(Editor’s note: This article chronicles recent campaign stops by Joy Hofmeister. A separate article from the same author chronicles recent campaign stops by Kevin Stitt.)
CACHE — As the lights were about to be turned off at the community building where Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joy Hofmeister had just spoken, Cache Public Schools Superintendent Chad Hance summed up the Nov. 8 election as a fight to protect his district from Gov. Kevin Stitt’s school voucher proposal.
“It is critical,” Hance said. “If vouchers go through — I don’t want to — but I’ll be looking at laying off teachers.”
He said the matter is even more critically important to his small town school because a Comanche County assessor’s office clerical error in property evaluations caused an unanticipated $2 million shortfall in school revenue.
A week before, Stitt had told a crowd of about 20 local residents at a small diner in Cache that he supported public school education and would always protect the funding of small schools.
But Hofmeister’s campaign message to 40 residents, including several local teachers who gathered Tuesday night at the community building in the small Comanche County town, portrayed Stitt as a wolf in sheep’s clothing when it comes to public education funding. She said her opponent’s voucher plan would result in the closing of small schools.
“Gov. Stitt’s voucher scheme is a rural school killer. You kill the schools, you kill the community,” Hofmeister said.
The school voucher proposal, which opponents say would perniciously divert taxpayer dollars away from public schools to fund private schools, is the pinnacle issue shaping the election for Oklahoma’s governor.
Hofmeister is crisscrossing the state in the last few days of the campaign on a charter bus signed by supporters, making stops from Grove to Guymon.
“I have 515,000 miles on my SUV. I have put most of that on as state superintendent and on the campaign,” she told the Cache audience. “We have upgraded (to a bus), with more people who can get on and actually finish this campaign listening to Oklahomans and getting out the vote and taking the message that your vote matters.”
Skeeter meter deems vouchers ‘detrimental’
The focus on voters outside the Tulsa and Oklahoma City metropolitan areas has been a priority for Hofmeister since her campaign began. That strategy has also tapped into Hofmeister’s relationships with local teachers and school administrators developed during her eight years as state school superintendent. At every stop, there is a teacher or principal who has met her before.
On Tuesday, the bus tour took her from El Reno to Weatherford, Altus and Lawton. The day ended with an hour-long speech and question and answer session in Cache.
When the Hofmeister bus pulled into a Cache Road shopping center parking lot for a scheduled GOTV (Get Out The Vote) rally in Lawton, about 40 supporters were waiting, including Lawton public school administrator Skeeter Sampler, who said the school voucher issue was the most important one in the race.
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“It is detrimental to rural schools, especially in southwest and western Oklahoma. Our students aren’t going to have the same options that metro students might have in school choice,” Sampler said. “If they offer vouchers in a metro situation, I feel like kids might take that voucher and do something with it. But kids out here, they are not going to do anything with that. It is going to pull money from our students out here who don’t have that option.”
Skeeter said Hofmeister has also recently picked up “a lot of steam” because her moderate politics have been appealing.
“We are at a time when we can’t be so polarized,” he said. “We have to find some common ground in the middle. I think she is the candidate who does that.”
Debbie Sequichier-Kerchee, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, said she came to support Hofmeister at the Lawton stop because she favors her approach to respecting people more than Stitt’s.
“I love what she stands for and the way she interacts with the people. She is not above anybody. I like that,” Sequichier-Kerchee said, adding that she also preferred Hofmeister because she is more cooperative toward tribal leaders than Stitt.
Who is making health care decisions?
Before breaking out the campaign bus, the Hofmeister campaign had mostly concentrated on small gatherings and fundraisers. However, one October campaign appearance was neither — a meeting in a suburban Moore home with parents of special needs children, seeking help from Hofmeister to remedy a problem of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority cutting back on home health services for their children.
Ryan McLaughlin, the mother of wheel-chair-bound 11-year old Lucy, and more than a dozen parents of other children also dependent on home health care services administered by the OHCA, told Hofmeister the agency has reduced services under Stitt’s administration.
