In seeking reelection, Stitt says he has more work to do as governor

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Kevin Stitt was a relatively unknown Tulsa businessman four years ago when he vowed to shake up state government. 

As the Republican governor seeks reelection in what could be an unexpectedly close race, one thing is abundantly clear. 

He wasn’t kidding around. 

In his first term, Stitt, 49, angered most of Oklahoma’s Native American tribes when he aggressively pushed to renegotiate the state’s tribal gaming compacts

He unified the GOP-led Oklahoma Legislature against him after vetoing key parts of the state budget.

And he faced criticism from the state’s medical community when he refused time and again to implement a statewide mask mandate during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But the former government outsider and self-made millionaire who defied political odds to win the 2018 governor’s race said he doesn’t dwell in the past. He’s too busy looking forward to what he wants to accomplish in a second term.

Stitt, who vowed to run government like a business, also makes no apologies for aggravating some people in the pursuit of change. 

“If I was just going along with everybody behind the scenes, rubber stamping contracts for this special interest group or that special interest group, it would never hit the headlines because I would be going along to get along,” he said.

“But Oklahomans elected the wrong person (if that’s what they want). They elected me to put a fresh set of eyes, to have a business approach, to look at every single contract, put my eyes on it to say, ‘Is this a fair deal for four million Oklahomans?’”

More:How dyslexia, car rides with dad, and a mugshot shaped Joy Hofmeister

Four years down, four more to go?

At a campaign stop in Moore, Stitt harkens back to before he was elected and paints a bleak picture of Oklahoma.

Surrounded by supporters at a local breakfast joint, Stitt talks about the teacher walkout, budget shortfalls that had lawmakers scrambling to keep government funded and a growing number of schools that had implemented four-day school weeks to save money. 

Now, Stitt touts record state savings, a teacher pay raise he granted his first year in office, new bonus pay for top educators and legislation he signed to curb four-day school weeks.

The governor also proudly trumpets bills he signed to cut personal income and corporate income taxes.

Stitt’s main regret from his first term was that he couldn’t convince the state Senate to cut taxes amid high inflation. But he expressed confidence he can eliminate the state’s grocery sales tax next year.

Having never run for political office before mounting his first gubernatorial campaign, Stitt said God called on him to jump into the political arena to share his vision for improving the state.

On the stump, Stitt also touts his more controversial policy plans, including pushing to expand school vouchers, partially privatizing the state’s Medicaid program and a 15-year, $5 billion turnpike expansion that has some Norman residents up in arms. 

Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, who organized the breakfast at a local diner, doesn’t agree with the governor on every issue. 

He opposes the Oklahoma Empowerment Act, legislation Stitt backed that would allow parents to use taxpayer dollars to fund private-school costs. A believer that greater competition in education will improve public schools, Stitt vows to advocate for similar legislation if he’s reelected. 

“There are issues that you may not like him on,” McBride said. “He and I disagree, and we agree to disagree, but at the end of the day, he more fits my conservative values.” 

In the GOP runoff primary for state schools superintendent, McBride endorsed against Ryan Walters, Stitt’s education secretary who has been a vocal proponent of expanded school vouchers.

More:Gov. Kevin Stitt made big campaign promises four years go. Did he deliver?

Dark money spending clouds race

In theory, Stitt should skate to a second term on Nov. 8 after Trump won Oklahoma by 33 points in the 2020 presidential election. 

But the powerful leaders of Oklahoma’s five largest tribes are among those intent on seeing Stitt lose to state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, formerly a lifelong Republican who became a Democrat to run for governor

Factor into the equation possible backlash at the polls after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Stitt proudly signed anti-abortion laws that have instituted a near-total ban on the procedure.

And well-funded outside groups, many of which don’t have to report their donors, are paying millions to blanket the airwaves with anti-Stitt commercials that, among other things, highlight several high-profile scandals in his administration. 

Stitt has come under fire for a sweetheart deal the Tourism and Recreation Department, led by one of his appointees, inked with a local barbecue chain; a possible conflict of interest controversy at the Commissioners of the Land Office under a different gubernatorial appointee; federal pandemic relief funds intended for education being spent on non-education materials; questionable pandemic relief spending and the Oklahoma Health Department paying $5.4 million for personal protective equipment it never received.

All of that has made the governor’s race surprisingly close, according to recent polls

That narrowing race may have prompted the Republican Governors Association to launch a “seven-figure” ad buy attacking Hofmeister in the closing weeks of the campaign.

