When the dust settled after Oklahoma’s primary elections, several incumbent state senators found themselves in more trouble than they’d bargained for.
Sen. Wayne Shaw (R-Grove) found himself unseated after holding office for eight years, and three of Shaw’s fellow GOP senators are locked into runoff races against strong challengers. Sen. Ron Sharp (R-Shawnee) of Senate District 17, also an eight-year incumbent, is now hoping to avoid the same fate.
To retain his office, Sharp must overcome challenger Shane Jett, who served in the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 2005 to 2010. Sharp faces a steep uphill battle, however, as Jett earned 44 percent of the vote during the June 30 primary. Sharp finished with only 33 percent support.
NonDoc interviewed both candidates ahead of the Aug. 25 runoff election to provide an in-depth look at their priorities and platforms. Before diving in, you can find a more general outline of each candidate — plus links to their websites and social media — here.
Past paths to office
After almost four decades as a school teacher and tennis coach in Shawnee Public Schools, Sharp won the SD 17 Republican nomination in an open-seat runoff against Ed Moore in 2012. Sharp said his eight years in the Oklahoma State Senate have been primarily focused on his desire to bring “transparency and accountability” to Oklahoma’s government.
“That’s why I ran, and in 2016 I authored the Performance Informed Budgeting and Transparency Act to try to make sure that every single agency puts forth their performance goals as to what they’re going to do with the money of which we give to them,” Sharp said.
Jett said his desire to run for public office began in high school when he served as a State Senate page for Sen. Helen Cole, the mother of current U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK4).
“We had a conversation and she sent me an incredibly nice note, and it said, ‘To whom much is given, much as expected. I expect you to do things for Oklahoma and do great things for Oklahoma,'” Jett said. “I’ve always believed that I could make a difference and that I could help.”
After reading Ronald Reagan’s autobiography as a teenager, Jett said he was inspired to know that “a small town boy can make a difference in their communities.”
“I believe that public service is a calling, not unlike a religious calling, and that you have an obligation where you were placed by your creator, to make a difference to make things better,” Jett said.
Jett left the Oklahoma House in 2010 to make two consecutive runs for the 5th Congressional District, but he did not capture the GOP nomination either time. The losses have not dissuaded him from returning to the Legislature, however.
“If you look at those results, in Shawnee proper where people knew me, I received more votes than then Sen. Lankford [in 2010] and also more than Steve Russell in 2014. That, I think, reflects the investment I’ve made in the district, the relationships I’ve developed in the district, and the skill sets that I bring to the table,” Jett said. “Quite frankly, the reason I believe that we lost the congressional bid is we got outspent by people who could raise more money than we could.”
Cars, COVID and classrooms
Sharp and Jett each listed public education funding as one of their top three priorities. In 2018, Sharp voted for the historic tax increase package that funded substantial teacher pay raises. During his time in the Oklahoma House, Jett supported tax cut proposals.
“The primary focus of any good legislator is making sure they’re representing the families back home in their district and making sure the essential services that are provided by the government are in place, are accountable and are efficient,” Jett said. “You want businesses to have jobs available, you want public school kids to have all the skill sets necessary to take those jobs.”
Sharp previously served as the vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee and has been an outspoken opponent of charter schools drawing funding away from traditional public schools. In particular, Sharp has been a frequent critic of Epic Virtual Charter Schools, which sued him for libel. The lawsuit was dismissed in February.
“From 93 to 96 percent of all children in the state of Oklahoma attend public schools, and we cannot continue to increase charter schools and virtual charter schools under the current equalization education funding formula that we have,” Sharp said. “Our education equalization funding formula was not created to include charter schools. It was to fund the constitutionally created traditional public schools.”
Since traditional public schools are funded with local property taxes and through dedicated state budget dollars, Sharp said the ones that don’t receive enough money locally require state aid. Charter schools — which are also public schools — draw their funding only from the “state tier” of funding, Sharp added, meaning that the traditional public schools most in need of state aid have less available.
“I’m not against charter schools, but those need to have a system that is not as detrimental to our local schools as our current funding formula is,” Sharp said.
With Oklahoma’s sharply spiking COVID-19 case numbers presenting complications for in-person instruction in schools this fall, both candidates shared their thoughts on how the state should handle the upcoming school year amid the pandemic.
Jett said he believes the government ordering businesses to close or limit their operations is an overreach of authority, but he said state leaders are within their rights to control how schools approach the fall semester.
“The government has every right to and should manage their public institutions to the best of their ability and address the fears of real public school teachers,” Jett said. “Before they’re public school teachers, they’re moms and dads. They have fear about their own safety or fear of children, and that’s legitimate.”
Jett said he supports the government providing data on best-practices for the fall semester.
“Provide scientifically based information, health care-based information with no hype. Cut through the hyperbole and focus on what is effective,” Jett said. “I want them to be safe, have a safe environment, have a science based — not a media frenzy, fear-mongering approach — to what’s the best way to keep themselves safe and their kids safe.”
Sharp said it would be best to do everything possible to have children in classrooms come the fall to ensure they are receiving the best possible instruction.
“As a school teacher for 38 years, I know very well that a child’s development must have a school teacher present,” Sharp said. “You have to have a teacher in front of that child who can answer questions, who can put things together when the child cannot just process the information.”
Sharp emphasized that the ultimate decision should be left up to local governments, however, because of the varying circumstances between COVID-19 in cities and more rural communities with fewer students.
“It is important that we maintain local control because there’s a lot of difference in between a small town (…) as compared to a school that has a huge student population,” Sharp said. “They have to be able to make that decision based on the population density of that school district. Obviously, if you have a tremendous amount of social distancing, classrooms are not large enough for the amount of social distancing of which it would be necessary keeping students six feet apart.”