“I was so overwhelmed and excited you were willing to come here in person. And not in a fundraising manner, but to come and listen,” McLaughlin told Hofmeister as the two sat on kitchen chairs brought into the living room for the meeting.
McLaughlin said the OHCA determines how many hours of services are provided to each special needs child, but the decision makers often lack medical expertise, meaning parents are forced to challenge cutbacks in services by filing lawsuits.
Hofmeister said Stitt’s decision in 2021 to remove two physicians from the state OHCA board was an example of his failures on the issue of health care. She said Stitt’s plan to privatize SoonerCare, the state Medicaid program administered by OHCA, will be harmful.
“Privatizing SoonerCare is going to take money off the top — 15 percent — and it is going to send that out of our state,” Hofmeister said. “And it is putting corporations between you and the doctor. I think every parent should make the decisions with a trusted doctor about their own child.”
Hofmeister states ‘clear commitment’ to diversity
Despite hailing from Tulsa, Hofmeister’s support in Oklahoma County is one of her strengths.
“We’re going to win Oklahoma County by double digits,” a campaign staffer boldly said this week.
She recently appeared at a south Oklahoma City luncheon with Hispanic voters and promised to add more minority representation on state boards appointed by the governor.
“We do not have that today. We do not have the diversity we need serving on important boards and commissions that impact our everyday life,” Hofmeister told an audience of 50 at the Cantera Event Center at 59th Street and South Santa Fe Avenue.
“That is a clear commitment that I have made and continue to hold. Absolutely we will do that,” she said.
Brenda Hernandez praised Hofmeister coming to the Hispanic community and said her appearance would encourage voter turnout there. Hofmeister’s campaign has dedicated campaign staff specifically to engage the community.
“We are possibly a deciding factor. I feel like it is more than ever important for us to get involved. We have many new voters and many new young voters just now registered to vote,” Hernandez said. “Now more than ever it is a time to raise our voice and make our needs heard. A lot of them are the public school education system. Many of our kids are in that system, so it is more important to advocate for somebody who can best represent our kids and our families and our teachers,” she said.
The luncheon was the last scheduled Hofmeister appearance in south Oklahoma City before the election, but Nicole Alejandro, a campaign organizer, said volunteers were spending the final days of the campaign mobilizing Hispanic neighborhoods for Nov. 8.
“We will be out knocking on doors. Right now it’s all a GOTV push,” said Alejandro.
‘Education as an investment’
The Stitt campaign has worked to turn Hofmeister’s tenure as state school superintendent against her, contending the pandemic-related dip in student test scores for reading and math occurred on her watch and that it happened because she closed public schools in the spring of 2020 to guard against the spread of the coronavirus in children.
Hofmeister has countered, saying her office only temporarily closed schools and developed a plan giving schools guidelines to make a local decision on re-opening.
WATCH THE DEBATE
“There are a lot of misleading comments about that. But I’ll tell you, I’ll take whatever anybody has to say, whether they are ill-informed or not, but I feel it is very important that we have local control,” she said. “I did not support and do not support a statewide mask mandate. But we needed a governor who wore a mask when people were dying, when there then was no way to know how this virus spread. And we didn’t have that.”
At the community meeting in Cache, school superintendent Hance told the audience that after an eighth grade girl in his district died from Covid, Hofmeister called him immediately.
“Joy called me out of concern for the parents, our school and the community and asked, ‘What can I do?’ I’ve always been appreciative of that,” Hance said. “It was a very tough time for our school, our community and those parents. That just speaks volumes on what kind of person Joy is when it comes to caring about people. And that means a lot.”
Hofmeister also defended her work as school superintendent by saying her administration imposed higher testing standards that brought an increased “rigor” to match other states, which have achieved higher performance results in education.
