Cheryl Baber Kyden Creekpaum
Candidates Cheryl Baber, left, and Kyden Creekpaum, right, are hoping to earn the 2020 GOP nomination in Tulsa's Senate District 35. (NonDoc)

The two candidates competing in the Senate District 35 GOP runoff have plenty in common. Each has years of legal experience, each says they will focus on reviving the economy following the COVID-19 pandemic, and each acknowledges education as one of the state’s primary concerns as the coronavirus crisis continues and beyond.

Despite this common ground, mud has started to fly from both camps ahead of their Aug. 25 GOP runoff matchup.

Kyden Creekpaum and Cheryl Baber earned 43 percent and 34 percent of the vote, respectively, during the June 30 primary elections. The winner of runoff will become the Republican opponent to Democratic nominee Jo Anna Dossett.

While both candidates’ campaign websites indicate they share similar values across numerous issues, Baber has called into question whether Creekpaum would be “advancing a more liberal agenda” if he were to be elected, which has prompted Creekpaum to defend himself from what he calls “wholly, clearly false political advertising.”

NonDoc interviewed both candidates to ask about policy, priorities and the claims made ahead of the runoff election. For a more general summary of each candidates’ platform and links to their websites and social media, click here. Covering south Tulsa, Senate District 35 is an open seat after term limits prevented GOP Sen. Gary Stanislawski from running again.

More than 7,600 people voted in Tulsa’s 2020 GOP primary for Senate District 35. (Screenshot)

Who fired first?

Creekpaum insists that voters have seen a “totally positive campaign” from his camp, and he says Baber was the first to publish negative messages via mailers sent to district residents ahead of the June 30 primary..

“Towards the end of the primary when I think she realized she was behind, she went negative,” Creekpaum said. “She called me a DC leftist, which I thought was funny. I went to law school at Georgetown in Washington, DC, and I laughed out loud when I saw that because she went to Columbia in New York City. So I guess if I’m a DC leftist, she must be a New York City leftist.”

Baber acknowledged that the mailer’s word choice was harsh, but she said the claim was unrelated to Creekpaum’s studies at Georgetown.

“I probably shouldn’t have used that particular language, but (…) he was working for a Washington, D.C. law firm for many years — I think maybe nine years before he moved back here to Tulsa,” Baber said. “It had nothing to do with where he went to law school (or) where I went to law school.”

Creekpaum did spend eight years as an international anti-corruption attorney with Hughes, Hubbard and Reed, LLP from 2009 to 2017 according to his LinkedIn account.

In the primary, Baber also levied claims against Creekpaum’s current law firm, Frederic Dowart, Lawyers PLLC. Baber and her camp haved criticized Creekpaum by saying the firm filed a lawsuit to “stop” President Donald Trump’s controversial rally in Tulsa. In reality, the suit sought to either postpone the rally or require the BOK Center and the Trump campaign team to enforce CDC guidelines at the event.

“Completely false,” Creekpaum responded. “Number one, I would stress I had nothing to do, I had nothing to do — and I know you’re recording, but I’ll say it three times to be sure — I had nothing to do with any lawsuit related in any way to the Trump rally. Zero. I read about this in the news like everybody else.”

Baber said she doesn’t believe Creekpaum is a supporter of President Donald Trump, something she said would make her a more suitable conservative nominee for SD 35.

“And the other thing that I wanted to point out [to voters] is that he is not a Trump supporter. I don’t think he’s a Trump supporter, I guess I should rephrase that,” Baber said. “I didn’t point this out in the mailers, but I’ve had people tell me that they asked him when he approached them at the door whether he supported President Trump, and he would not say that he would be fully supportive of Trump.”

Creekpaum denied this claim as well, saying he was previously quoted in a Tulsa World article praising Trump’s efforts to improve the economy and national security.

Democrat donors and libel lawsuits

Creekpaum said it was “notable” that the organization responsible for running Baber’s campaign, Tomahawk Strategies, LLC, is currently involved in a libel lawsuit. The company was sued by fellow Senate District 37 GOP candidate Chris Emerson after the company mailed political advertisements which “contained numerous demonstrably false” claims, according to the lawsuit.

“It’s very rare to have slander (or) libel lawsuits in political campaigns. The reason is that the bar is so high, you have to lie so clearly, to make it worth filing a claim because, frankly, everyone knows that mud starts flying,” Creekpaum said. “Exaggeration is one thing, but you’re never going to get anywhere with suing over exaggerations.”

While the lawsuit does not involve Baber’s campaign, it does cite a mailer distributed by Baber’s campaign as another instance of Tomahawk Strategies making another “obviously false statement” regarding the Trump rally lawsuit.

“I have read the petition and was surprised and, of course very disappointed to see my name brought up in it,” Baber said, reiterating that the lawsuit is unrelated to her own campaign.

Baber said she has her own concerns about some of Creekpaum’s political donors, some of whom she called “very wealthy and influential Democrats.”

