister readily responded to questions about the extraordinarily rare move for a modern Oklahoma politician to switch to the Democratic Party.
But she downplayed its significance in the grand scheme because her ultimate goal is to appeal to Democrats, independents and Republicans alike whose values are not being represented currently.
“My loyalty is to Oklahoma families, not to structures or party,” Hofmeister said. “I am changing parties, but I haven’t changed who I am. I have the same values, and they haven’t changed.
“How do we move Oklahoma forward? It begins with strong families, providing access to quality health care, education and infrastructure.”
Beating an incumbent, let alone one who self-funded his first campaign to the tune of $5 million, is a tall order.
But Hofmeister said she has a proven track record for “staring down threats and partisanship before” while continuing to work professionally to find common ground and build consensus.
“This is a very large challenge. But I am hearing from Oklahomans who want change and who agree with me that Gov. Stitt is driving the state in the wrong direction. They’re tired of partisan politics,” she said.
More than 6½ years after being sworn into political office for the first time, Hofmeister is not only far from her days as a novice, but she views herself and her family as “battle tested” in politics.
She was referring to being charged in November 2016 with four felonies by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater based on allegations that she and a couple of her GOP campaign associates conspired with an outside group during the 2014 election on negative campaign advertising against her predecessor, Barresi. All charges were dismissed nine months later.
“We know how ugly politics and campaigns can be, and I have proven I am able to work beyond those kinds of setbacks — and have worked with that prosecutor to put together a summit on childhood trauma,” Hofmeister said. “And we continue to have a professional and personal relationship.”
The latest challenge Hofmeister sees as a political attack on both her and on public education is Stitt’s September request for an investigative audit of the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s oversight of state and federal revenues, as well as local schools’ accounting.
“It’s going to be a tough fight,” she said of campaigning against Stitt. “There is too much at stake to not fight for something better.
“And it’s personal. I’m going to be a grandmother for the first time in January, so I think about my new grandbaby and I think about what kind of Oklahoma will that new baby experience.”
Former state Sen. Connie Johnson is also running in the Democratic primary, set for June 28. The general election is Nov. 8, 2022.