Gov. Kevin Stitt and Superintendent of Public Schools Joy Hofmeister took off the gloves Wednesday night in the only gubernatorial debate scheduled for this election cycle.
As Stitt and Hofmeister detailed their goals for the state, they argued over abortion, enforcement of state medical marijuana laws, tribal issues and criminal justice reform, and blamed each other for the state’s poor education rankings during the 90-minute debate. by NonDoc and News9.
At times, the moderators’ questions seemed to become an afterthought as Stitt and Hofmeister centered their responses on attacking each other.
Hofmeister, a Democrat, criticized the last four years of the Stitt administration as the incumbent GOP tried to tie his opponent to President Joe Biden, a largely unpopular figure in the state where the 77 counties opted for Donald Trump during of a consecutive presidential election. elections.
Although Stitt and Hofmeister were once members of the same political party, the debate gave voters insight into the differences between the leading gubernatorial candidates.
Stitt said he would sign exceptions to Oklahoma’s abortion ban
Facing criticism for enacting a near-total ban on abortion, Stitt softened his stance on regulating the procedure.
While maintaining that he still believes life begins at conception, Stitt said he would sign legislation allowing abortion for women who become pregnant as a result of rape or incest.
The state abortion ban only includes an exception to save the mother’s life in a medical emergency. There are no exceptions for rape or incest.
“If the (Oklahoma) legislature put this on my desk, I would sign it,” Stitt said.
The governor accused Hofmeister of supporting abortions “until the moment of birth,” which has become a common phrase Republican politicians use to attack Democratic opponents.
Late abortions are extremely rare. Less than 2% occur after 21 weeks of pregnancy, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Medical experts say late-term abortions are not elective and the procedure is not performed when a mother is at term, according to PolitiFact.
A lifelong former Republican, Hofmeister hasn’t been a staunch proponent of abortion rights since switching parties. His views on the matter are more nuanced. Reiterating that she considers herself “personally pro-life,” Hofmeister said she does not support extremes on either side of the abortion issue.
She criticized that current state law lacks exceptions for rape or incest, and vowed to repeal the near-total ban.
But Hofmeister was vague about where she would draw the line on when a woman could or could not have an abortion. “This is a health care decision between a woman and her doctor and her faith,” she said.
Hofmeister takes no position on the question of state 820
Asked about a state question that would legalize marijuana for recreational use, Hofmeister did not take a position on the measure that will go to voters on March 7, 2023.
Hofmeister said Oklahoma’s medical marijuana program is already similar to a recreational program, a common refrain among GOP politicians in the state.
The provisions of State Question 820 that would tax recreational marijuana at a higher rate than medical marijuana are attractive because those tax revenues would go to schools and other areas, Hofmeister said.
Noting that marijuana use is still federally illegal, Stitt said he opposes the legalization of recreational marijuana.
Unlike his opponent, however, he said he had used marijuana before. He joked that his answer might upset his parents, who were in the audience for the debate at the Will Rogers Theater in Oklahoma City.
SQ 820 would legalize recreational marijuana for people 21 and older and implement criminal justice reforms.
Hofmeister attacked the Republican governor for not being more conservative on the cannabis issue. She accused the governor of not doing more to enforce state medical marijuana laws and blamed him for the explosion of dispensaries and illegal cannabis operations.
Stitt called the state’s question to legalize medical cannabis “poorly worded” and said the state was unprepared to enforce State Question 788, which passed in 2018. medical cannabis began before Stitt took office.
The governor listed several reforms, including a new moratorium on medical cannabis business licenses, which he supported to strengthen industry enforcement and prevent black market marijuana operations.
Stitt addresses the Swadley controversy
The governor quibbled with a debate moderator over a matter regarding Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen’s now lapsed contracts with the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation.
Stitt defended the director he appointed to oversee the agency. Former manager Jerry Winchester quit after the agency’s contracts with a local barbecue chain sparked a forensic audit and criminal investigation.
Pointing to the Swadley debacle and other recent controversies in state government, Hofmeister accused the Stitt administration of being plagued by corruption, cronyism and personal dealings.
“He is a governor who has wasted, mismanaged and lost millions of taxpayer dollars under his watch with his appointees,” she said.
