By Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma’s House 85 is an odd-shaped “bowling ball” district stretching from solidly Republican areas around Lake Hefner in northwest Oklahoma City and into half of the historic Crown Heights neighborhood north of downtown.
In a competitive Republican primary scheduled for July 14, four credible multi-issue conservatives are vying for the nomination. Early voting began on Thursday, July 9.
The primary candidates are Chip Carter, Ralph Crawford, Matt Jackson and Amy Palumbo.
Each in the quartet stresses particular themes to make the case that he or she is the true-blue conservative in the race.
And each, in his or her own way, emphasizes personal, philosophical and other ties to David Dank, the sometimes pugnacious-yet-beloved-and-affable occupant of the job who suddenly died in April. Either David or his wife Odilia, who preceeded him in office and who died two years ago, held the job for the past two decades.
It says something about Dank’s abilities that each candidate’s claim to Dank-like credentials seems plausible.
Carter, now vice president of Jones Public Relations, was – along with Dank and his late wife, Odilia — part of a group of conservatives who worked (first behind-the-scenes and then in the public eye) to press for a statewide Right-to-Work Referendum.
According to Carter, he and Dank had a phone conversation just days before the latter’s death. The right-to-work effort involving the pair and a few others stretched from the early 1980s and into the early 1990s.
Crawford is an Army veteran who retired after 27 years as an Oklahoma City firefighter. Concerning Rep. Dank, Crawford describes early-morning chats at the state Capitol in the months before his passing.
Jackson ranked high in the Oklahoma County Republican hierarchy for much of the past decade. In several capacities he was an ally and supporter of Rep. Dank.
Palumbo can point to an endorsement from the late incumbent, albeit for a different office. When she sought a judicial post in 2014, Palumbo had Dank’s support – a fact she is stressing in her “snail mail” messaging.
Biographical Sketches and selected issue stances
Carter previously worked as director of development for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), the state’s leading free market “think tank.” In business, his experience includes time as a vice president for TrammellCrow, and a similar post with Battelle Oklahoma.
Carter served on both political and policy staff for U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, who has endorsed him. In 1996, Carter was assistant national political director for Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes.
Carter campaign messaging has emphasized his business acumen and multi-issue conservatism.
Crawford also has an impressive biography. A retired fire-fighter, he was a first responder at the site of the A.P. Murrah Building Bombing in 1995. In this crowded primary, he has made an explicit appeal to “constitutional conservatives” in the Republican electorate, and in one mailer promised he would protect “the Oklahoma Standard.”
Crawford has underscored his agreement with Dank on the matter of tax subsidies to business interests, saying in an interview with the Oklahoma Gazette he was “very proud of some of the things [Dank] did. He really worked hard with the tax credits and was trying to work on corporate welfare.” Both Crawford and Jackson have made clear they agree with Dank’s work to limit tax-financed business benefits.
Jackson highlights his role as a party leader, lengthy tenure as a Boy Scout leader in the same troop where his father served, and long-standing family roots in District 85.
Palumbo’s literature promotes her pro-life position (which she shares with the other hopefuls) and her record as an attorney and in small business. The former prosecutor advances “toughness themes” with explicit reference to convictions she won against “drug dealers, rapists and other violent criminals.”
Palumbo also gently advances the issue of female representation in the Oklahoma Legislature, asserting she could be a strong nominee against the female Democrat seeking the office again (after losing to Dank last fall).
Family Ties and Endorsements
Each candidate has highlighted appealing family themes, and a share of endorsements.
Effective “wife letters” have arrived from Margie (Matt’s bride) and Lori (Chip’s), and their respective children have been involved one way or another throughout the campaign.
Crawford’s wife Laura (a teacher with experience in both the Putnam City and Deer Creek public school districts) has shared with high-propensity voters her spouse’s heroic biography.
Palumbo’s daughter Lucy was the star of one mailer, and the candidate stresses her marriage to a U.S. Marine, Marco.
Both Palumbo and Jackson emphasize grass-roots leadership support.
In the endorsements’ fight, both Carter and Crawford have landed strong backing. The former has Gov. Mary Fallin, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, and other statewide Republicans in his corner.
The latter got the NRA’s highest rating along with that of OK2a.org (another pro-gun group) endorsment, and support from Oklahoma conservative legends Bunny Chambers and Carol Hefner.
Carter’s ties include active membership with the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, which brings this analysis to independent expenditures.
Drawing distinctions and Independent Spending in Round One
After weeks of “soft” communications emphasizing conservative policy themes, late mailers grew edgier in recent days.
Jackson criticized opponents in one of his postcards, sketching them as “a lobbyist, … a paid political consultant , … and “a labor union leader.”
Jackson says he is “the only candidate who has not accepted special interest money.” In another mailer, Jackson said he was the only hopeful “with roots in our community.”
Several independent expenditures, some taking a critical look at Carter’s opponents, may give Carter’s vote totals a boost.
Direct mail pieces have arrived in district mailboxes from the State Chamber of Oklahoma, stressing Carter’s ties to popular statewide officials, support for school choice and his stance against compulsory unionism. Colorful door-hangers from OKC United (a project of Catalyst Oklahoma) have also promoted Carter.
On the Friday before the election, Crawford got a lift from late independent radio spending.
Although each candidate favors school choice, the Oklahoma Federation of Children Action Fund prefers Carter, and has widely mailed in independent support of his candidacy.
In one mailer, the Federation boosted Carter while declaring Palumbo and Jackson lacked business experience and a record on school choice.
The race appears competitive. If money matters most, the edge might go to Carter. However, each prospective nominee has made an impassioned case on the doorsteps, in the mail boxes and through the airwaves to voters in the District.
Under special election rules — there is no runoff — whoever runs first will be the Republican nominee against Cyndi Munson, who is unopposed for the Democratic nod.
Even Munson gave warm praise to her former opponent, in some respects echoing the Republicans. She told Ben Felder of the Gazette newspaper that when Dank died, “House District 85 lost a tireless worker, a man of good conscience and a strong voice for seniors.”
Some believe the district is growing more competitive along partisan lines, along with much of the rest of Oklahoma City’s inner core.
Dank’s mix of fiscal conservatism and social conscience held the seat for the GOP, but over time the district could become a jump-ball.
For the moment, the one thing certain is that for the first time in nearly two decades, after the September 8 general election, the incumbent House member for District 85 won’t have the last name of Dank.
NOTE: McGuigan, founder of CapitolBeatOK.com and editor of The City Sentinel, has lived in House District 85 since 1990