(Mike Allen)

Feathers are flying in the Oklahoma Legislature again, and this time it’s over an old topic — cockfighting — that has been born anew thanks to HB 2530 from Rep. Justin “J.J.” Humphrey (R-Lane).

A loquacious lawmaker who once learned he had cancer after being kicked in the leg by a bovine during a wild cow milking contest on the campaign trail, Humphrey previously made headlines for his 2017 remark about women being “hosts” for babies, as well as his 2021 comment saying transgender people have “a mental illness.”

This year, he is running HB 2530 to allow county-specific elections to reduce from felonies to misdemeanors the criminal penalties related to cockfighting. The bill advanced out of the House Criminal Judiciary Committee on Feb. 22 by a 5-2 vote. Of note, Rep. Jason Lowe (D-OKC) voted in favor of the bill, while Rep. Stan May (R-Broken Arrow) and Rep. Collin Duel (R-Guthrie) voted against it. (There’s a joke about a rooster “duel” in the freshman’s vote somewhere.)

In 2002, Oklahoma voters criminalized hosting, attending and raising birds for cockfighting events. State Question 687 received 56.2 percent support, and turnout for the topic in rural Oklahoma remains one of several factors often referenced for then-Sen. Brad Henry’s surprising victory over Congressman Steve Largent in the state’s 2002 gubernatorial election.

Now, more than 20 years later, Humphrey is attempting to leverage modern sympathies toward criminal justice reform in his effort to lessen cockfighting crimes from felonies to misdemeanors — if 5 percent of a county’s voters sign an initiative petition and then a majority of voters approve it on a ballot.

Arguments against the bill, however, focus on the barbaric nature of the “sport,” which pits pee-brained and naturally aggressive animals against one another in what can often be a fight to the death for the enjoyment of voyeuristic gamblers. Sometimes, metal spurs are added to the birds’ legs to increase the lethality, and let’s not talk about the most controversial way to fire up your fighting rooster. (It involves a finger.)

Cockfighting culture has been chronicled before, and the state of Oklahoma still seems to be home to many people who raise roosters for pugilistic purposes. Oklahoma has been called “the cockfighting capital of the United States” — top 10, baby — and reports claim that thousands of roosters have been shipped to other parts of the globe where cockfighting remains popular and prominent.

The Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission, a pro-cockfighting political action committee whose name confusingly implies some sort of government association, donated more than $40,000 to Oklahoma politicians in 2022. Although the group does not report its donors as required — many are presumably committing felonies, you see — records indicate that Gov. Kevin Stitt received $2,000, as did Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) and Senate Floor Leader Greg McCortney (R-Ada). Humphrey accepted $1,000 himself, and he is listed on one report as receiving support from the organization when it spent $178.12 on a checkbook from First United Bank in Durant. Most donations went to a bevy of rural Republican lawmakers, but Democrats like Lowe and Sen. Carri Hicks (D-OKC) also accepted contributions.

The PAC’s connections to the Legislature extend beyond finances, as its “designed filing agent” with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, Blake Pearce, was the “handsome date” of Rep. Tammy Townley (R-Ardmore) for the annual Speaker’s Ball this year.

All in all, the resurgence of cockfighting as a political fight at the Oklahoma State Capitol feels a bit like a trip back in time.

Here’s hoping the bill is not amended to include the topic of teeth floating later in session.

(Correction: This article was updated at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26, to note that Rep. Stan May voted against the bill and Rep. Judd Strom (R-Copan) voted in favor.)

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