Stitt starts his second term
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt takes the oath of office Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, outside the State Capitol. (Michael Duncan)

On a blustery day where wind gusts blew a slew of chairs over on stage 10 minutes before festivities began, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt was sworn into office for his second term and delivered a speech touting school choice, “the American dream” and the high-water marks of his first four years.

“When I took office four years ago, the state was in the throes of another downturn. We were emerging from year-after-year budget shortfalls and a government in disarray from political finger-pointing and shifting blame,” Stitt said. “Spending sprees in the good years left us vulnerable in the down years. In short, government was not working and was not generating the promises of certainty and stability for the people of Oklahoma.”

Stitt then referenced his definitive political rhetoric over the last five years — the quest for Oklahoma to be a “top-10 state” — despite saying during an October debate that it was “an aspirational goal” and “something that we’re never going to hit.”

“As your governor, I cast a vision for a turnaround that would put Oklahoma on a journey to be viewed nationwide as a Top Ten state. I said we can be Top Ten in everything we do. My desire was simple: to give Oklahomans the confidence and belief that, when working together, anything is possible. We take second place to no other state.

“And friends, I am proud to say that today the American Dream is alive and well right here in Oklahoma.”

Stitt on state, tribal relations: ‘It’s a new day’

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt delivers his speech after taking the oath of office Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, outside the State Capitol. (Michael Duncan)

As Stitt delivered his remarks to a few hundred audience members on the south steps of the Oklahoma State Capitol, at least five other Republican officials on the stage with him had been rumored to have their own dreams — of running to succeed Stitt as governor in an open 2026 election.

Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell, Attorney General Gentner Drummond, State Auditor & Inspector Cindy Byrd and Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters were all sworn into office along with Stitt on Monday, and each has been rumored as a potential 2026 gubernatorial candidate. House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka), another state leader whose potential candidacy has drawn speculation, also sat on stage with the assembled politicos.

“The great American Dream has endured in this state, and now, more than ever before, people are looking to Oklahoma as the place to find opportunity and live freely,” Stitt said. “Oklahoma has become one of the most desirable states in the nation to live, work and raise a family. In fact, new Census data released last week now ranks Oklahoma as top-10 in states with highest net migration.”

Flanked by family to his right and the other statewide elected officials to his left, Stitt offered a smattering of political red meat to his assembled supporters, pledging to protect religious freedoms and “defend individual freedoms over government control.”

“To my colleagues on this platform with me, we are only here for a short while. The time is now. It’s time to keep moving forward with big ideas and to get them across the finish line for today’s children as well as the next generation,” Stitt said. “I believe that what you dream about, what you think about, and what you work for is going to happen. We are either green and growing or ripe and rotting.”

While Pinnell and Walters clapped for most of Stitt’s rhetoric, Drummond sat with his right leg over his left knee and his left arm around his wife. Drummond, who emphasized his would-be independence from Stitt during his 2022 campaign against Stitt’s appointed attorney general, had been a critic of the governor’s strained relationships with tribal leaders. Stitt and Drummond have known one another for many years.

Asked after his speech whether he anticipates having a slightly different opinion on some matters than Drummond, Stitt said, “I hope not.”

“I would assume that we’re all going to be focused on making Oklahoma top 10,” Stitt said. “I’m looking forward to working with him and all the statewide electeds.”

Drummond’s director of communications, Phil Bacharach, offered a brief statement in response.

“The attorney general looks forward to working with the governor and all other elected officials for the betterment of Oklahoma,” Bacharach said.

Asked about how he might approach state-tribal relations during his second term in office and after surviving a barrage of critical advertising fueled heavily by tribal interests, Stitt said “it’s a new day” on that front.

“I reached out and called all of them and am so happy that they all came. We had probably 21 of them or so that were here. We had a reception here at the Secretary of State’s Office for them,” Stitt said. “It’s a new day. It’s a new chapter in Oklahoma. Just looking forward to working well with them and making Oklahoma top 10.”

Muscogee Nation Chief David Hill released a statement Monday afternoon and referenced Stitt’s debate foible regarding his top-10 messaging.