Jett and Sharp both touched on their desire to improve Oklahoma’s infrastructure as well, with Sharp stating he would continue to support the Oklahoma Department of Transportation’s Eight-Year Plan.
“We are developing one of the best highway systems in the United States through our excellent planning over the last several years. We’ve funded it, so now most of our county roads are accessible through pavement or some type of overlay,” Sharp said. “We’ve done an excellent job in our county roads here in the last, you know, eight years that I’ve been in office.”
Sharp smeared by dark money mailers
Sharp told NonDoc another opponent not on the ballot contributed to sending his re-election bid to ra unoff — a mailer campaign funded by dark money groups propagating what Sharp called various “absolutely false” claims.
One of the groups, the Oklahoma Federation for Children, released mailers claiming Sharp was linked to convicted rapist and former movie producer Harvey Weinstein. The connection was made because Sharp supported an increase to cash rebates given to filmmakers producing their movies in the state.
“When they say that I’ve transferred money to Hollywood, that’s actually a tax credit of which that movie producer has to spend millions in the state of Oklahoma, and he gets a tax break off of spending the millions,” Sharp said. “So there’s no money (transferred), and you’ve got to film that in Oklahoma, and that was very strongly supported by the Commerce Department and the Labor Department and again, it required a majority of the Republican Party.”
According to The Oklahoman, the Oklahoma Federation for Children supported other incumbent lawmakers this year who also backed the tax credit program.
The OFC Action Fund supported Jett in the primary election according to the website of its parent organization, the American Federation for Children. Sharp raised concerns that his opponent had not rejected the organization’s support despite its involvement in the mailer campaign.
“Now Shane Jett can say, ‘Well, I’m not the one who put out these mailers,’ but he certainly he accepted their endorsement,” Sharp said. “If some adverse group that was very bad for our society were to say, ‘We’re going to endorse you,’ I would tell that group, ‘I don’t want your endorsement.”
Jett, however, said the group has not officially endorsed him.
“They have posted on Facebook a number of candidates they support. There was no endorsement to my knowledge,” Jett said. “It was not solicited, it was not coordinated.”
Jett added that such “independent expenditures” by groups like the Oklahoma Federation for Children are not illegal in and of themselves.
The second group responsible for funding an anti-Sharp mailer campaign, however, is not listed with the Secretary of State’s office or the Oklahoma Ethics Commission. That has drawn the supposed Oklahoma Conservative Project LLC allegations of felony election fraud and mail fraud.
That group’s mailers have criticized Sharp, claiming that he forced teachers to join labor unions.
“That’s an absolute false statement, because we’ve had right to work since 2001, and less than 60 percent of our total school districts are even represented by a professional organization,” Sharp said. “And then we don’t even have binding arbitration, so the school board can negotiate and then at the last moment just reject negotiations.”
Jett said he doesn’t believe the mailer campaign had a tangible effect on the June 30 primary election.
“I don’t feel like it helped me or (primary challenger) Brandon Baumgarten. I don’t even know that it really hurt Ron Sharp, quite frankly, because it was so heavy-handed and so over-the-top that it came across as silly,” Jett said. “I think it probably galvanized some of his supporters — all 33 percent of the votes that he got. I think they were probably mobilized by some of those ridiculous, over-the-top, negative attacks.”
Will Jett jettison Sharp?
When asked why he felt he had the edge in the August runoff, Sharp pointed to the fact that serving as state senator has become his full time job. He said the lack of a learning curve for a returning incumbent would benefit SD 17 compared to a newly-elected legislator.
“Regardless of which candidate wins on Aug. 25, each of us can only serve one elected four-year term,” Sharp said. (Jett previously served six years in the House, and Oklahoma law limits an individual’s total service in either legislative body to 12 years.)
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“I will walk into the State Senate with seniority because of my eight continuous years in office. So I will know the agency directors, he does not know the agency directors because he’s not served (recently),” Sharp said. “I’ll be able to be elected with one job, and that is a state senator. He has a full time job with a Native American tribe. He cannot do this job and that job at the same time without having to determine which is his priority.”
A citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Jett is currently the CEO of the Citizen Potawatomi Community Development Corporation, where he says he has “been creating jobs” through lending to small businesses.
While Sharp pointed to Jett’s current employment obligations as a potential weakness, Jett said he feels his experience in finance and business give him the advantage, particularly as the state moves forward under the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation is similar to the 2008 financial crisis, Jett said, which occurred when he was still in the House of Representatives.
“In 2021, you’re going to have a Republican-controlled Senate, a Republican-controlled House, and a real opportunity to return the state of the state budget to reflect conservative values,” Jett said. “I believe my experience from 2008 and 2009 in the Republican-controlled House is going to be vital, because I’ll be the only one on the Senate side that will have that institutional knowledge as a sitting legislator.”
Jett also holds a degree in business from Oklahoma Baptist University.
“My opponent has a track record in public education, and frankly, would be an expert that one could reach out to in discussing public education,” Jett said. “My skill sets are focused on a broader range of problems that are especially relevant in today’s economic situation.”
Sharp maintains that the fact Jett can only serve a single full, four-year term is a deal breaker owing to the time it will take for Jett to become fully familiar with the state’s current political landscape.
“I would not have a learning curve that he would have to overcome. We will start that legislative process in September and October, and he would — for his first year — be absolutely a non-essential legislator, at least,” Sharp said. “No voter is going to provide campaign donations for a legislator who says I’m just going to serve one four-year term, because they know that you’re going to be ineffective for at least the first year, and perhaps even the second year of your legislative experience.”
The winner between Sharp and Jett will face Libertarian candidate Greg Sadler in November.
(Correction: An earlier version of this story did not correctly note that SD 17 was an open seat in 2012. NonDoc regrets the error.)