Disputing the wording of the question, Stitt said it was “simply untrue” that the state lost $17 million in the dodgy deal. He noted that Swadley’s had renovated six state park restaurants that will continue to be used once the tourism department selects a new operator.
The state paid Swadley about $17 million to renovate and operate the restaurants. The head of a legislative oversight office believes the tourism department overpaid the barbecue business $12.4 million in public funds.
After the deal was revealed by the media, the state sued Swadley’s for breach of contract.
“There are 4,600 vendors participating with Oklahoma State,” Stitt said. “If we find out that a supplier is doing things wrong, we will hold them accountable.”
Stitt criticizes Biden while Hofmeister distances himself from Democratic ideals
Party politics came into play when Hofmeister was asked about her switching parties and her closeness to Democratic values.
Hofmeister distanced herself from the Democratic Party as Stitt repeatedly tried to link her to Biden.
“My opponent, she didn’t see a way forward as a Republican, so she joined Biden’s party,” Stitt said. The Democratic Party supports open borders and higher taxes and wants to withdraw funding from the police, he said.
When asked what she thinks of the Democratic Party platform, Hofmeister did not answer the question directly. It has repeatedly characterized itself as a moderate politician.
“I’m an independent thinker,” she said. “I run as an Oklahoman. I’m on a team, and that’s the Oklahoma team.”
The candidates reach an agreement on the death penalty
Although Stitt and Hofmeister traded barbs on criminal justice reform, the two candidates agreed they would not stop the state’s use of the death penalty.
Although the Oklahoma Democratic Party has called for an end to capital punishment, Hofmeister said she would not stop executions if elected governor.
Voters have been clear on their stance on the issue, she said, referring to a state matter that updated Oklahoma’s constitution to say the death penalty is not a cruel and unusual punishment. Stitt offered a similar response.
Stitt gave few details about his reasoning behind commuting the sentence of high-profile death row inmate Julius Jones.
Commuting Jones’ sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole was the right move for the state, he said. Stitt did not respond directly to questions about whether he believes Jones is innocent.
The governor laughed and challenged as false Hofmeister’s claim that Oklahoma has higher violent crime rates than New York and California. However, 2020 FBI crime statistics show Oklahoma’s violent crime rate was higher than both states. With the exception of 2019 — when Oklahoma’s violent crime rate was higher than New York’s but lower than California’s — the Sooner State has had higher crime rates than the other two states since at least minus 2015.
Hofmeister accused Stitt of taking a cavalier approach to commutations and pardons. She noted that Stitt commuted the sentence of convicted cocaine trafficker Lawrence Paul Anderson, who is accused of fatally stabbing several people in Chickasha after his release.
Stitt, who has prioritized criminal justice reform, called Hofmeister’s comments “disgusting” and suggested she was taking dirty tricks.
Stitt characterized the Anderson case as an outlier. When the Pardons and Parole Board recommended that his sentence be commuted, they could not have known he would have committed such heinous crimes upon his release, Stitt said.
Hofmeister takes a look at the scope of the McGirt ruling
Hofmeister ranted when asked if McGirt v. Oklahoma of the United States Supreme Court, which led to the confirmation of about half of the state as tribal reservations, applies to civil cases.
Since the court handed down its ruling, which major tribes in the state hailed as a victory for their sovereignty, Stitt has lobbied for the court to limit its ruling so it doesn’t spill over into civil cases, such as as taxation and environmental regulations. The Oklahoma Tax Commission recently agreed with the High Court and found that the McGirt decision only applies to jurisdiction over major crimes, not tax matters.
To say that the tribes of Oklahoma are not a monolith, Hofmeister, who was endorsed by the leaders of the five tribes, declined to answer the question directly.
“It’s not a yes or no answer because it’s different tribes that all have a different view on this,” Hofmeister said.
While waving at Stitt, she said: “You collectively bring people together. He’s not the kind of leader who understands that we have 39 single sovereign nations in this state, and they don’t speak with one voice. .”
A member of the Cherokee Nation, Stitt has had a difficult relationship with tribes in the state since pushing to renegotiate tribal gaming pacts.
Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Natalie Bruno and Independent Ervin Yen were not invited to participate in the debate.