Citing recent scandals as examples, the governor’s critics allege the Stitt administration is rife with corruption. Such allegations are false, Stitt said.

Stitt has accused Hofmeister of coordinating with dark money groups, which would be illegal, that he said are spending $25 million to attack him and boost her campaign. Hofmeister disputed the governor’s allegations in a recent debate. 

“The real question is, where’s this $25 million coming from?” Stitt said. “Who is trying to buy this election?”

More:6 takeaways from the Oklahoma governor’s debate between Kevin Stitt, Joy Hofmeister

Offering no proof of his claims, Stitt has blamed Oklahoma’s major tribes for a slew of campaign commercials and mailers attacking him. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin outright denied the governor’s accusation, and said his tribe does not fund dark money groups that don’t have to report their donors. 

Moore resident Frank Randall hears all about the latest attack ads listening to Glenn Beck’s radio show while driving to job sites. A registered Republican, Randall, 63, runs a local heating and air conditioning company. 

“You can tell that they’ve got a lot of money behind them trying to get (Stitt) out,” he said.

After comparing President Joe Biden to a dictator, Randall complained about how inflation has significantly increased his equipment prices. High gas prices also are driving up business costs, he said.

Randall said he is a Stitt supporter through and through. 

“He’s a stand-up man,” he said. “To me, he seems like an honest guy. He believes in God and he’s done well for our state, more so than Democrats.”

More:Republican Governors Association to launch ‘seven-figure’ ad buy attacking Joy Hofmeister

A contentious history with Oklahoma’s tribes

A member of the Cherokee Nation, Stitt has clashed with the state’s major tribes throughout much of his first term. 

After failing to renegotiate the state’s tribal gaming compacts, Stitt successfully pushed for the courts to limit the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling, which led to roughly half the state being affirmed as tribal reservations. The state’s major tribes praised the ruling that applies to much of Eastern Oklahoma as a win for tribal sovereignty. 

In an interview, Stitt said he’s 100% sure he made the right decision in both instances. 

Although the complex McGirt decision only applied to the Major Crimes Act, which grants criminal jurisdiction to federal and tribal courts in cases involving Native Americans in Indian country, Stitt expressed concerns about the ruling applying to civil matters. 

His chief complaint is that Oklahoma’s laws, whether they deal with taxation, environmental regulations or crime, should not be applied differently to Native Americans and non-Natives.

“You can’t have one neighbor not paying taxes and another neighbor paying taxes,” Stitt said. “You can’t have one neighbor being subject to the city of Tulsa’s regulatory laws and speed limits and another neighbor not.”

In the spring, a Republican state representative called Stitt’s behavior toward the tribes racist and hateful

Leaders of the Five Tribes endorsed Hofmeister for governor.

Ultimately, fairness is what drives much of the governor’s decision making, said Stitt’s longtime friend, Corbin McGuire.

He applauded Stitt for fighting for “one set of rules” for all Oklahomans. 

“The governor doesn’t wake up in the morning while raising six kids and say, ‘Let’s take on these complicated issues,’ because he’s looking for something to do with his downtime,” McGuire said. “He’s principled and fair. If people want a governor who will sit back and rubber stamp things so not to offend, they hired the wrong guy.” 

Tribal issues were top of mind for Carlton Cameron, 42, when he confronted Stitt at a steak cookoff in Stockyards City. 

In between helping to grill ribeye steaks and taste-tasting samples from ranches across the state, Stitt posed for photos and courted votes at the event.

Cameron lives in Stratford, about 15 miles away from where the Chickasaw Nation is headquartered in Ada. The former Democrat who recently joined the GOP asked Stitt why he was so hard on Oklahoma’s tribes. 

Stitt said he wasn’t backing down on tribal issues. Cameron said he was satisfied with the governor’s answer, which he paraphrased as “you need to ask them why they’re coming at me.” 

But it’s education, not tribal issues that has Cameron undecided in the governor’s race. His father was a longtime elementary school principal and his mother worked in special education.

“I have a lot of connections in the school system, and a lot of them do not like Governor Stitt,” he said. 

More:Stitt’s false claim about Oklahoma’s crime rate a key moment during governor’s debate

The leap from business to politics

Most Oklahomans know the story of how Stitt became a wealthy Tulsa businessman. 

The governor touts starting Gateway Mortgage Group, now Gateway First Bank, with $1,000 and a computer. After founding Gateway in 2000, the Jenks-based company recently merged with a century-old community bank to offer mortgage and banking services in 40 states and Washington, D.C. 

