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Kevin Stitt, Joy Hofmeister spar in lone Oklahoma governor debate

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Joy Hofmeister and Kevin Stitt faced off in the first and only scheduled debate on Wednesday, as they both vie to be elected governor of Oklahoma.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and his Democratic challenger Joy Hofmeister faced off in the only gubernatorial debate leading up to the general election on Nov. 8.

With Oklahoma’s election for governor a few weeks away, polls are showing varying pictures of what the results could be. But many have shown a very close race between Stitt and Hofmeister.

That’s surprising in a state like Oklahoma, where President Donald Trump won all 77 counties in both the 2016 and 2020 elections.

Stitt touted his conservative credentials, while Hofmeister continued with her moderate tone at the Will Rogers Theater in Oklahoma City.

“Folks, Oklahoma’s turnaround, it is working,” Stitt said. “We simply can’t go backwards. We know what will happen if we put Biden’s party back in charge.”

Stitt often invoked President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party throughout the night. Hofmeister touted herself as an independent thinker who joined the Democrats after her party was “hijacked,” by the governor.

“He reads off a national script and is out of touch with Oklahomans and the actual needs and solutions that are right here,” she said of Stitt.

The debate was sponsored by the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce and did not include independent candidate and former state senator Ervin Yen or Libertarian candidate Natalie Bruno.

The debate was moderated by Tres Savage, editor of the nonprofit news outlet Nondoc and News 9 reporter Storme Jones. The moderators asked questions related to education, healthcare access and tribal sovereignty, as well as about decisions Stitt and Hofmeister had made in office.

Here’s what the candidates had to say on those issues:

Education

Education has often been a center stage issue in the race for governor, and it was again during the debate.

Stitt has modeled his campaign after that of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who handed him an endorsement Wednesday. He’s embraced school choice policies like private school scholarships and charter expansion. He also said he’s done a lot for public education.

“We've gone from budget deficits to a record savings account,” Stitt said. “From four-day school weeks and teacher walkouts to now the largest investment in education and teachers in the history of our state.”

Hofmeister, the eight-year state schools superintendent, has thrown her support behind more traditional public schools. She accused the governor of not investing enough in education. Because though schools might be funded at record levels, Oklahoma still lags behind other states in many educational funding metrics.

Hofmeister said to fight the teacher shortage, more money needs to be allocated to Oklahoma schools.

“You have to invest in people,” she said. “If we are going to meet the needs of children and see higher outcomes, we have to have teachers in school buildings.”

Tribal sovereignty

Stitt offered an invitation to tribal leaders to meet.

“Let’s do it tomorrow at 10 o’clock at my office,” he said. Stitt said he has an open door policy, despite not meeting with leaders of the five largest tribes since 2021.

Stitt and the tribes have had a fraught relationship over the governor’s opposition to the McGirt v. Oklahoma decision and the state's decision to ask the nation's highest court to overturn it.

In the summer of 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Oklahoma has concurrent jurisdiction and can prosecute non-Natives when they commit crimes against Native people within reservation boundaries. This decision in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta was seen as a blow to tribal sovereignty across Indian Country.

The gaming compacts have also been a sticking point. In 2019, Stitt said he wanted to negotiate with the tribes to get more revenue for the state. Tribal nations said the compacts renewed in 2020 with the current rate intact. Stitt then tried to enter into four additional gaming compact agreements with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees, Kialegee Tribal Town, the Comanche Nation and the Otoe-Missouria Tribe. All were ruled illegal by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2020 and 2021.

When leaders of the Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw Nations were contacted by KOSU about meeting with the governor, none of them were aware of the invitation.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said that no meeting was scheduled, and no invite was extended ahead of Wednesday's debate.

"The fact that Governor Stitt thinks he can command tribal leaders to his office by simply declaring on live television speaks volumes of why he has been a failure at state, tribal relations," said Hoskin Jr. in a statement.

Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton is planning to attend a ribbon cutting ceremony in Calera for a new elder housing unit on Thursday. He released a statement saying that the choice was clear for tribal citizens and Oklahomans.

“Tonight’s debate highlighted what we already know: Joy Hofmeister shares Oklahoma’s conservative values, and she is clearly the right choice to be Oklahoma’s next governor,” Batton said. “Joy has demonstrated time and again she understands unity is the right path forward for our state and that she values the benefits the Choctaw Nation and other tribes provide.”

The governor’s office was asked for details on a potential meeting, but have yet to provide a response.

Earlier this month, leaders of the five tribes formally endorsed Hofmeister, citing her support for tribal sovereignty, commitment to education and working with the tribes on economic development. Hofmeister has been seen at several tribal gatherings over the summer to campaign and talk to tribal citizens about their vote.

Health care

Stitt has spent his tenure advocating to partially privatize Oklahoma’s Medicaid program SoonerCare — which would mean hiring private insurance companies to manage day-to-day operations.

Hofmeister said she’s opposed to that.

“We've got to make sure that Oklahomans have access to quality, affordable health care and that we do nothing to prevent the health decisions that should be made between a patient, an Oklahoman and their doctor,” she said.

Stitt’s plan is supposed to save money by putting healthier people on cheaper plans, rather than government-operated ones. The hope is that insurance providers would lean toward more preventative care than they’re seeking with Medicaid.

Critics, like Hofmeister, say the plan simply won’t work and will end up costing the state more for less coverage.

“The governor’s plan actually puts profit over care,” Hofmeister told StateImpact recently.

Governing record

Neither Stitt nor Hofmeister are strangers to scandal. Moderators asked them about a number of controversial issues from their respective pasts.

First, Stitt defended himself from the recent Swadley’s BBQ scandal. A report found the state spent upwards of $17 million on contracts with the barbecue restaurant, and criminal investigations into the matter are ongoing. A former tourism department head resigned amid the scandal.

When pressed on if he’d take accountability, Stitt said the state was looking into holding the restaurant accountable.

“If the vendors are doing anything wrong and overcharging the state, Oklahomans want somebody to put a fresh set of eyes on every single contract,” he said. “That's what we're doing.”

“The governor repeated Harry Truman when he said, the buck stops with me at his state of the state,” Hofmeister said, referencing a 2019 speech Stitt gave. “But what we have clearly seen is the governor, please pass the buck.”

Savage subsequently asked Hofmeister about dark money funding.

In 2016, Hofmeister was accused of coordinating with outside groups on her 2014 election campaign. Those charges were later dropped and Hofmeister said during the debate “expunged.”

But in 2022, Super PACs and other dark money groups have spent more than $12 million on ads propping up Hofmeister and attacking Stitt, according to reporting by The Frontier.

“Who's behind all these dark money ads?” Stitt said. “I'll give you 20 million reasons why she will be beholden to special interests and not you [the public].”

Hofmeister said she didn’t know who was behind the advertisements.

“If there is a way to get money out of politics, sign me up,” she said. “Because it is what has corrupted this state.”

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Robby Korth joined KOSU as its news director in November 2022.
Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
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