Two of the three leading Democratic candidates for the 2018 Oklahoma Gubernatorial election gathered in Vinita on Saturday, Oct. 21, to answer questions posed by their constituents.

In an hour-long forum setting, Connie Johnson and Drew Edmondson answered questions compiled by Jason Nichols, current mayor of Tahlequah and himself a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House District 2 race.

A third candidate, Scott Inman, was unable to attend at the last minute due to an undisclosed family emergency.

The gathering, which took place at the Craig County Community Center in Vinita, was organized by chairmans of the Delaware, Ottawa, Craig and Mayes Democratic parties. 

Ray Claggett, chairman of the Craig County Democrats, said a record number of people attended the forum, despite severe weather moving into the area.

Nichols said officials decided not to stick to the original 90-minute time set for the discussion, in order to allow participants to return home before inclement weather began.

At the beginning of the session Rep. Chuck Hoskins (D-Vinita) recognized several people in the audience, including Jori Cowley, a senior at Vinita High School, and Melvina Shotpouch, a long-standing member of the Delaware County Democratic Party.

Hoskins presented Shotpouch with a gift, a copy of Artistics Tastes: Favorite Recipes of Native American Artists, saying Shotpouch and her family were always willing to help at various events.

Hoskins pointed out Cowley, one of the younger members present, is working to start a Young Democrats organization within Vinita High School.

Cowley said she, and others, are working to start a political science club at the school, with subgroups connected to the various parties. 

"I want everyone to be represented," Cowley said

She was excited to hear Johnson speak on the issues.

"I think women need to see a strong voice in government," Cowley said. "It's inspiring to see a woman, with a really long [political] career.

Cowley said it was inspiring to meet Johnson, saying the candidate appeared "very humble" and was "very approachable." 

Cowley, 17, hopes to pursue a political science degree next year at University of Oklahoma. She eventually hopes to attend law school and pursue a career in politics/public service.

Rep. Ben Loring (D-Miami) stood in for Inman during the opening remarks. 

Loring told the crowd putting a Democrat into the offices on the second floor of the state house would be a "game changer" for legislation and provide Democrats with the necessary veto power in order to help bring the state out of the current straits. 

Hoskins agreed. He said the Democratic party needs to back the right candidate who can challenge Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, the anticipated Republican candidate.

“In Oklahoma City, we call Lamb ‘Mary’s Little Lamb,’ because he’s followed Mary every step along the way until this year,” Hoskins said, reminding those in the room Lamb has yet to promote a viable alternative plan to Gov. Mary Fallin’s ides.

“He has over $2 million in the bank - that $2 million will buy a lot of television ads,” Hoskins said, reminding voters they need to consider not only supporting candidates with their votes, but also financially. 

About the issues

During the evening, the two candidates spoke about their views on a variety of issues, primarily centered around the state's current budget woes.

In the first question of the evening, both candidates were asked about their feelings concerning a potential sale of the Grand River Dam Authority by state officials. 

While Edmondson said emphatically he is opposed to the sale with "no ifs, ands or butts," Johnson used her time to talk about the dangers of selling state resources to special interests.

After the forum, Johnson clarified her answer saying she is against selling off state assets - like GRDA - to special interests. She said often the details of the sales become buried in contractual language, with the people of the state ultimately becoming the primary losers in the dealings.

"Oklahoma is literally broke," Johnson said. "We are literally not only robbing Peter to pay Paul, but we're robbing our state of its resources. I believe Oklahomans need to take back the government and begin holding elected officials accountable."

Edmondson said resources like GRDA belong to the state - and thus its citizens. 

“If we sell them [the assets] we get rid of the goose that lays the golden eggs,” Edmondson said. “It’s not in the long term interest of the state.”

Edmondson said he had similar feelings about the sale of oil and gas - saying those who own the surface land are entitled to payment, but the ultimate assets, the oil and gas, belong to the citizens.

Because of this, Edmondson said, one of his first acts as governor would be to raise the Gross Production Tax Rate from 2 percent to 7 percent.

He added if the legislature would not act, as governor, he would move to “see it on the ballot to give you, the people of Oklahoma, the opportunity to vote on where it should be.”

Both candidates discussed their solutions to the budget woes facing the state.

Edmondson said changes needed to be made to the number of votes it takes in the house and senate to pass a tax increase - saying the issue, decided by State Question 640 outlining the need for super majority, needs to be repealed or at least revisited by voters.

“It was a bad idea when it was adopted, and it’s even worse today,” Edmondson said.

Like Edmondson, she too would like to see the super majority vote requirement be changed.

Johnson continually returned to the need to legalize the production of hemp based products, as well as the need for medical marijuana, saying both would provide a new revenue stream for the state. She called herself the “mother of the medical marijuana movement.”

Both candidates talked about the need for changes involving the state’s education division, as well as the department of mental health.

Johnson said she would like to see adequate treatment services provided for people addicted to drugs, specifically opioids - a growing addiction within the state.

Edmondson said he would like to see the state’s “smart on crime” plan put into place, which would increase the number of drug, alcohol and mental health facilities across the state - and reduce the number of non-violent people being incarcerated.

Both candidates agreed that the state’s budget has most departments operating at the lowest level possible.

“We have whittled it down to the nub,” Johnson said. “Every state agency is at the bare knuckles level.”

In one contentious moment, the two candidates exhibited opposite opinions concerning school consolidation.

Johnson said she is in favor of consolidating schools, and developing a regional educational system, in order to save funding in administrative salaries.

“We would not only save money, but enhance educational opportunities for our students,” Johnson said. “Schools are important to our communities but not as important as decent books, teachers having decent salaries.”

Edmondson said he disagreed.

“I oppose the forced consolidation of schools,” he said. “It should be local citizen, local school board decision.”

He said officials in some school districts have gone the route of consolidation, in order to best serve their students.

However, he said, “we know in come communities, if you kill the school, you kill the town.”

Edmondson said as governor he would find ways to support communities making the hard choice to consolidate the school systems.

“But I will not be the one who closes or forces closure on any school in Oklahoma,” he added.

In the end, Johnson said she would be the candidate who “works hard for each and every citizen of the state.”

“I believe government is by the people and for all the people and not for special interests,” Johnson said.

Edmondson said, as the only leading Democratic candidate who has successfully run for statewide office, he believes he is the best option for beating the Republican candidate in November 2018.