Prior to taking office and as Gateway was in the process of becoming a bank, Stitt stepped away from the company through a plan approved by the attorney general. A family trust remains the majority stakeholder, but Stitt does not manage the trust. 

Born in Milton, Florida, Stitt spent part of his childhood in Skiatook before his parents settled their family in Norman, where his father was a pastor at Riverside Church. After graduating from Norman High School, Stitt went on to get an accounting degree from Oklahoma State University.

More:‘Serious kid’ sets sights on serving as chief executive of Oklahoma

That’s when Stitt’s entrepreneurial spirit began to take hold. During the summer after his sophomore year, he sold books door to door for the Southwestern Company. He sold more books than all other first-year sellers. 

He met his wife, Sarah Stitt, at church. They have six children.

Stitt promised to bring his business acumen to the executive branch.

That transition is like going from playing baseball to taking part in a cricket match. All the skills are transferable, but the playing field, rules and score-keeping are all different, said Stitt’s former chief of staff Bond Payne, an Oklahoma businessman.

Stitt has changed dramatically between when he first took office to now, he said. 

“He’s learned different ways to make change within the system, whereas maybe he tended to rely on brute force in the early years,” Payne said. “I think we learned together how to make change without necessarily making waves or blowing things up.” 

Payne joined the administration about halfway through Stitt’s term. The governor was politically isolated after suffering a series of high-profile defeats on tribal gaming issues. Then he was challenged by his own party when state lawmakers quickly reversed his vetoes of the 2020 state budget. 

Oklahoma was also in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic months before the first vaccines would be released. The virus killed nearly 15,000 Oklahomans, giving the state the 14th highest COVID death rate, according to state data.

Although Payne and Stitt didn’t personally know each other, the governor sought out the co-founder and chairman of Heritage Trust Company to bring a fresh state perspective to state government. 

Many of Stitt’s supporters have praised the governor’s ability to attract other government outsiders to lead state agencies and serve on his Cabinet, although several of his appointees have been caught up in agency scandals or resigned under pressure.

If Stitt thinks he’s aligned with the majority of Oklahomans on a given issue, even if it’s controversial, he won’t worry about the short-term consequences or blowback, Payne said. 

“When you disrupt the system and you disrupt the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy responds and the bureaucracy fights back,” he said. “But he wasn’t afraid of that. He has more guts than anybody I’ve ever met.” 

‘An amazing story over the last four years’

Stitt dismissed rumors that he is considering running for higher office in the future.

“You never say never, but I am just so focused on being governor, I don’t see any of that in my future,” he said. “At this point, it’s all about just leaving my state the best state I can have.”

At the steak cookoff, Stitt posed with Oklahomans from a Claremore cattle ranch while holding up a T-shirt that says, “The West Wasn’t Won on Salad.” The scene was reminiscent of when Stitt held a cookout under a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals billboard that called him a “meathead.”

Colten Barnes, the owner of Diamond 4 Cattle Co., praised Stitt as an advocate for farm and ranch families. 

Barnes said he was able to continue operating his processing business in Mayes County during the pandemic because the governor largely kept businesses open. Stitt briefly shuttered some businesses at the start of the health crisis although he offered many exemptions for “essential” businesses to remain open.

Stitt also talks to a man who moved from California to Oklahoma during the COVID-19 pandemic. A member of the Choctaw Nation and a critic of California’s Democratic governor, Kent Goodman assures Stitt he wasn’t swayed by tribal leaders’ endorsement of Hofmeister. 

Lifelong Democrat Gayle Seal, 83, was impressed by Stitt when he campaigned for office four years ago. Now, she’s pleased with how he’s managed state finances. 

After voting for Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, Seal plans to once again vote for Stitt.

“I think he’s done great, and I’ll vote for him again. I don’t care if I am a Democrat,” she said.

The governor is endorsed by Trump, the Oklahoma State Fraternal Order of Police, the National Right to Life, the Tulsa Firefighters political action committee, the National Federation of Independent Business Oklahoma PAC and the Oklahoma Public Employees Association PAC. Oklahoma’s House speaker and Senate president pro tempore, both Republicans, endorsed Stitt, as did 66 other GOP state lawmakers. He has an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association.

Stitt said the changes he promised voters in 2018 are happening. 

“It’s just an amazing story over the last four years, what we’ve been able to accomplish when you stop and take a step back,” he said. 

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