Attorney General John O’Connor and challenger Gentner Drummond expressed diverging views on the McGirt decision while bickering over endorsements, O’Connor’s status as an appointee and Drummond’s past political donations during a rowdy debate Thursday night hosted by NonDoc and News 9 at Oklahoma City Community College.
Drummond and O’Connor will face each other for the GOP nomination in the June 28 primary, and the tension of their race was readily apparent in the nearly 90-minute debate. O’Connor set an aggressive tone early when he said his opponent is being disingenuous about his political leanings.
“My opponent is a Democrat in Republican clothing,” O’Connor said in his opening remarks.
Drummond, a former F-15 pilot and businessman, used his opening remarks to call O’Connor an appointee, a word he repeated often during the course of the debate. Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed O’Connor in July 2021 following the resignation of Mike Hunter, whom Drummond had challenged in 2018.
“What does this race really offer?” Drummond asked the audience. “We’ve got the appointee who is basically serving the administration and special interest groups.”
Video of the debate can be viewed here, or at the bottom of this article.
McGirt decision takes center stage
Much of the debate centered on the July 2020 McGirt vs. Oklahoma decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court, which affirmed that Congress had not disestablished Indian Country reservations in eastern Oklahoma. The ruling has led to a clash between Stitt’s administration and tribes, who now share criminal jurisdiction over cases involving their citizens inside their reservation boundaries with only the federal government, not the state.
Drummond and O’Connor have diverging views on the McGirt decision’s fallout. Drummond said the case relates only to criminal jurisdiction, while O’Connor, and Stitt, believe tribes will attempt to assert their sovereignty in the realm of civil law as well.
One of the most politically charged issues in the aftermath of the SCOTUS ruling is the possibility that Congress could disestablish the six reservations in Oklahoma. The subject came up in a debate among GOP U.S. Senate hopefuls earlier this month. In that debate, two of the four candidates said they would push legislation to disestablish the reservations if elected.
During Thursday night’s attorney general showdown, Drummond said he does not favor disestablishing reservations, and he pitched cooperation instead of conflict as the best path forward.
“I’m trying to be Attorney General not Speaker of the House,” Drummond said. “The issue is the law in the United States. The law in the United States has been established by the Supreme Court. We have made thousands of treaties with Native American tribes, and it’s time for Americans and Oklahomans to honor our promises. So the disestablishment of these tribes is eastern Oklahoma will not occur by Congress or the Supreme Court, nor will they voluntarily give up their jurisdiction. It’s incumbent on Oklahomans to make a pact with Oklahomans. I’m not in favor of stripping Native Americans of any rights they’ve been granted by treaty.”
O’Connor, who has filed numerous lawsuits challenging the McGirt decision and has echoed some of Stitt’s harsh rhetoric on the topic, said Congress should disestablish the reservations.
“It’s not just me who supports that,” O’Connor said. “For 113 years, the federal government and the state of Oklahoma all treated this as there were no reservations. In 2016, one of our tribal leaders testified to the Congress that there were no reservations in the state of Oklahoma.”
O’Connor said statehood effectively ended reservations in Oklahoma before pivoting to the rights of home owners.
“The promise we need to look at is the promise to eastern Oklahomans who bought their homes who have paid 20 years on a 30-year mortgage,” he said. “The promise to them is that they can own their land and their homes under the circumstances that they understood when they bought their homes, and that is that the state of Oklahoma is their sovereign.”
Drummond responded by accusing O’Connor of misunderstanding the SCOTUS ruling.
“The appointee misunderstands the law,” Drummond said. “The Major Crimes Act relates to criminal activity. It has no bearing on real estate. You are talking to a real estate attorney who owns abstracts throughout eastern Oklahoma. Everybody’s land is safe and sound. No civil law will be abrogated. The sovereignty of Oklahoma is absolute. It relates simply and narrowly to the Major Crimes Act, only. And this is a red herring. This is divisive activity by the administration and the appointee to draw a distinction between Native Americans and Oklahomans, and it is untenable.”
O’Connor shot back, accusing Drummond of being beholden to the tribes.
“I wish Mr. Drummond spoke for the tribes, because he appears to be speaking for them,” O’Connor said. “If he would come forward right now and say on behalf of all six tribes that McGirt is not civil and they will not try in any way to construe McGirt as civil, then that would be a major advance for us.”
