CD 5 runoff Stephanie Bice
Stephanie Bice looks at Terry Neese during a GOP runoff debate for Oklahoma's 5th Congressional District on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, at the Tower Theatre. (Michael Duncan).

Businesswoman Terry Neese and State Sen. Stephanie Bice touted their the Second Amendment, anti-China and and pro-Trump credentials in 5th Congressional District Republican runoff debate Tuesday night that sometimes turned contentious. Held at the Tower Theater, the debate was hosted by NonDoc and streamed online by News 9.

Neese finished the June 30 primary with 36.6 percent of the vote in a crowded field, while Bice (R-OKC) picked up 25.4 percent. The pair will square off Aug. 25 in a GOP runoff for the right to face incumbent Democrat U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn in November. Horn won the seat in 2018 by a narrow margin.

Neese, Bice: Children should be in school

CD 5 runoff
Terry Neese and Stephanie Bice, center, answer questions from NonDoc’s Tres Savage, left, and News 9’s Aaron Brilbeck, right, during a GOP runoff debate for Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, at the Tower Theatre. (Michael Duncan).

Schools in Oklahoma are heading back to class in different ways as the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to play out. Some are holding in-person classes, while others have opted for online distance learning. Several districts are offering blended options.

During Tuesday evening’s debate, both Bice and Neese said kids should be going to school in person.

“The local level needs to decide what they can do in terms of getting children back to school,” Neese said. “Because when we get into the groove and we know what we’re doing every day and we have a pathway to get there, it’s a good time for children to go to school and for their parents to make sure they are safe.”

Bice said local school boards should make the decisions.

“I think school districts across the country are listening to their local school boards and making decisions that are in the best interest of their communities,” Bice said. “But I do believe strongly that schools should be in session in person. We’ve seen a lot of schools across Oklahoma take all of the necessary measures the CDC has recommended.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has suggested districts should lose federal funding if they don’t open for in-person classes this fall. Bice said she would not vote to withhold federal funding from those schools.

Neese supported DeVos’ idea.

“I would,” she said when asked if she would vote to withhold funding from districts that do not have in-person classes.

Neese’s U.S. Mint job stirs controversy

CD 5 runoff
Terry Neese holds up papers she says prove she withdrew from a 2005 federal appointment on her own terms during a GOP runoff debate for Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, at the Tower Theatre. (Michael Duncan).

In 2005, President George W. Bush nominated Neese to lead the U.S. Mint. Neese later withdrew herself from consideration one day before the confirmation hearing process, citing family commitments.

But according to a report by The Frontier’s Ben Felder, the Bush White House asked Neese to withdraw her nomination after tapes surfaced of Neese training employees at Neese Personnel, her employment services company.

“In the training tapes, Neese told her employees several times to lie when communicating with a client, make pretend phone calls, promise clients unconfirmed raises and to “manipulate people 24 hours a day,” the report said. 

Asked about the report during Tuesday’s debate, Neese flatly denied the allegation and accused Bice of leaking the story.

“That is an absolute lie,” Neese said before stepping forward on stage and presenting two letters from Bush administration officials that she said back up her contention she withdrew to take care of her ailing mother.

Neese said the allegation amounts to nothing more than campaign dirty tricks.

“At the very last minute, seven days out from the election — wake up folks,” she said. “We’ve got somebody that is putting out a lot of dirt.”

Bice said the allegations are disturbing.

“I read the article and listened to a little bit of the audio, and it’s pretty damning,” Bice said. “Unfortunately, this is the type of stuff the Democrats will use against us in November. Certainly I know about seven days out. The DC Never Swamp group came after me seven days before the primary and ran false attack ads against me.”

Neese snapped back.

“Like you say, it’s anonymous, so why don’t you have someone that will actually come out and talk to us about it,” Neese said before turning to Bice. “It was you, Stephanie.”

Bice denied Neese’s allegation.

“That’s unequivocally false,” Bice said.

When asked if it was her voice on the tapes, Neese said she could not answer.

“I’ve not listened to the tapes,” she said.

Meanwhile, Neese reiterated her prior allegations that Bice has lied about endorsements from prominent conservatives.

Both candidates tout Second Amendment credentials

CD 5 runoff
Stephanie Bice answers a question during a GOP runoff debate for Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, at the Tower Theatre. (Michael Duncan).

Both Neese and Bice have attacked each other’s pro-gun credentials. Bice has run ads hitting Neese for a sign noting that guns are prohibited at her company’s office.

“The front door of Neese Personnel has a sign that says no firearms allowed,” Bice said. “The handbook actually references that handguns aren’t permitted on the premises. So if you’re a legal firearms owner and have a firearm in your car, they’re allowed to search your car. My opponent has said that is incorrect, but I have a copy of the handbook when she was still associated with the organization that references that very thing.”

