The Republican runoff for State Senate District 4 in eastern Oklahoma has turned contentious after the first-place finisher in the June primary said one of his opponents seeking treatment for depression made him mentally incompetent and unfit for office.
The remark, made during a June 3 forum by 27-year-old farmer Tom Woods about 29-year-old rancher Hoguen Apperson, harkened back to a time when mental health care carried a significant stigma in politics, and it drew criticism of Woods from a variety of people, including Rep. Josh West (R-Grove) who represents part of SD 4 in the Oklahoma House.
“If seeking treatment for mental health was a disqualification for running for office or being elected, then I would be left out, along with dang near every veteran or first responder!” West wrote in a Facebook comment on the forum livestream.
In the four-way June 28 GOP primary, Woods finished first with 39.53 percent of the vote, and retired state trooper Keith Barenberg finished second with 25.06 percent. (Apperson and Tom Callan received 22.99 percent and 12.42 percent, respectively.)
Woods and Barenberg now head to an Aug. 23 runoff, with Woods’ prior criticism of Apperson’s mental health lingering as an issue in the race and reminding some older voters of the 1972 Thomas Eagleton affair, wherein a vice presidential nominee withdrew owing to publicity about his own mental health treatment.
“Politics is not always clean and fun, and there’s a lot of mud thrown at times, but I’ve never seen a candidate attacked because they went and voluntarily sought mental health treatment,” said West, a decorated veteran of the U.S. Army who has spoken publicly about his own mental health challenges. “Since I’ve been elected, I’ve tried to be very open about my own mental health treatment, and (of) being a veteran with PTSD. (…) I’ve got lots of friends that have killed themselves and go through this type of stuff every day. And [acknowledging it] is a positive thing for us.”
‘What you say matters’
West knows he will have to work with whomever prevails in the SD 4 race, which will be decided in the Aug. 23 GOP runoff because no candidate from another party filed to run. As a result, he has not officially endorsed an SD 4 candidate, but he said Woods’ remarks about mental health have been inappropriate.
“When you’re an elected official, even when you’re campaigning, you are held to a higher standard than the general public,” West said. “And so what you say matters to people.”
It is unclear if Woods’ comments affected Apperson’s performance in the primary, but Apperson’s absence from the runoff has not made the race any less contentious. Apperson has endorsed Barenberg, who said Woods “has gone dirty.”
Barenberg said he is the better choice for voters because he has more “life experience” than his opponent and because of Woods’ campaign finances.
“He’s borrowing money to keep running his campaign, and he’s running on financial responsibility,” Barenberg said. “Well, to me, that’s not very responsible.”
A recent mailer from Barenberg’s campaign attacks Woods for the forum incident and reads, “your medical records could be next.” It also suggests that Woods could be facing criminal charges for his attack on Apperson.
While it’s unclear how or if Woods obtained medical records about Apperson, doing so would be illegal. In the forum, Woods said Apperson had visited GRAND Mental Health twice, and he listed the specific months and years of the visits. The company performed an audit after the incident and determined that Apperson’s records were not leaked.
At the forum, hosted by the Delaware County Republicans, the four candidates running to represent SD 4 sat side-by-side, speaking to voters in the audience and on the Facebook livestream for more than an hour about their platforms.
State Senate District 4
SD 4 is located in far eastern Oklahoma on the Arkansas border. It includes all of Adair County, as well as most of Delaware and Sequoyah counties and the southeastern part of Cherokee County. It is almost wholly within the Cherokee Nation Reservation.
The current SD 4 incumbent, Sen. Mark Allen (R-Spiro), is term-limited.
Around 52 minutes into the forum — 10 minutes after Tom Callan advocated for more state spending on mental health care — Woods proclaimed that Apperson had made two visits to GRAND Mental Health.
“How do you have the mental faculties to be able to take the stress that this job entails?” Woods asked Apperson.
As he asked the question, Barenberg put his head in his hand and shook it. When Apperson began his response, he interrupted himself to say, “Oh, this is going to be difficult to do without cursing, sorry.”
Apperson said that while he does not often speak openly about the subject, his mental health journey is a part of his “testimony” and that he encourages anyone struggling with depression to seek help because of his experiences. He added an appeal to the audience to not be shamed by Woods’ comments, which he called “embarrassing.”
Woods interrupted him.
“It’s not shaming, you’re not mentally competent to do the job,” Woods said.
A week after the forum, Woods made a video statement to Fox 23 news in Tulsa and seemed to double down on his statements about Apperson.
