Norman Ward 2, Matt Peacock, Russell Rice
From left: Matt Peacock and Russell Rice advanced to a runoff for an open Ward 2 seat on the Norman City Council on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. (NonDoc)

After a series of serious circumstances changed his life, Russell Rice decided to take his civic service to a new level: Seeking to represent Ward 2 on the Norman City Council.

Little did he know the decennial census would move incumbent Ward 8 Councilman Matt Peacock into Ward 2 and set up their electoral showdown April 2.

“I have no problems with Matt. This is just something I need to do for Ward 2,” Rice said. “I’ve been in this ward working toward this for three years now.”

Peacock, however, has some criticism of Rice when it comes to a nebulous new arena proposal that Rice says should not include public financing.

“I feel that any candidate who has already made up their mind on the arena without seeing any of the details is operating from a place of bad faith and likely just telling voters what they want to hear without actually engaging on the substance of the issue,” Peacock said.

Rice, on the other hand, said his arena position has been clear.

“I am a strong ‘No’ on arena with taxpayers’ money. If the developers wish to take on that risk themselves, I am all for that,” Rice said. “I am an electrician whose bread and butter is building and rebuilding things. So, please, bring us all of the building stuff, just not funded by the taxpayers — not at $220 million. That’s just a few million shy of our General Fund annual budget.”

Now, the two men are squaring off in Norman’s latest hyper-local litmus test of local representation: An architect incumbent running in a new ward vs. a union electrician whose experience volunteering with the homeless motivated him to seek office.

“Please come out and vote,” Rice said. “It’s the Tuesday after Easter. I know we’ve been voting a lot and we’ve got some voter fatigue.”

Norman Ward 2 extends south from Robinson Street to the city’s southern limit between Interstate 35 on the west and Berry Road on the east.

Peacock denounces negative mailer, Rice calls it ‘ridiculous’

For Norman Ward 2 voters hoping to hear from their candidates in a mano-a-mano public format, that won’t happen before the April 2 election.

Peacock declined to participate in a debate proposed by NonDoc and The Norman Transcript, citing “several project deadlines,” familial responsibilities and “very limited time to knock doors before the election.”

Rice committed to attend a debate and answer questions publicly about issues facing the city.

“That’s a shame,” Rice said. “I was really looking forward to an actual debate. He is avoiding being pressed on the arena issue.”

Rice also agreed to a phone interview regarding his priorities.

“Working on the homelessness issue [and establishing] a 24-hour shelter is the main goal. Adding to the transportation in town is another goal,” Rice said. “We need more beds and we need more case managers. Those are the things that solve homelessness. (…) Every human is unique, so a case manager is trained to know how to help folks.”

Peacock agreed to answer questions by text message about his goals, citing “continuing to invest in policies that promote housing affordability” as his top priority.

Primary results

Norman Ward 2 voters advanced Russell Rice (32.7 percent) and Matt Peacock (25.7 percent) to the April 2 general election after they topped Jeff Dismukes (25.3 percent) and Aleisha Karjala (17.5 percent) on Feb. 13.

“This has been one of my biggest priorities as a council member for the past four years, and it’s something that Norman is currently being recognized nationally for these efforts,” Peacock said. “A lack of housing options has had negative impacts across the board, the biggest of which is the unhoused crisis. Instead of just focusing on how to pull people out of the river, we need to be going upstream to find out why they keep falling in in the first place.”

On housing and homelessness, both men seem to agree more than they disagree, and they talked about the topic on occasion before the election cycle pitted them as opponents.

“I feel as though we share that same desire to help the unhoused and so there isn’t much difference there,” Peacock said.

Rice, however, believes his personal experiences give him a better grasp of the issues and their impacts. After a workplace injury three years ago, Rice had to “relearn how to walk.” Unable to work, he began delivering meals to homeless individuals to steady his mind. Eventually, he granted one man’s persistent requests for a ride to mental health services, and the experience flipped a light switch for him.

“We just kept taking people here and there and sitting through the processes,” Rice recalled. “I learned that [the processes] weren’t perfect and that whenever I was there and whenever other people went with the vulnerable folks to these services, things happened quicker and better and easier.”

The experience led Rice and others to form Norman Care-A-Vans, a nonprofit that offers free, on-demand shuttle services for Norman’s unhoused community.

“I learned there is more work to be done,” Rice said. “We need more systems of care. We have to do something to be able to better support these folks.”

Peacock agreed that homelessness is “by far the most talked about subject” when he meets with potential voters. He expressed support for investing in affordable housing, mental health services, addiction treatment options and job training programs.

“These not only address the root causes of homelessness but also fosters long-term stability and resilience in our communities, with the hopes of finding a lasting solution and not just focusing on the symptoms,” Peacock said. “By prioritizing preventive measures, we can create a more compassionate and sustainable approach that offers individuals the support they need to succeed and work their way out of homelessness.”

Late last week, a third party sent some potential voters a negative mail piece criticizing Rice as pushing “city-killing policies” that “will send businesses fleeing Norman and drive property values down.” The mailer warns of “free drug supplies” and asks whether voters “want Norman to be the next urban wasteland like San Francisco, Portland, Seattle or Washington, D.C.”

Posting in the Facebook group for Norman Ward 2, Rice called the mailer “ridiculous.”

“It contained false information and tried to make an insult out of a partnership with a state agency I helped negotiate,” Rice wrote.

Peacock posted about the mailer in the Facebook group one day prior to Rice, saying he had yet to see it but asking the sender “to cut it out because that’s not what I stand for.”

“I committed to Russell early in the process that I would not engage in negative campaigning, and I have stayed true to that throughout these past six months,” Peacock wrote. “I would prefer to win based on my own merits, and not at the expense of my opponent.”

In his post, Rice said Ward 2 “won’t be bought by outside dark money,” and he referenced that the address listed on the mailer belongs to Pat McFerron, a political consultant who helped the Unite Norman coalition that attempted to recall liberal council members in 2020 and 2021.

“Instead of reaching out to me, my opponent posted about it. It’s common knowledge whose return address is on that mailer. My opponent is free to reach out to that person and stop the negativity,” Rice said. “I don’t need to hide behind anything or anyone. I’m an open book and you’ll never have to guess where I stand or whose side I’m on.”

Election Day for Norman Ward 2 is set for 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 2. Early voting runs from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 28, and Friday, March 29, at the Cleveland County Election Board, 641 E. Robinson St., Suite 200.

Voters in Norman Public Schools District 4 — which covers the city’s northwest quadrant — will decide their next representative between Dawn Brockman and Scott Christian.