Differing Visions Of Economic Development Divide Voters In Southeastern Oklahoma

Aug 7, 2018

Tyler Clifton collapses onto a couch after a long day at the furniture store he manages in downtown McAlester. It’s the same couch where he occasionally interviews people for Facebook videos he calls “The McAlester Leadership Series.”

“Everybody that's asked me about the leadership series, what eventually comes up is they say, ‘What's the motive behind it?’” Clifton said. “Well I didn't really have a motive behind it other than I wanted people in McAlester to know what their leaders were thinking, and I wanted to know, too, if I'm going to be here long term.”

That curiosity prompted Clifton to join a networking group called Ignite McAlester after moving back to his 20,000-person hometown from Tulsa in January of this year.

“I saw surrounding towns around Tulsa just blow up with economic development, and I think McAlester has the capability to grow exponentially over the next five to 10 years if we have people who are passionate and excited about this area,” said Clifton.

Tyler Clifton sits on a couch at Vicar’s Furniture in McAlester, Okla.
Credit Caroline Halter / Oklahoma Public Media Exchange

In Southeastern Oklahoma, where unemployment rates are higher than the rest of the state, residents were more likely to list jobs and the economy as a top political concern in a statewide survey commissioned by public radio stations for the Oklahoma Engaged project. Economic growth is something Clifton and the other Ignite members discuss often.

“I see huge disparities in our rural communities around, you know, economic opportunities, but McAlester is the hub for that,” said Michelle Mabray, the group’s president.

Oil and gas development isn’t booming in the region, but Mabray says there is a flurry of economic activity in McAlester. In fact, some local businesses are struggling to fill jobs that require just a high school diploma, she said. And Mabray sees McAlester’s growth as a positive thing for the region.

“The more that McAlester grows I feel like the better the district does, as well,” she said.

But the idea of McAlester as a regional hub isn’t appealing to everyone in Southeastern Oklahoma.

Across the County Line

Jim Grego lives 40 minutes east, in Wilburton, where he sells hay and raises cattle. He’s concerned about the concentration of jobs in and around McAlester.

“The city of McAlester, their goals and their visions, they don't always line up with ours,” Grego said. “They bring these businesses into McAlester, and they continue to drain Latimer County and rural Pittsburg County.”

A campaign sign for Jim Grego near Alderson, Okla.
Credit Caroline Halter / Oklahoma Public Media Exchange

Ignite McAlester recognizes the conundrum. Without the authority to levy property taxes for operating expenses, municipalities are dependent on sales tax. And without workers spending at local businesses, towns like Wilburton are losing out on sales tax revenue they depend on.

“We're cutting services,” Grego said. “That hospital up here is struggling to keep open. That veteran’s center is going to close.”

Grego is running as a Republican for House representative in District 17, which covers part of McAlester in Pittsburg County, and all of neighboring Latimer County. The seat has never been held by a Republican, but Grego thinks he has a winning campaign theme: “Rural Strong.”

“We are the minority. But we matter too,” he explained.

If he wins, Grego says he’ll focus on bringing industry to the district.

“I think my role as a state representative might be that I could make contacts with some of these businesses and try to get some things moving,” he said. “It’s always bothered me that we were rich in natural resources, but we don't really have the means to convert them natural resources into a product that will create jobs right here.”

Grego’s message won him over 60 percent of the primary vote in Latimer County. He had a harder time in Pittsburg County, where McAlester is located. There, his primary opponent, Josh Hass, got 40 percent of the vote.

The Runoff

Grego and Hass are campaigning ahead of the Aug. 28 runoff. When Republican voters in the southeastern Oklahoma House district go to the polls, they’ll be choosing between two types of Republicans with two different visions of how to help the region thrive.

The winner will face Democrat Peggy Defrange in November, but the Republican runoff illustrates divided opinion from residents about what local communities need to grow.

Hass is also tapping into the sentiment that rural Oklahoma has been forgotten, but his campaign website doesn’t mention jobs. Hass’s platform appears centered on health and education — a focus that appeals to people like Tyler Clifton, who interviewed Hass for his McAlester Leadership Series.

“I think that if we want to grow it all — as a community, as a state — we have to put more emphasis on education,” Clifton said.

Clifton is a registered Democrat, but he can see the House District 17 flipping.

“I wouldn't be surprised if we end up with with a Republican representative,” he said.