DUNCAN — The aroma of fried catfish wafted into the windowless back meeting room where GOP gubernatorial candidate Mick Cornett was meeting voters at the Daybreak Diner.
The Duncan restaurant was the second stop this sunny Saturday, Aug. 11, on the Cornett campaign trail through south central Oklahoma (the first being the Rush Springs Watermelon Festival), just three weeks before Tuesday’s runoff election.
Cornett, whose tenure as Oklahoma City mayor once included a health campaign to put his city on a diet (and which resulted in his own loss of 40-plus pounds), carefully avoided the diner’s catfish, chicken fried steak and ‘taters menu, one delightfully common to small town Oklahoma eateries — if not the healthiest.
“I’ve found there are Subways in just about every town in Oklahoma,” Cornett said, explaining how he has managed to stay trim while travelling the 77 counties the last 14 months with his wife, Terri.
Most of Cornett’s campaign stop venues are similar to those of GOP runoff opponent Kevin Stitt. Usually, Cornett interacts with voters in cafe meeting rooms; sometimes hotel conference rooms or city halls; occasional summer festivals.
“I’ve never run a statewide race before. So, I have to go where the people are,” Cornett said.
Press secretary Will Gattenby said Cornett takes a mostly hands-off approach to running his campaign, leaving the day-to-day decisions to a handful of young staffers. But Cornett’s media experience does make it easier to get his message across.
“Obviously, he has a lot of savvy with television,” Gattenby said, referring to the former TV anchor-turned-mayor-turned gubernatorial candidate.
But in most small town campaign events, there is no television. And similar to Stitt’s campaign stops, there are no brass bands or cheering crowds. At most, those attending have a guarded enthusiasm for the candidate.
‘I’m going to spend my time on health and education’
At the Daybreak Diner, about a dozen local residents (campaign organizers were not enthused by this particular turnout, but they said bigger crowds have attended his previous Stephens County stops) came to see what Cornett had to say.
You might say Cornett’s stump speech approaches issues from a 30,000 foot level, talking about changing the state’s culture on education and health, but not necessarily getting into the weeds of detail — except when he touts his success as mayor of Oklahoma City. (About 100,000 new jobs and 10,000 new businesses during his 14-year tenure, he said).
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Like in the case of Stitt, the first topic Cornett hears about in many campaign stops is often abortion.
“I want you to know the greatest shame of our nation is the matter of abortion,” Brad Allen (a self-described “ol’ stinkin’ Baptist preacher”) declared, when Cornett opened the floor to questions in Duncan.
“I’m a pro-life candidate,” Cornett answered. “I know that is an important and sensitive issue. I will live up to people’s expectations, but I don’t want to mislead people to think that’s what I’m going to spend all of my time on. I’m going to spend my time on health and education.”
Health and education are recurring themes from the Cornett camp, but it can be an overarching challenge to convince rural and small-town Oklahomans that this once big-city mayor won’t leave them out of the loop if he’s elected governor. So, these small town visits are important. And he talks about that on the road.
“This Oklahoma City versus Tulsa and rural versus urban and all the party politics — we’ve got to start working together to build the same road,” Cornett said.
He said his experience in municipal finance helps him quickly identify the strength or weakness of small town economies when he drives into a town, and it can help him create a system of state support for small town economic development if elected.
“Urban Oklahoma has to have a better understanding and appreciation of what goes on in rural Oklahoma. That’s a communication problem,” Cornett said. “I’d like to think I can help bridge that gap.”
‘People want more governing’
Until this day, the campaign message had been a positive one. But the day before, the race between Cornett and Stitt had erupted into a flurry of negative attack ads that turned the relatively genial runoff race into a cat fight.
After his Q&A session at the diner, Cornett was noticeably bothered by the turn of events when a news reporter quizzed him about the negative ads. He said his tenure as governor would be as a consensus builder, not a divider.
“People want more governing. They understand there is going to be politics during an election. But when the election is over, they expect their leaders to govern,” Cornett said. “I don’t think we’ve gotten our fair share of representation on the governing side.”
Afterward, Cornett and Terri drove up State Highway 7 to the Hilton Garden Inn in Lawton for a meeting with about 30 local Republicans, including Lawton Mayor Fred Fitch.
“He has done a great job in Oklahoma City,” Fitch said of his former mayoral colleague. “He is a leader. He knows his business and has connections. He will get Oklahoma going in the right direction.”
Lawton is home to Fort Sill and a large population of military veterans. Bob Medina, a former Marine, told Cornett that veterans are getting the shaft, with fewer benefits for widows and limited access to doctors.
“Every time I turn around, there is something being taken away from us,” Medina said. “For 21 years, I served my country because I wanted to. It was an honor to serve the people in this room. But now, at the state level they take away all our benefits.”
Cornett told Medina that a larger pool of business and diversification of the economy is needed to adequately finance such services. He also said the demographics of the baby boom generation put a strain on health care, making things like the wellness centers Oklahoma City established during his mayoral tenure all the more important. But Cornett’s talking point circled back to creating a new attitude about education.
“A lot of what I talk about is big picture and doesn’t happen quickly. But education leads to better health,” Cornett said. “I want to be the governor out there who is championing people to do better, to continue their education.”
He emphasized that doing so will require a cultural shift.
“The way technology is changing today, you are going to get behind really fast if you stop learning,” Cornett said. “So I would like to see us develop a culture where people are curious in personal growth at all times going forward and it raises the expectations of the entire state.”
Cornett also spoke of a need for infrastructure spending.
“If I bring in outside investors to a part of the state where the roads are crumbling, and I say to them, ‘Why don’t you invest here?’ Their answer is going to be, ‘Well, you haven’t invested here,’” Cornett said.
Mick Cornett meets a gamecock farmer
Cornett’s discussion in Lawton took a decidedly unusual turn when a middle-aged man in boots and straw hat told the crowd that the United Nations and multinational corporations were conspiring to push an “Agenda 21” that put animal rights ahead of human rights.
A well-known cockfighting advocate, BL Cozad then declared to Cornett that Oklahoma’s prohibition on cockfighting was unconstitutional, even though Oklahomans outlawed it in a state question vote in 2002.
Heads turned and eyebrows raised in the room. But, Cornett kept his eye contact and smile.
“I’m a gamecock farmer,” Cozad continued, saying that only the urban counties wanted cock fighting to be illegal, but rural counties favored it. “It creates a situation where a law enforcement officer can kill a human being, a farmer, to protect the chickens from the farmer who owns them. That’s a part of the Agenda 21 plan that puts animal rights over human rights.”
Even for diehard conservatives in attendance, the encounter was what might have been called a “tin foil hat” moment — something GOP candidates must occasionally tiptoe around deftly when campaigning in Oklahoma.
“Oh, I didn’t know that was going on,” Cornett said in response to Cozad. “But, if it’s an illegal industry, how do you sell your product? I’m just wondering about your business model.”
A chuckle came from the audience.
“If they are going to come onto my yard and point a gun at me, I’m going to defend the Constitution,” Cozad replied.
“Alright,” Cornett said.
Then, Cornett’s press spokesman Gattenby quickly stepped in to announce that Cornett was running late to a Republican women’s fundraising dinner in Altus and that they really needed to get going. He thanked everyone for showing up.
Sometimes timing is everything on the campaign trail.