“What the appointee confuses is the Native Americans are posturing with the state of Oklahoma because we seem to be so hostile to the Native Americans that they are raising these issues of civil rights when none exist at law,” Drummond said. “And if we would simply get over our ego and enter into an agreement to bring resolution to McGirt, this would not be an issue.”
Candidate exchanges heat up
O’Connor aggressively fired broadsides at Drummond throughout the debate, often disregarding his allotted time and speaking over moderators to make points. His supporters also disregarded repeated requests not to applaud or shout comments at Drummond or the moderators during the debate.
Early in the debate, O’Connor brandished an email Drummond allegedly sent to an unknown recipient regarding Rep. Kevin Hern and his support for former President Donald Trump. O’Connor alleged that Drummond told the recipient, who had apparently been soliciting a meeting between Hern and Drummond, that Hern’s support for Trump was a “non-starter” for him and he would decline the meeting with Hern because of it. At one point O’Connor took two steps toward Drummond and attempted to hand him a printed copy of email.
Drummond said after his service as fighter pilot flying the F-15 in the U.S. Air Force, he went to law school at Georgetown University. Drummond said his time in Washington D.C. soured him on the Democratic Party.
“The most important thing I learned while working in Washington D.C. was the Democratic Party doesn’t represent Oklahoma’s interests,” Drummond said. “It was that point in my life I realized I was a Republican. And Oklahoma’s values are conservative in every regard. I walked away from law school learning Oklahomans respect the rule of law and want conservative government — small government.”
O’Connor dismissed Drummond’s conversion based on the alleged email.
“The notice you had of Republican values prevail must have been very recent because in 2017 you wrote in an email that said Kevin Hern’s affinity for President Trump was a non-starter for you,” O’Connor said. “This is from your own email.”
The candidates also sparred over O’Connor’s status as an appointee of Stitt, with Drummond intimating that O’Connor is improperly beholden to the man who gave him the job.
“After Mr. Hunter resigned, I declared my candidacy immediately to run as a conservative Republican, independent of any appointment,” Drummond said. “I find it distasteful we have to fill offices with appointments. The appointments create a fealty — a loyalty between the appointee and the appointer, and in effect Gov. Stitt has his personal attorney general while the state of Oklahoma has none.”
O’Connor said Drummond reached out to Gov. Stitt for the appointment as AG following Hunter’s 2021 resignation.
“When Mr. Hunter resigned, Mr. Drummond reached out to the governor and wanted the appointment, and then seven weeks later he didn’t get it,” O’Connor said.
Drummond said that appointment from Stitt would have come with conditions.
“When I was in the presence of the governor, he made it very clear it was his appointment and there were conditions to that appointment,” Drummond said. “That would compromise the integrity of the office, and I’d rather lose with my dignity than compromise my integrity for the appointment.”
O’Connor said his appointment came with no conditions from Stitt.
Oklahoma AG candidates tussle over endorsements
In his closing arguments, O’Connor touted his numerous endorsements from CPAC and the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, among others. He specifically cited the Oklahoma Cattleman’s Association endorsement because Drummond is a “cattleman himself.”
“If we’re known by the company we keep and by the actions we take, by this point in a man’s career there should be enough evidence to prove what he stands for,” O’Connor said. “Nobody knew he was pro-life before he ran for office.”
O’Connor continued, once again holding up the email about Hern, disregarding moderator requests that he stop talking because his time had expired.
In his closing remarks, Drummond highlighted his endorsements from law enforcement while chiding O’Connor for what he said is a lack of urgency in prosecuting those involved in scandals like the controversial contract between the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation and Swadley’s.
“Dozens of sheriffs have appeared in campaign commercials and have endorsed me,” Drummond said. “Law enforcement has supported me because they know I stand for law and order. Mr. O’Connor has failed to investigate grifters and fraudsters namely all these guys that have taken from our tax dollars. Mr. O’Connor has failed to provide transparency in our agencies in our state government by hiding reports and keeping documents from citizens.”
The winner of the June 28 GOP primary will face Libertarian Lynda Steele. No Democrat filed for the position.
NonDoc’s 2022 political debate series will continue next week, with showdowns for the Republican nomination in the 2nd Congressional District on Monday in Bartlesville and a debate among GOP hopefuls for state superintendent of public instruction on Wednesday.