SD 21
Sen. Tom Dugger, left, ran unopposed in Senate District 21 in 2016. This year, he faces Democratic challenger Rick Dunham. (NonDoc)

STILLWATER — When Sen. Tom Dugger (R-Stillwater) first entered office in 2016, he ran unopposed in the general election. This year, he’s not so lucky. On Nov. 3, the incumbent Republican will be facing a Democratic challenger, Army veteran Rick Dunham.

Dunham’s challenge has not made Dugger anxious for press coverage, however. He declined to be interviewed for this article, saying he doesn’t usually talk to the press. He said NonDoc could write him an email attempting to persuade him to do the interview, but that he more than likely would decline.

He did not respond to the email.

Dunham, meanwhile, said running as a Democrat in a red state presents a particular challenge.

“As a Republican in Oklahoma, the general thought process for some time has been all you have to do is get yourself on the ballot and you’re going to win,” Dunham said in a phone interview. “Democratic candidates don’t have that luxury. We have to put 100 percent of our effort into earning every vote we can get.”

Neither Dugger nor Dunham faced a primary challenger earlier this year. SD 21, which includes all of Payne County, has been in Republican hands since 2008, when former OSU President Jim Halligan flipped the seat for the GOP. Halligan was preceded by former Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Morgan, who left the Senate because of term limits in 2008 and was later convicted of bribery.

Pivotal platform points

Dugger’s campaign website and Facebook page don’t lay out a particular platform. But in an April 8 press release announcing his plan to seek re-election, Dugger said he believes in balanced taxation and has “supported legislation to level the playing field between our local businesses and large multistate corporations.” It also noted that he voted in favor of teacher pay raises and the tax increases that funded them in 2018.

In May, Dugger told the Stillwater News Press that he sees himself as someone who watches the budget, ensures taxes are collected and spent well, and often finds himself in the middle on issues. He also mentioned that he dislikes the spotlight and prefers to operate behind the scenes.

Dugger serves on four Senate committees: Appropriations, Agriculture and Wildlife, and Education. He is also vice-chairman of the General Government Committee.

In a 2018 Q&A with Oklahoma Watch, Dugger said that what voters should know about him is that “I will always do my best to have my tenure be one of honesty and integrity. I’m the only CPA in the Senate.”

According to Dunham’s website, his platform priorities are economic development, education, health care and cybersecurity.

He said he was motivated to run after learning about the poverty rates in Payne County.

“Through some research,” he said, “I learned about a third of our residents were living below the poverty line, which is one of the worst levels for the state of Oklahoma, even though Payne county has one of the largest economies in the state.”

According to the Census Bureau, Payne County has a 22.8 percent poverty rate, the 10th highest in Oklahoma. Dunham believes diversifying the economy can help change that.

“We all know that we’ve relied on oil and natural gas almost all of our state’s history,” he said, “and it has now crashed twice in my lifetime.”

Dunham said reliance on oil prevents Oklahoma from having steady financing for things such as education and health care — areas that Dunham says lawmakers shouldn’t be patting themselves on the back over funding.

“Being a good steward for education isn’t a platform position, that’s just your job. That’s what you’re supposed to do,” Dunham said.  “I’m not one to celebrate accomplishing things that I should be doing anyway.”

Dunham’s final platform issue, cybersecurity, is an unusual one, but it’s particularly important to him.

“I was insistent upon making cybersecurity a platform issue,” Dunham said. “Modern criminals aren’t breaking into people’s homes. They are hacking into people’s email or getting into their bank accounts and scamming them out of money.”

Dunham explained that the average Oklahoman has no idea how much of their data is online, nor do they know how to protect themselves. Currently, it is the Oklahoma Cyber Command‘s job to safeguard the state’s data, and Dunham believes it could do more.

“I want to expand [the OCC’s] mission to include a public outreach department that is solely dedicated to educating Oklahoma’s residents on the cybersecurity threats that are out there and how to prepare themselves to meet those challenges,” he explained.

The accountant and the soldier

Dugger is a certified public accountant and, along with his wife, Ann, has been a Stillwater resident since 1979. He has more than 40 years of experience in audit, tax and corporate accounting and is an OSU graduate. According to his campaign website, Dugger is a past board member of the Oklahoma Board of Accountancy and the Oklahoma Society of CPAs.

Dugger was recognized as an OSU Distinguished Accounting Alumnus in 2005. He is also a member of OSU’s honorary scholastic fraternity Phi Kappa Phi and received Oklahoma Society of CPA’s Public Service Award in 2002.

Dugger’s website lists a number of ways he has been involved in the Stillwater community, including working for the Chamber of Commerce and the nonprofit organization Mathew 25:40.

“The choice is clear,” Dugger wrote in an Aug. 7 Facebook post. “We must re-elect an experienced individual to represent Payne County.”

Dunham, meanwhile, served in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, including combat time in Afghanistan. He served active duty for seven years and now serves as a major in the Army Reserves.

Dunham grew up in a military family: His grandfather was a fighter pilot, and both of his parents served in the Air Force. He said he became the “black sheep of the family” when he joined the Army instead of the Air Force.

“Military service is part of my family’s tradition,” Dunham said.

Dunham received an undergraduate degree from OSU, where he focused on East Asian studies, Central Asian studies and military science. After returning from active duty in 2015, Dunham and his wife, Michelle, moved back to Stillwater. This past summer, he earned a master’s degree in international relations with an emphasis in national security.

Dunham: ‘Outworking Sen. Dugger’

When asked about his opponent, Dunham expressed frustration at what he described as Dugger’s inaction.

“Voters in Payne County are being disserviced by having State Senate representation that is essentially asleep at the wheel,” Dunham said. “He has very few bills passed, and he himself states that he prefers to operate behind the scenes.”

Dunham said his campaign strategy is “simply outworking Sen. Dugger to try to win,” and he aims to be highly visible to voters.

“I make it a point to invest time into knocking doors,” he said. “You can tell it has been a long time since places like Yale had a politician that gave a damn about what happened there.”

The Stillwater Chamber of Commerce will host a virtual forum on Oct. 16, and both candidates are reportedly scheduled to be in attendance. Additionally, the Rotary Club will host a forum on Oct. 29 that Dunham plans to participate in. Neither Dugger nor the Rotary Club replied to inquiries about whether Dugger will participate.

(Correction: This article was updated at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 8, to reference Dunham’s familial military service properly.)