“I desperately hope that Hoguen has gained and gotten the treatment he so desperately needs, but is now the right time for him to serve the public?” Woods asked in the video.
In an interview with NonDoc about the runoff election, Woods said he had simply been responding to concerns from voters that he had met when knocking on doors.
“That is a concern that the voters in Delaware County had when I knocked on their door, because it was a widely known fact,” Woods said. “You know how gossip is. Bad news spreads way worse than good news. So what they was concerned with was if it was true or not, and my voters and the voters up there in general wanted to know if it was true or not. And so I asked the question, [Apperson] said it was true, and I’ve moved on from it. I’m glad he got treatment. And he’s moved on from it, and I’ve moved on from it.”
Apperson does not seem to have moved on from it entirely, and he said he was “possibly” considering legal action during a conversation about the SD 4 race with NonDoc.
“It’s such poor behavior, what he did,” Apperson said. “I’ve had, not even kidding, hundreds of people come up to me and call me and message me and talk to me and say, ‘Dang, I went through that same exact stuff, I had to go get help for it, and that they’d attack someone to try to stigmatize it is just extremely unprofessional and uncalled for and not what we do in Oklahoma.”
Now that Woods has advanced to the runoff, he said Barenberg’s mailer attacks against him are expected after he finished first in the primary. But he said he regrets saying Apperson was not “mentally competent.”
“In the heat of the debate and the heat of the moment, those are two words that I want to take back,” Woods said. “Hoguen’s a nice guy, and those words should not define him.”
Woods also said he is “100 percent supportive of people seeking mental health treatment.”
Woods: ‘I started with nothing’
Woods grew up on a dairy farm and now owns a cow/calf operation after his parents gave him his first cow when he was 12, according to his website.
“I started with nothing (…) and I took that one cow, and I made $200 a month milking that one cow and saving every penny and trying to get more cows,” Woods said.
In addition to the farm, Woods said he also owns a feed store and a trucking company, which he started. Through these experiences, Woods “made good and bad financial decisions.”
“And that’s what sparked my interest to run is I felt like there was some of the decisions I made financially that were not good,” Woods said. “And I feel like financial education in public schools needs to be more of a priority to help everybody make better decisions.”
Barenberg, 55, is a retired state trooper. He was president of the Oklahoma State Trooper Association for 10 years and called himself the “Oklahoma Highway Patrol liaison to the Oklahoma Legislature” during that time, which he said gave him valuable legislative experience that will help him if elected.
In 2016, former Rep. Mike Christian wrote a letter to Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater accusing Barenberg of embezzling state money and acting as an unregistered lobbyist on behalf of the OSTA. Christian, a former trooper himself, said Barenberg had been working on the clock as a state trooper while also lobbying the Legislature.
No criminal charges were ever filed against Barenberg, and he said the accusations were politically motivated because he opposed Christian’s DPS consolidation bill, which did not pass. He also said one of his other accusers was former state Sen. Ralph Shortey, an ally of Christian who is currently serving prison time on a sex trafficking charge.
“I was fighting that bill, and I was winning,” Barenberg said. “And so they filed a complaint.”
‘Bring common sense to the Senate’
Barenberg said he decided to run for the Senate District 4 seat so he could continue to serve the state.
“My wife has been wanting me to retire from the Oklahoma Highway Patrol for a couple of years,” Barenberg said. “And I’ve had some senators and some reps that came to me and said, ‘Hey, we would really like it if you would consider running for this open state Senate (seat).'”
After talking with his wife and praying, Barenberg “decided that it was it was something I could do to get out of law enforcement, but still serve the public.”
If elected, Barenberg said the main thing he wants to do is “bring common sense to the Senate.”
On his website, he writes that he “is the blue” and that he “opposes Biden’s leftist agenda.”
He also said he is pro-life and wants to improve Oklahoma’s adoption process in the wake of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
“I would like to make the adoption process easier and better for these young women that have a decision to make so they don’t have to leave Oklahoma and go have an abortion,” Barenberg said.
Additionally, Barenberg said he wants to support farmers and ranchers by improving infrastructure and giving them a diesel tax credit.
Woods’ campaign slogan is, “A farmer can fix it.”
If elected, in addition to implementing financial education in schools, Woods also said he wants to improve infrastructure. In the wake of the incident with Apperson, Woods pledged to “do whatever it takes to help people with mental health troubles.”
Oklahoma primary runoffs will take place Aug. 23. The deadline to register to vote in the election is today. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Election Day, and early voting will run Aug. 18-20.