Neese defended her stance on guns.

“Let me just say that I am very pro-Second Amendment,” Neese said. “Have any of you looked at my commercials and seen the gun that I carry? I carry a .44. I am pro-gun. And I have been an NRA member for many years. The Oklahoma 2nd Amendment Association endorsed me. In addition, I’ve received the most conservative state senator endorsement from Nathan Dahm, who is very pro-Second Amendment.”

Candidates blame China for pandemic

CD 5 runoff
From left to right, News 9’s Aaron Brilbeck, candidate Stephanie Bice, candidate Terry Neese and NonDoc’s Tres Savage prepare to start a GOP runoff debate for Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, at the Tower Theatre. (Michael Duncan).

As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to batter the United States with more than 170,000 deaths and more than 5 million cases, President Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis has come under heavy criticism.

Neese said Trump’s response has been nearly perfect.

“I think our president has done an incredible job with this Chinese virus,” she said. “Especially with letting Americans know what is going on. I’ve watched two to three hours of press conferences he would hold to tell Americans to feel safe and comfortable and to follow the CDC guidelines. I think he’s actually had a lot of leadership around him that has really helped him with this crisis. I think he’s done an excellent job. I don’t think there’s anything he could have done any better.”

Bice was slightly less effusive in her praise of Trump, but she said he has responded appropriately.

“I think the president has done exactly what he should have done at the beginning of this virus,” she said. “He has closed the borders to the Chinese. He started investigating where this virus came from and the circumstances surrounding it. He addressed the economic issue head on. The reality is he made a tough decision with a lot of unknowns. It’s easy to armchair quarterback, but I believe he’s made the right decisions at the right time and I applaud that.”

Neither candidate favors mask mandates

CD 5 runoff
Terry Neese looks at Stephanie Bice during a GOP runoff debate for Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, at the Tower Theatre. (Michael Duncan).

With the state’s two largest cities implementing mask mandates for public spaces and businesses, novel coronavirus cases in both Tulsa and Oklahoma City have started to ebb.

But neither GOP CD 5 candidate believes mask mandates are a good idea. Bice said Oklahomans should make their own individual decisions.

Thank you, sponsors

NonDoc’s 2020 public debate series is made possible by sponsors like the State Chamber of Oklahoma and the Capitol advocacy firm of McSpadden Milner and Robinson.

The Oklahoma Farm Bureau also helped sponsor Tuesday’s debate.

“I think Oklahomans have to take responsibility for themselves and be thoughtful in their approach to the pandemic,” she said. “But not every community is the same. What happens in Oklahoma City is very different than what happens in Elk City. I think that businesses should be the one to decide whether to require masks.”

While Neese said it’s positive that new weekly COVID-19 case totals are coming down, Neese strongly opposed the idea of mask mandates.

“I do not believe that the government should tell us what we should do in terms of wearing a mask or not wearing a mask,” she said. “This is freedom. This is America. It’s all about a free world and we ought to be able to do what we want to do.”

Bice, Neese would consider disestablishing reservations

Both candidates were asked how they might handle the complex congressional negotiations regarding eastern Oklahoma in the wake of the federal McGirt v. Oklahoma decision. Specifically, the candidates were asked whether they would support disestablishing the reservations of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the Chickasaw Nation, the Choctaw Nation, the Cherokee Nation and the Seminole Nation.

Bice responded first.

“I think Congress should find a solution. Whether that is the correct solution or not remains to be seen. But the reality is, with the McGirt ruling, you created a lot of chaos. We have tribal entities across Oklahoma that are now asking questions such as how does this impact mineral rights, how does it impact sales tax in those local communities, how does it impact property tax?” Bice said. “Without a real clear defined end-game for that, it is going to be very complicated. It will be complicated for the state of Oklahoma, so I encourage Congress, and I hope to be one of the members doing that — to find a reasonable solution working with the tribes to address this very important issue as we move forward.”

Neese followed.

“I think we should discuss it. I know that there are many, many business owners and people in the oil and gas industry, and small oil and gas operators, are extremely concerned about how this is going to impact them, and they believe this will impact them in a negative way,” Neese said. “So, I think we have to really focus in Congress about how do we handle this certainly with the tribes in mind and knowing that these wildcatters — as I kind of say — and small businesses know what kind of rules and regulations may be coming down on them in Congress.”

Republican voters in Oklahoma, Pottawatomie and Seminole counties will choose between Neese and Bice on Tuesday, Aug. 25. The winner will face Horn on Nov. 3.

Watch our full GOP CD 5 runoff debate