“We respect the office of elected leaders in our state. As fellow sovereigns, it makes no difference who holds the office. We still strive to have a level of respect, collaboration and diplomacy with our partners because we all share the same duty,” Hill said. “That duty is to better the lives of all people in our reservation and in the state. If we work together, Oklahoma as a top-10 state can be a reality, and not just an aspirational goal.”

‘It’s time to rethink education in Oklahoma’

From left to right: State Auditor & Inspector Cindy Byrd, Attorney General Gentner Drummond, Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, Corporation Commissioner Kim David, State Treasurer Todd Russ, Insurance Commission Glen Mulready and Commissioner of Labor Leslie Osborn take the oath of office Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, outside of the Oklahoma State Capitol. (Michael Duncan)

While Stitt’s ranking aspirations have a ways to go in many categories, Oklahoma’s education system served as a political flashpoint and fulcrum during the 2022 election cycle. Neither Stitt nor his political opponents have been happy with the state’s educational outcomes, although their proposed solutions differ widely.

Democrats and many education advocacy groups have called for significantly higher teacher pay and greater in-classroom resources to stem the tide of educators retiring and taking jobs in other states. Stitt and Walters, however, have focused on the school choice movement, which seeks a broader number of charter schools, vouchers to support private school tuition and various other parent-first proposals.

“It’s time to rethink education in Oklahoma. It’s time for the tough conversations to address what’s working and what is not,” Stitt said. “It’s time to teach kids how to think, not what to think. And that means, we must give students more access to learning methods that fit their unique needs. We need more schools — not less schools — like the fear mongers claimed when we called for change.”

During the 2022 general election, Stitt faced significant criticism from school leaders who said his support for education savings accounts — or vouchers — will pull money from public school districts and put rural schools at risk of closure. But despite facing millions of dollars in dark-money opposition for the proceeding year, Stitt received more than 55 percent of the vote against Democrat Joy Hofmeister and a pair of other challengers.

Still, House Minority Leader Cyndi Munson (D-OKC) released a statement following Stitt’s address criticizing the governor’s first term.

“While I share Gov. Stitt’s enthusiasm for improving the lives of every Oklahoman, his first term did little to move our state forward,” Munson said. “We still rank 45th in public school funding, 48th in access to health care, and just last year were cited as the worst state for women to live in the entire country. The facts don’t lie and we are nowhere near a top 10 state after four years of Gov. Stitt.”

‘He has biblical ideas’

Edmond resident Janet Kem sits near the inaugural crowd outside the Oklahoma State Capitol on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. (Michael Duncan)

In the days leading up to the November election, Stitt stood on the steps of the State Capitol and claimed “every square inch” of Oklahoma for Jesus Christ.

Two months later, during his second inaugural ceremony, Stitt stood in nearly the same area and invoked “the guidance of almighty God.” Underscoring Stitt’s faith, an “inaugural prayer service” had been held the night before at Southern Hills Baptist Church in southwest Oklahoma City.

Hours later, Monday’s events opened with a lengthy prayer and closed with an even longer one from Stitt’s father.

The messages resonated with conservative Christians in the audience, including octogenarian Janet Kem of Edmond, who sat by herself along the west edge of the crowd. She said she had previously attended the 1987 inauguration of Gov. Henry Bellmon and had come to Tuesday’s festivities to celebrate Stitt’s reelection.

“I think he’s done a good job, and I’m glad he was reelected,” Kem said. “(I like) his character. He is a Christian man, and he has biblical ideas, and I appreciate that.”

Asked what she thought of the advertisements against Stitt during the election, Kem laughed.

“I didn’t believe them,” she said. “I know he is a good man, so I didn’t believe the ads.”

Kem said the economy and inflation have not affected her too much, but she said her major concern is for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“I’m concerned about education,” she said. “I guess the morals that are being pushed today are not the morals that I grew up with.”

Asked her advice for Stitt, Kem made dubious statements about the health consequences of marijuana compared to tobacco.

“Educate the youth about the dangers of marijuana,” she said. “I just want the kids to know that it’s not safe to try it. It’s not a good substitute to healthy living.”

Oklahomans will vote March 7 on whether to legalize recreational consumption of marijuana statewide.