While Bob Ed Culver Jr. was living in the Texas panhandle, his father was representing Tahlequah and Cherokee County as a Democrat from HD 4 of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Two decades later, the older Culver has passed, the younger Culver has moved back to Tahlequah, and he is running as a Republican — for the second time — against Rep. Matt Meredith, a former sheriff’s deputy who could be the last remaining rural Democrat in the Oklahoma Legislature.
“It’s been said I’m the number one target in the entire state, for the Republicans anyway,” Meredith said. “I’m the only incumbent Democrat on the Senate or the House side outside Oklahoma City or Tulsa (metro areas).”
With Rep. Ben Loring (D-Miami) and Rep. David Perryman (D-Chickasha) deciding not to seek re-election in 2020, Meredith’s statement highlights the Oklahoma Democratic Party’s changing face. For the vast majority of state history, Democrats dominated rural legislative seats, only losing their grip in the past 15 years, partially thanks to the influence of term limits.
In terms of geography, HD 4 is one of the state’s most straightforward districts. It covers the southern two-thirds of Cherokee County, including Tahlequah, which is the capital of the Cherokee Nation.
“They are a great partner to have here in Cherokee County,” Culver said. “They have done a lot of good for the county and this eastern part of Oklahoma. I look forward to making that gap stronger and working together to improve our way of life in eastern Oklahoma.”
Culver said former Principal Chief Bill John Baker “has been a family friend my whole life.” Meredith also praised the Cherokee Nation’s support of HD 4 and Oklahoma as a whole.
“I’m very honored to be able to represent the home of the Cherokee Nation. I have a very good working relationship with the Cherokees and the other tribes in the state,” Meredith said. “I’m lucky enough to see first hand all that the Cherokees do for our community.”
Meredith said that dirt roads from his childhood and his days as a deputy sheriff are now paved thanks to the Cherokee Nation.
“I know that from my perspective, if it wasn’t for the Cherokees, I can’t imagine what my district would look like,” Meredith said.
Voting record questioned
When Democratic Rep. Mike Brown was prevented from seeking re-election in 2016 thanks to term limits, Meredith and Culver squared off in the year’s general election. Culver had recently moved back to Tahlequah from Texas, and he said he was the victim of dishonest mudslinging.
“Outright lies were sent out about me in the last weeks — that I was a felon from Texas and the Texas Rangers were looking for me,” Culver said.
A former offensive lineman for the OU football team 40 years ago, Culver can sort of laugh about the allegations now. He notes that he is 6’4″, weighs 300 lbs. and drives a vehicle with his name on the side.
“If they’d wanted me, I would have been an easy find,” he said.
Meredith ultimately bested Culver with 51.3 percent support and a margin of only 326 votes in a historically Democratic seat.
Culver said some of the same people who urged him to run in 2016 wanted him to file for HD 4 again in 2018, but he said he was content to focus on his grandchildren and raise some cattle.
Then, he saw a 2019 Tulsa World article about voting attendance, which listed Meredith as having missed more than 26 percent of the votes that session, fifth most in the House. The statistic frustrated him to the point that he decided to challenge Meredith in 2020.
“You at your job, if you show up 74 percent of time, do you keep it long?” Culver asked. “In my mind, a state representative basically has one job, and that’s to vote.”
Meredith, however, offered explanations for the statistic in 2019 and defended his record after hearing of Culver’s criticism, saying Culver wouldn’t make a big deal out of the number “if he knew anything about what goes on actually at the State Capitol.”
“I missed two days total that year. I did miss some votes,” Meredith said. “Deadline week is a pretty busy week. I did miss one deadline day. My mother-in-law had a heart surgery, and I was with my wife and her family during that time. Then I made it back to the Capitol that evening.”
Meredith said he missed a second day as well and that other missed votes stemmed from his role within the House Democratic Caucus.
“I was what you would call the budget advisor for our caucus that year, and I was meeting with fiscal staff and doing some things on the budget on our side of the aisle, which took some time away,” Meredith said, noting that House Appropriations & Budget Chairman Kevin Wallace missed the most House votes that year. “It’s just a political move to try and manipulate voters, and it just shows [Culver] needs a better understanding of what goes on at the Capitol day in and day out.”
On bridges and budgets
When it comes to other issues in the HD 4 race, both candidates support the usual litany of legislative goals.
“Being in rural Oklahoma, infrastructure and my roads and bridges (are top priorities),” Meredith said. “And of course the budget. I like being involved in the budget.”
Meredith said he is proud to have cast a vote for the tax increase that funded the largest teacher pay raise in state history, a historic bipartisan agreement struck after years of often contentious negotiations. In short, Democrats advocated for hiking the state’s gross production tax paid by oil and gas companies while Republican leadership initially opposed such action.
“As a party, we took a lot of hits for the votes we took. We took votes that maybe some people didn’t like at the time,” Meredith said. “But it ended up paying off for us, and we were able to come back in and negotiate a good deal for everybody.”
He said the Legislature will once again need to consider revenue-raising measures owing to the downturn in the oil and gas market.
“We can’t sit on our hands and say, ‘Look what we did here,’ and then never do it again,” Meredith said.
Culver said he is not a particularly partisan person and would focus his efforts on representing the will of HD 4 residents.
“Oklahoma, we need help in a lot of areas. Do I have one specific goal in mind? No, other than to go and be a voice for my constituents, and hopefully when my term is up Oklahoma will be a better place to live,” Culver said. “I’ve dealt with budgets my whole life. I’ve been able to work with people from all walks of life. I’m a great listener. I’m a problem solver. I’m very detail-oriented. And I feel like I’ve got a fair amount of common sense.”
Culver said he is tired of getting surveys from advocacy groups in the mail.
“I want to send them back and say, ‘You ought to send these to my constituents. Because I’m their voice,” Culver said. “I like to look and gather all the facts and make a decision — not based on one side or another — but what’s best for Oklahoma and what’s best for Cherokee County.”