The director of the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission sent an email admonishing Rep. Tess Teague (R-Choctaw) for altering his words and distributing them on a campaign mailer boasting his “support” for her campaign.
State agency heads generally avoid even appearing to endorse political candidates, something Victor Bird says he explained to Teague in a phone call before agreeing to provide a quote about a piece of legislation she carried.
“Of course, I knew she was in a race for re-election and it was contested, and immediately some warning bells went off,” Bird said in an interview Wednesday. “I was pretty shocked (when I saw the quote on her mailer) because it was different. She had altered my quote, and even though it was slight, it was significant — the alteration.
“I felt it had been taken out of context. It was misused. I was extremely disappointed and slightly agitated.”
After seeing Teague’s mailer (pictured above), Bird wrote the first-term lawmaker a June 18 email (embedded below) that focused on Bird’s recollection of events but also communicated his displeasure with how she used his words about the Aerospace Commerce Economic Services (ACES) program.
“It has come to my attention that you are using a flyer/brochure (attached) with an altered version of my quote on ACES,” Bird wrote. “Due to the way that the quote is placed in the flyer with my picture (which you neither requested nor received permission to use) and how it is taken out of context, it clearly appears to be an endorsement of you in your political capacity. Most importantly, you have significantly altered my quote, which you did not have permission to do.”
Bird sent Teague documentation of his June 6 email featuring the original quote, which does not reference her by name nor denote credit for the bill.
“Please discontinue the use of my name, my office, my quote and my picture immediately in any and all political communications,” Bird wrote June 18. “I have already received calls from the public today complaining about the flyer and my apparent endorsement.”
Bird: ‘The issue is that the quote was changed’
Teague, also reached Wednesday, said she felt the mailpiece and her handling of Bird’s quote were appropriate.
“He emailed me the quote. We used the quote. It was a little long, so we shortened it. There was nothing of the wording that we changed at all. So I’m not sure what the complaint is,” Teague said. “He knew I was putting it on a mailer. Nowhere on the piece does it say ‘endorsed by’ or ‘please vote for Tess’ or ‘I’m for Tess’ or anything like that. The entire mailer was about aerospace and my ACES bill.”
But comparison of the quote Bird provided with the passage on Teague’s mailer shows that 12 of the 35 words on the mailer were not included in Bird’s original statement.
“When I originally saw it, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that. I wouldn’t call that a significant altering. I don’t know,” Teague said. “It was a little wordy, so we made it less wordy. Literally, I read it over. We didn’t add anything to what he said. We condensed some of the words in there that were repetitious.”
Bird disagreed. When Teague called in response to his June 18 email, Bird said he told her as much.
“‘The issue is that the quote was changed,'” Bird recalled telling Teague. “(I said), ‘It was a pretty academic, objective quote almost, and the tweaking you did do and using my picture, I’m sorry, it’s clear to me what your purpose was here.'”
Bird also pointed out that the mailer referred to him as “Oklahoma Aeronautics Commissioner” while he is the agency‘s director and a state employee.
‘Thanks for sticking up for the taxpayer’
Teague is one of several incumbent legislators who have found themselves in Aug. 28 primary-runoff elections. Across the state, incumbent Republican legislators faced stiff primary challenges June 26, with six losing outright.
Teague received 38 percent of the vote in the Republican HD 101 primary, finishing ahead of three challengers. Robert Manger received 26 percent of the vote, meaning the two will square off in August.
One main topic in the campaign is Teague’s stance on the tax package lawmakers passed in the spring to finance teacher raises and additional education funding.
“I’ve gotten affirmation that, yes, you did the right thing,” Teague said of her vote against HB 1010XX. “I get emails from my constituents saying, thanks for what you did, thanks for sticking up for the taxpayer.”
She emphasized a difference between what she hears digitally and what she hears on district doorsteps.
“If you were to go to my Facebook page, you would think the people in my district hate me. The people on my Facebook page aren’t — a lot of times — from my district. I think the vitriol online right now is really vicious toward anyone. There are people attacking you if you voted yes or no. It’s a really vitriol-packed election,” Teague said. “But when I’m out knocking doors in my district, going through the neighborhoods, it’s a 100-percent-opposite story. It has been really positive.”
Bill Pascoe, an HD 101 resident who works for the City of Midwest City, said he supports Teague because she opposed the large tax increase.
“I was against any kind of tax increase or any kind of fee increase. I believe the state is getting what it needs and they are mishandling it. I was really proud of her on that,” Pascoe said. “The teachers have gotten nasty with her for not supporting (the tax package). I’m pretty sure that teachers are a minority in our district, and our representative has to represent the majority.”
In contrast to Pascoe, Choctaw High School assistant principal David Dooley supports Manger and opposes Teague, saying he rarely sees her at the school or at other Choctaw community events. Both men are registered Republicans, though Dooley said he used to be a Democrat and Pascoe said he identifies with libertarian stances.
Dooley said he spoke to Teague several times during the April teacher walkout and came away unimpressed, a feeling made worse after he received the mailer featuring Victor Bird.
“With him being a state employee, I called Mr. Bird and talked to his secretary. I said, ‘I’d like to talk to him about his endorsement of Mrs. Teague,'” Dooley recalled. “It sounded — to me anyway — that he was upset that she had used him and his position to further her own good whether it put him in jeopardy of his job or his position or anything else.”
Dooley said the mailer situation made him believe Teague is “willing to use anybody” to further her political career.
“I would call what she did purely unethical — not caring what impact it has on a public official,” Dooley said. “He could lose his job over that. Either she didn’t care, or she’s not smart enough to know how it could impact him.
“I was kind of appalled that she would put somebody else’s career in jeopardy.”
But Teague said she has apologized to Bird for any misunderstanding and agreed not to use his quote or image further.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who said, ‘There is no way this is an endorsement,'” Teague said.
Pascoe said he appreciates how open Teague has been to receiving perspective from constituents like him who oppose tax increases.
“I’ve worked with her. We don’t just hire representatives and leave them alone. We’ve got a role to play as well. We’ve got to converse with them and let them know how we want to be represented and even scold them if we think they’ve done wrong and tell them why,” Pascoe said. “The teachers getting onto her really, really irks me. They’ve been relentless on her. And what it boils down to is they are wanting her to represent a minority of the district and don’t understand she’s trying to represent the majority of the district. We are all taxpayers, including the teachers. So that is the majority of the district for sure.”
But Manger, Teague’s runoff opponent, said he has heard different sentiment at the doors he has knocked.
“I’ve knocked a ton of doors and talked to a lot of people, and almost 95 percent of the people, their biggest issue is they are tired of all the crap going on at the Legislature,” Manger said. “They’re tired of all the arguing and bickering, they’re tired of us being a laughing stock. They want the state to progress and go forward.”
Manger said he felt that the recent revenue increase for education was necessary considering high turnover rates among teachers and other state employees.
“I don’t know that I’ve talked to anybody who just said, ‘My taxes are way too high,'” Manger said. “I don’t want my taxes going way up, and I don’t know that anybody really does. But sometimes you have to do some things to raise some money.”