The Ward 2 city council race seems headed to a controversial and divisive end next week, as two candidates trade barbs and rhetorical bullets in post card mailings, newspaper advertisements, fliers and other hard-hitting communications with potential voters.
In the “non-partisan” nature of city council races, party affiliations and broad national issues have traditionally been non-factors. That began to change in the mayoral race between businessman Jim Tolbert and journalist Mick Cornett several years ago, a contest Cornett won.
This year, there were sharp and divisive themes in all four races on March 1. In three, candidates supported by the business community (including two incumbents) prevailed over conservative critics of MAPS 3, including in Ward 5 race, where David Greenwell defeated incumbent Councilman Brian Walters. City police and fire unions were involved on the losing side in each of those races. Turnout was higher than normal for council races (although participation was still low compared to November elections).
In the fourth race, Ward 2 on the near-north side of the city, two men, both Democrats, gained enough votes to make the April 5 runoff.
Charlie Swinton has campaigned as a champion of the MAPS process. He is a banker who has drawn strong support from members of the Oklahoma City Chamber during his campaign.
Swinton’s roots as a Democrat have gained him his fair share of what could be deemed liberal support within Ward 2. This includes Calvin Rees, who deems himself “MidTown Okie” in local circles. Rees touted a fundraiser at the Calvert Law Firm that was slated this week for Tuesday (March 29).
Swinton had raised more than $100,000 as of several days ago. Campaign finance records show he has secured the support of several conservatives, too. Major backers include Aubrey McClendon of Chesapeake Energy Corporation and his company’s political action committee, as well as Devon Energy executive Larry Nichols.
Dr. Ed Shadid, a well-known MidTown progressive leader, has campaigned as a critic of some aspects of MAPS 3. He has expressed strong sympathy for police and fire unions in matters relating to city funding.
Change Oklahoma gave Shadid a strong endorsement in the March 1 primary. Susan McCann, former chair of the group, said she admired the candidate for his unquestioned integrity and that he would be an “independent voice who will force accountability from our city council.”
Dr. Shadid touts support from public safety unions, but is “seeking to become the only member of the city council to have not received any funds from corporations, PACs, unions, or special interests.”
Shadid had raised $78,725 through last Friday’s spending report. All but a few thousand dollars of that came from his own resources.
Impacting the race are independent expenditures from a group calling itself “The Committee to Keep Momentum Going.” The committee has communicated in support of Swinton and in opposition to Dr. Shadid. Including expenditures in races already concluded, the group, tied to several members of the city chamber of commerce, had disbursed some $400,000 through March 25.
Sam Bowman, the former council member who supported Janis Powers (who finished third in the March 1 primary), expressed concern at a recent council meeting, saying, “big money has gotten involved to the extent that has just made a mockery of our city elections. … People, I think, need to know who is behind the money.”
Some spending in Ward 2 is financing “push polls” drawing national controversies into this, the most local of all local races. And, “snail mail” communications without direct attribution to one group or another began arriving last week encouraging voters to secure and return absentee ballots by this week (Wednesday, March 30).
In-person absentee ballots can be cast at the Oklahoma County Election Board (4201 North Lincoln Boulevard) from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday, April 1 and Monday, April 4. Traditional voting will take place Tuesday from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.
Pulitzer Prize winning writer Allen Drury wrote a series of novels about American politics in the latter half of the Twentieth Century. His best known was “Advise and Consent.” The first sequel to that book was entitled, “A Shade of Difference.” It dealt with not only matters of race and ethnicity, but also with subtle distinctions that might seem minor to non-participants.
To those in the political fray, however, shades of difference can mean everything. That seems to be the case in the Ward 2 race, where voters will soon decide between two men who might, in other circumstances, call themselves friends.
NOTE: McGuigan is senior editor at The City Sentinel, which does not take positions in political campaigns. He is also editor of CapitolBeatOK, an online news service working from the state Capitol.