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Ervin Yen
Former Oklahoma State Sen. Ervin Yen, left, has filed paperwork to challenge Gov. Kevin Stitt, right, in the 2022 Republican primary. (NonDoc)

Dr. Ervin Yen, a former Oklahoma City state senator who lost his re-election bid in a 2018 primary, has filed a campaign committee with the state Ethics Commission to challenge Gov. Kevin Stitt in the 2022 Republican primary.

“I have not been very impressed with multiple issues that deal with the health of Oklahomans,” Yen, an anesthesiologist, told NonDoc. “Of course, one was vaccines. There were some regulations that would have tightened up exemptions a little bit, but they were thrown out in spite of the multitude of people who recommended them.”

Yen said Stitt’s goal of implementing “managed care” into the state’s Medicaid program also bothers him. He said the state has tried having private companies manage Medicaid before and that doing so is simply a bad idea.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back that made me do this is the state’s response to the coronavirus — the lack of response,” Yen said. “In my opinion, we’re not doing anything about it. It’s getting worse.”

Yen said he fears death totals from the novel coronavirus could spike unless more decisive action is taken by the Stitt administration.

“I would do a statewide mask mandate,” Yen said. “If you do it after you see cases in a rural area, it’s too late. It’s already there spreading like crazy.”

Background on Ervin Yen

After Yen’s 2014 election, he was the first physician sworn into the Oklahoma State Senate in more than 50 years.

But Yen’s medical opinions proved unpopular among some influential grassroots groups, including parents who oppose vaccine mandates and people who oppose narrow restrictions on what type of patient can qualify for medical marijuana.

Yen clashed with both groups in 2018, and he failed to crack 40 percent of the vote against Joe Howell in the 2018 GOP primary for Senate District 40. Howell ultimately lost to Sen. Carri Hicks (D-OKC) in November 2018.

Yen noted that someone was impersonating him on Twitter ahead of his 2018 electoral loss.

Election Day filing

The Oklahoma Ethics Commission website notes that Yen filed his gubernatorial campaign committee on Nov. 3, the day of the 2020 general election. It was amended the next day.

Yen is listed as the chairperson and treasurer of his committee. Toni Garrison, a Tulsa-area accountant, is listed as deputy treasurer.

Speculation about who might challenge Stitt in a Republican primary has been rampant since the governor’s attempt at renegotiating state gambling compacts grew sour in 2019. Political insiders have suggested that a viable challenger to Stitt might receive substantial donations from tribal members, as well as support from third-party groups that might be boosted by tribal money.

Whether Yen becomes that candidate remains to be seen, but his status as a physician could offer him authority to question the governor’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, something he did Thursday.

“I just don’t think he has the background and maybe the education to fully comprehend what people are telling him (about health care issues),” Yen said. “I would love Oklahoma to be a top-10 state in terms of health, but we are far from that. So I am doing this for the health of Oklahomans.”

During his time in the State Senate, Yen served as chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, a position that gave him influence on major health policy decisions considered by the Legislature.

Yen confirmed that he moved more than $159,000 in “surplus funds” from his now-terminated SD 40 campaign committee to his new gubernatorial committee. But he said he will not be self-funding his campaign. Instead, he and his team would like to raise $500,000 in the next 60 days.

“That’s probably a pretty lofty goal, but what the heck. But it takes a lot of money to win a governor’s race, I’m sure,” Yen said. “This is going to be fascinating to see what happens. I’m looking forward to it.”

(Update: This post was updated at 3:25 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5, to include additional information. It was updated again at 6:35 p.m. to include comments from Yen.)

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William W. Savage III (Tres) holds a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma. He covered two sessions of the Oklahoma Legislature for eCapitol.net before working in health care for six years. He is a nationally certified Mental Health First Aid instructor.