(Editor’s note: Michael Duncan previously attended campaign events for GOP nominee Kevin Stitt, and his coverage of the candidate can be found here.)
McALESTER — Most of the 75 people who packed the Western Sizzlin’ banquet room were old enough to remember southeast Oklahoma’s legendary politicians: U.S. Sen. Robert S. Kerr, U.S. Speaker of the House Carl Albert and controversial state Sen. Gene Stipe.
They had come to meet Drew Edmondson, Oklahoma’s 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate labeled in GOP opponent Kevin Stitt’s television ads as a career politician. On Thursday, Oct. 25, Edmondson visited McAlester as his second stop during the first of a two-day swing through a conservative swath of Oklahoma that he would likely need to carry in order to pull a Nov. 6 upset.
Joining him on the campaign trail was 91-year-old Pittsburg County native son George Nigh, a former governor himself who didn’t shy away from lauding Edmondson’s 16-year career as state attorney general, and before that a Muskogee teacher and district attorney.
“If you attack the politician — he’s the public servant,” Nigh said. “And people get confused sometimes. You can’t be governor, you can’t be president, without offering yourself. We ought to encourage people to offer themselves, not discourage them or say, ‘If you run for office, you’re a lousy so-and-so.’”
The day had begun around 7:30 a.m. at J.D.’s Café in Ada, where Nigh had met up with the Edmondson team — the candidate, his wife, Linda, and two campaign staffers. They drove to McAlester, then Wilburton, then Antlers.
The next day, the group stumped in Idabel, Broken Bow and Poteau.
This was the Little Dixie tour — through the pine-wooded hills of Carl Albert’s former Third Congressional District that once was a no-man’s land for Republicans. But, in recent years, a conservative swell has shifted politics in southeastern Oklahoma to the red side.
“It is overwhelming,” McAlester resident Sara Lane said of emerging GOP strength in her town. “The Democratic Party has done everything for [people here]. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
A retired aide to Albert who came to the rally to meet Edmondson, Lane said she hopes his message of supporting teachers brings a shift back to Democrats and proves enough to change policies at the Capitol.
“The whole future of the state depends on whether we rally around them,” Lane said.
Nigh: ‘Drew Edmondson has served us well’
The Edmondson campaign was not bashful about testing the waters here for a possible blue wave. Embracing the candidate’s long political history, instead of avoiding the accusations of career politicking, was the order of the day.
Perhaps more than elsewhere in Oklahoma, Little Dixie has a history of supporting larger-than-life political figures with long tenures.
Nigh said it was notable that the campaign swing started in Ada, the birthplace of Kerr. And when the Edmondsons arrived in McAlester, they drove through town on Carl Albert Parkway. The lunch stop at the McAlester steakhouse stood along the George P. Nigh Expressway.
Kevin Stitt on campaign trail: ‘I have better ideas’ by Michael Duncan
“I was thinking as we drove in, how could the people of Pittsburg County complain about a public servant like Carl Albert, the most powerful man in the U.S. House of Representatives, from Bugtussle, Oklahoma?” Nigh said. “We ought to be proud of people who serve you well when holding public office. Drew Edmondson has served us well.”
Retired or not, there is no more revered living politician in Little Dixie than Nigh. While the Western Sizzlin’ crowd’s applause for Edmondson was spirited, the applause when former state Sen. Richard Lerblance introduced Nigh sounded like Sooner football fans greeting Barry Switzer.
In political terms, Nigh is “the king” of McAlester.
Nigh said he joined the campaign swing without being invited. Even so, his presence was no happenstance. It was a showing that experience counts, and the Edmondson campaign knew Nigh would deliver that message loud and clear.
The locals were already clued in. As for Edmondson’s long-term political resume, Lerblance turned to the football world when analogizing the Edmondson-Stitt race, reading from a recent Facebook post he found that chided Stitt for not having voted for governor this century.
“It said, when OU fills the defensive coordinator position after the season, they should hire someone who, one, has never coached football at any level. Two, has never expressed any interest in football until six months ago, and three, has so much as not attended a football game in 20 years. What Kevin Stitt offers the state of Oklahoma? That’s a good analogy right there,” Lerblance said.
Mayor: ‘With the mess we’re in, we need that experience’
Although turning Stitt’s anti-career politician message against Edmondson into a pro-experience asset was one of the goals of this campaign swing, Edmondson’s appearance in southeastern Oklahoma was also a campaign on issues local to rural Oklahoma. And in this part of the state, that means common education and the survival of small hospitals, veteran’s centers and local colleges.