Creekpaum’s campaign contribution reports include donations from former Democratic Congressman Dan Boren. It also includes a donation from Elizabeth Frame, the daughter of Kathy Taylor, the former mayor of Tulsa who also served as a Democrat.

“The thing that he’s upset about is I have exposed the fact that some of his supporters are people who have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democratic National Committee, Act Blue, I think the Democratic Senatorial Committee,” Baber said. “I pointed that out to the conservative voters in my district because I really felt like it was pulling the wool over their eyes.”

Regardless of who is donating to his campaign, Creekpaum said he is dedicated to advancing a conservative Republican agenda.

“She makes some allegations about supposedly people who have given me money have also given money to folks on the other side of the aisle. I have no idea. I haven’t done background checks on all my donors,” Creekpaum said. “But I myself am a lifelong conservative Republican. I have never donated to a liberal politician, liberal cause or liberal organization.”

Baber touts political presence, but Creekpaum leads polls

Eastern Oklahoma State College
From left, Cheryl Baber and Sen. Gary Stanislawski (R-Tulsa) stand before the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, May 14, 2019. The committee voted against advancing Baber’s appointment to the Eastern Oklahoma State College Board of Regents. (Tres Savage)

Despite the candidates’ feuding, their motivations to run for office are closely aligned. Creekpaum said he aims simply to “do a great job for the people” of SD 35, calling for government accountability and transparency.

Baber said she was concerned for the direction the United States was heading after President Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012.

“I wanted to get more involved in politics after Obama won for a second time. After he was re-elected, I really thought, ‘I’ve got to do something now that the country is headed in the wrong direction,’” Baber said. “I needed to see what I could do to keep our country from sliding into a downhill trajectory that so many other countries do when they embrace policies that lead to more socialist tendencies, a bigger government and less freedom.”

Baber also touts her involvement in local Republican organizations.

“I’ve been very active in Republican circles. I’ve got the endorsement of several Tulsa-area Republican groups. I went to the Republican National Convention in 2016 and supported and voted for Trump. I’ve been one of the officers and the Federation of Republican Women. I was the state committeewoman for the Tulsa County GOP,” Baber said. “I’ve been learning about conservative issues and to my knowledge, from the research we’ve been able to do, he has not been.”

Baber applied to serve within Gov. Kevin Stitt’s administration. As a result, Stitt nominated her to fill a spot on the Eastern Oklahoma State College Board of Regents in 2019, though a Senate committee rejected her nomination owing to her unfamiliarity with the Wilburton-based college.

Creekpaum said his lack of local political activity is mostly a result of professional time spent either outside of Tulsa or out of the country.

“I have attended both the Republican Men’s and Republican Women’s [clubs] and the county club. I’ve attended them all multiple times, especially the one downtown. Because I work downtown, it’s a lot easier,” Creekpaum said. “There’s some criticism I’ve heard her lob against me for not being active in those organizations for years and years, and it is true. I was an international anti-corruption attorney and not here for a chunk of time.”

Both candidates listed economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic among their top priorities, followed by education.

“The economy, I think, has eclipsed education because, of course, if we don’t have the economy doing better and we don’t have tax revenue, we can’t pay for education or anything else,” Creekpaum said. “I certainly hope that when fall comes around, students can be in classrooms. The younger the students, I think the more important it is for them to be in the classroom.”

Baber said if she is elected, she would focus on education funding to ensure students have access to the internet resources necessary for distance learning to be effective.

“As a result of this COVID-19 crisis, the whole issue of access to the internet is one that has come to the forefront, and we really need to ensure that kids have that access,” Baber said. “I think that’s where our funds need to be more and more directed — making sure that if we do have another shutdown, kids still have access to the resources that they need.”

Baber has received the endorsement of Sen. Gary Stanislawski (R-Tulsa), the outgoing officeholder in SD 35. She said he spoke with her several times throughout her campaign, during which she assured him she would base her decisions on the “same biblical foundations” as Stanislawski did during his tenure.

Although both candidates are experienced in the legal field, Baber said she feels her broader focus on civil and criminal cases in Oklahoma during her career makes her better suited to be a legislator.

“When you go to become a legislator, there are some legislators who campaigned just on one topic and one issue, and that’s all they care about,” Baber said. “And they get into office, but they really don’t know that you have to make decisions and sit on committees on so many other types of legal issues and legislation,” Baber said. “The fact that I have worked on a very wide variety of legal topics is going to make me very versatile at the state Legislature, and I’ll be able to make informed decisions.”

Creekpaum believes his tenure as an international anti-corruption attorney is just as applicable, however.

“I did spend a decade as an international anti-corruption attorney investigating bribery and corruption and money laundering all over the world. I worked on four of the 10 or 15 largest corruption investigations in history spanning the entire globe,” Creekpaum said. “My experience is broad and deep, and I think that’s highly relevant because my experience is in asking tough questions (…) When you ask the right questions, you’re much more likely to get to the right answers.”