“We are actually acknowledged nationally for having gone from a C level all the way to an A level (in academic standards),” she said.
But she said treating education employees as an expense rather than an investment was causing a drain on workforce availability.
“You can have the highest standards in the world, but if you don’t have the people — you don’t have the teachers and don’t have the counselors and you don’t have the paraprofessionals, or the special education teachers, if you don’t have the school nurses — if you don’t have the people on the team, the bus drivers, and the people in the cafeteria — those who are working to support all this, what good is it?” Hofmeister asked. “We are not going to be able to accomplish that high bar for kids.”
Hofmeister said education is the key to economic development and improving living conditions in the state.
“Investing in people and looking at education as an investment, not an expense, is paramount for us to pull out from where we always have been in this state,” she said. “We are ranked 46th lowest in the nation in what we spend per student.”
‘It’s really like nothing I’ve ever experienced’
Although school funding leads most of her campaign speeches, Hofmeister also criticizes Stitt on other topics, including rumors that Veterans Affairs centers might be privatized and Stitt’s challenges negotiating with legislative leaders on state budgets.
But the proposed school voucher program’s impact on rural public schools remains an overarching issue for small towns, and Hofmeister’s support in traditionally Republican-voting rural areas of western Oklahoma is derived from fears it will result in school consolidation or closure.
Brent Peters, a local pharmacist and former school board member in Chattanooga, a K-12 school with 226 students, said the voucher plan threatens communities like his and the nearby towns of Indiahoma, Grandfield, Frederick, Geronimo and Walters.
He said those places are bound together by school sports and extra curricular activities that are at risk if any private school voucher program takes money away from the public schools. There are no private schools in the area.
“I try to be open minded,” Peters said. “But it’s just another step in the wrong direction in my opinion. We have a lot of small schools down here, and we’re trying to keep them open.
“I think you lose a lot of what people who live in a rural community favor and would like to hold onto.”
Hofmeister’s jump from the Republican Party to the run as a Democrat has been criticized by Stitt — “My opponent joined the crazy party”, he said — but polling shows her drawing significant support from GOP voters and leading among independents.
Hofmeister tells voters she is “an aggressive moderate,” and she promises to use relationships made as state school superintendent with the Republican-dominated Legislature to cooperate rather than to sow conflict, which she says contrasts her from Stitt.
Hofmeister said her endorsement by former U.S. Congressman J.C. Watts, a Republican, was indicative of a public desire for more moderate leaders.
Her campaign is also appealing to what they believe is voter dissatisfaction with what they call the “turmoil” of the Stitt administration arising from publicized controversies and turnover among cabinet appointments.
“I am tired, and I think most Oklahomans are tired of this, of pitting neighbor against neighbor. Of partisan extremism — on both sides. I’m aggressively moderate. I say let’s get in the middle and get something done and actually move our state forward. Because we are at a tipping point and our state has to come together. We can do so much more when we are working with great ideas, no matter where they come from,” Hofmeister said. “I believe there can be a win-win. With our current governor, unfortunately, there is always a loser. It doesn’t have to be that way. I reject that.”
Hofmeister’s pledge for political moderation appealed to David Ridgeway, a painting contractor, who heard Hofmeister’s speech in Cache.
“It’s like we’re arguing all the time. I just don’t understand it,” said Ridgeway. “I like what she had to say about it.”
The Hofmeister campaign bus tour was scheduled to make more stops in Tahlequah, Muskogee, McAlester and Durant before the week’s end.
As Hofmeister turned to get back on her bus in Cache, the reality of the long campaign trail ending soon struck, leaving a mark no matter whether she wins or loses.
“I’ll be really sad when the campaign is over. It is like the honor of my life to be invited into people’s living rooms and they pour their personal stories out,” Hofmeister said. “It’s really like nothing I’ve ever experienced.”
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More photos on the road with Joy Hofmeister
(Correction: This article was updated at 10:25 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3, to correct description of a voter quoted within.)