“There is a quality of life in the rural parts of our state that is worth preserving,” Edmondson said. “If you lose your school, or if you lose your hospital — there is all this talk about saving money on colleges and universities. Lord help us if they start looking at colleges like Eastern (Oklahoma State College) and Carl Albert (Junior College) and the others they are talking about closing down.”
Edmondson favors the expansion of Medicaid, a campaign stance opposed by Stitt. He said the recent closings of small town hospitals in Sayre, Frederick, Eufaula and Wiburton might have been avoided had Gov. Mary Fallin worked to expand Medicaid in Oklahoma.
The Latimer County General Hospital in Wilburton closed Oct. 1, about three weeks before Edmondson’s campaign stop. Local leaders, such as Wilburton Mayor Stephen Brinlee and hospital board members, are desperately seeking ways to re-open the 33-bed hospital. But the prospects are discouraging, Brinlee said.
Brinlee is a staunch supporter of Edmondson. He is also an NRA-member “yellow dog” Democrat who sometimes finds himself debating fellow conservative southeastern Oklahomans who have made the switch to the Republican Party in recent years. He said Edmondson’s career in politics is a plus.
“With the mess we’re in, we need that experience to get this moving in the right direction,” Brinlee said.
Edmondson told about 30 Wilburton residents meeting at city hall that his Muskogee-area roots make him better suited to address the issues facing small-town and rural Oklahomans.
“If you are in rural Oklahoma and want to keep your schools and keep your hospitals, then nobody is going to work harder to keep those open than I will,” he said.
If elected, Edmondson said he would work to reverse plans to close the state Veterans Center in nearby Talihina. He said the issue is especially important to him because of his own service in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, and he said some of his veteran friends live at the Talihina center.
“I know I’m here in Wilburton today and that Talihina (veterans) facility is close to your hearts. But, I want you to know I’ve said the same thing in Tulsa and Oklahoma City and anywhere it comes up. I think that facility is worth saving and the people who are there — my veterans — want to keep it there,” he said.
Touting #oklaed in rural Oklahoma
Despite touching on all those issues, the overarching message from the Edmondson campaign Oct. 25 was common education, which Edmondson said is an issue that especially distinguishes him from Stitt, who initially said during the teacher walkout he would have vetoed this year’s historic revenue package had he been governor.
Edmondson said he supports the return of the state gross production tax on oil and gas to the 7 percent mark, repeal of the capital gains tax deduction and a $0.50 increase on cigarette taxes to generate sufficient revenue to support another $300 million in common education appropriations.
He said he walked with educators for several days of April’s teacher walkout in support of the pay raise, but he said more funding is needed, especially for classroom supplies and textbooks.
“My favorite sign was one the teacher was holding saying, ‘I am sorry I’m late, my textbook said the Capitol was in Guthrie.’ I am sure she was being facetious, but she made a point,” Edmondson said. “The textbooks are out of date. When the last president in the history of the United States in the textbook is the first George Bush, then we’ve missed a few presidents since then.”
He said common school funding is key to attracting business investment in the state.
“Corporate CEO’s ask, why should we invest in Oklahoma when you’re not? The only good answer to that will be, ‘We are,'” Edmondson said. “If we start investing in education, health, mental health, bringing down the prison population, then we send a message to corporate America: Come to Oklahoma — exciting things are happening here.”
Nigh at 91: All-in on Edmondson caravan
In Wilburton, Nigh told those gathered that the day of campaigning had been a homecoming for him. It started in Ada where Nigh graduated from East Central University, then moved to McAlester where he was born and grew up, and then to Wilburton, where Nigh attended what was then known as Eastern Oklahoma A&M Junior College when he was discharged from the Navy following World War II.
Nigh reminded potential voters that he served 32 years in public office himself: as a legislator, a lieutenant governor and then governor.
“So, I get a little uptight when they attack Drew for having been attorney general for 16 years. What’s immoral about that?” Nigh asked. “You have to understand Oklahoma’s problems before you can come up with a solution. Based upon his experience in public service, I wanted to come down here, home to Wilburton, to recommend him as your next governor of Oklahoma.”
As the sun began to set on day one of its trip, the Edmondson caravan began to load up for an evening appearance in Antlers at an Oklahomans for Responsible Water Policy forum.
“Governor, I appreciate you helping us out today,” Edmondson told Nigh in the gravel parking lot of Wilburton City Hall, expecting the aging former governor to call it a day.
“What do you mean? We are going with you,” Nigh said.
“You know we’re going to Idabel and Broken Bow in the morning?” Edmondson said.
“I know, and I’m on board this train for the whole trip,” Nigh said.