2024 House District 23 Oklahoma Republican candidates Connor Whitham and Derrick Hildebrant. (NonDoc)
Connor Whitham, left, and Derrick Hildebrant, right, are the only two candidates seeking Oklahoma House District 23 in 2024. (NonDoc)

Veteran and pastor Derrick Hildebrant is facing Connor Whitham, a teacher and coach, in the Republican primary for House District 23 that will decide the open seat. Both candidates share a Christian faith and a hobby of running which they will take to a race at the polls.

House Majority Whip Terry O’Donnell (R-Catoosa) is vacating the House District 23 seat owing to term limits. With no other candidates filing for the post, the June 18 election between Hildebrant and Whitham will determine the next representative for House District 23.

A former Catoosa City Council member who retired after a 25-year career in the Oklahoma National Guard to run for the Legislature, Hildebrant said his community is special because its smaller size allows him to know many people.

“I love service to my nation and to my state,” Hildebrant said.

Whitham has spent the last 11 years teaching history and economics and coaching soccer at East Central High School, the same school he graduated from.

“I have given my whole adult life to the next generation of Oklahoma,” Whitham said.

House District 23 covers Verdigris, Catoosa and east Tulsa. Early voting for the June 18 primary is slated for 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 13, and Friday, June 14, at the Oklahoma County Election Board. Early voting is also scheduled from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, June 15.

Both Whitham and Hildebrant participated in a recent candidate forum June 8 sponsored by the Rogers County Republican Party, the Catoosa Chamber of Commerce and Tulsa Ports. Each also agreed to an interview for this article.

Whitham: Higher standards for students

Oklahoma House District 23 candidates Derrick Hildebrant, left, and Connor Whitham, right, participate in a forum Saturday, June 8, 2024, at the Tulsa Port of Catoosa. (Provided)

In an interview, Whitham said he is running for office to improve Oklahoma for future generations.

“I currently have a 1 year old, and I want Oklahoma to be a place where he can thrive,” Whitham said. “I want him to grow up in Oklahoma and be anything he wants to be. If he’s my focus, then that will help all of Oklahoma and all of our next generation to be able to thrive in our state.”

Whitham said he plans to advocate for lowering taxes.

“I’m a firm believer that people are better at spending their money than the government is. One of the big things that has been talked about lately is lowering the income tax,” Whitham said. “The state is doing very well financially. It’s time we find a way to return some of the money to the people. People need that relief, especially with the economy the way it is right now.”

Hildebrant served on the Catoosa City Council from 2015 to 2018 and said in his interview that he plans to take what he learned there to the state Legislature.

“City council is all nonpartisan, and you have to learn how to work together as a team,” Hildebrant said. “Understanding the tax code and how it works is helpful with Oklahoma being one of the only states where our municipalities are funded solely upon sales tax revenue. Going up to the state Legislature and thinking about how lowering taxes affects small cities and towns is important.”

The Catoosa City Council works closely with the Cherokee Nation, which gives Hildebrant experience balancing state laws and tribal laws.

At the panel, the candidates were asked their opinions on the dismissed indictment of O’Donnell, who was charged along with his wife for changing a state law that enabled her to succeed her mother as tag agent and that raised fees that tag agencies can charge. The tag agency ultimately closed while the case lingered, but Attorney General Gentner Drummond assumed control of the charges when he took office in 2023 and dismissed it months later because he said former Attorney General Mike Hunter had targeted O’Donnell.

“I looked into it, I spoke to him and he explained it. I didn’t think what’s in place was wrongdoing or done with ill intent. The tag agency was a causality which is not good for the city,” Whitham said. “It’s disappointing that that happened to him and his family. They’ve been super stewards of Catoosa. I don’t think there was any ill intent or wrongdoing by Mr. O’Donnell in anyway.”

Hildebrant agreed.

“I’ve talked to Rep. O’Donnell throughout this time and really felt that it was a really low attack from the left. I wish the agency was still here,” Hildebrant said. “It was one of the most efficient tag agencies in Rogers County. It was nice to have someone who knew your name and you knew their name.”

During the debate, Whitham said his experience as a public school teacher shapes his perspective on Oklahoma’s education system, which he said needs to have high standards.

“We can offer better for students. We started giving students a 50 even if they don’t turn in work. I kind of understand the heart behind it, but at the same time, I think that’s the wrong thing to teach our kids,” Whitham said.

He said he has noticed declines in student attendance after policies were changed.

“I’m not saying we should punish students, but we need to hold them to a standard. If you’re not at school, then you don’t learn. If you don’t learn, then the state of Oklahoma is going to be in trouble because we’re not going to ave an educated workforce,” Whitham said. “For several years, there was a law that students can only miss 10 percent of classes. I think that law was waived during COVID and it was never reimplemented. We need to do something like that to make sure that our students are attending school.”

Hildebrant said he supports most of the positions Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters has put forward. He said he fully supports parental choice for their children’s educational environments. As the father of seven homeschooled children, Hildebrant said he does not want to add too many additional regulations on the homeschool community.

Whitham said he agrees with Walters’ emphasis on the basics of education.

“We need to focus on our students learning how to read and do math. Our students need the building blocks of education, especially when they’re young, so it becomes easier for them to learn as they get older,” Whitham said. “If you can do the little things right then the big things will come and that’s a good start.”

At the panel, the candidates were asked how they would improve the school-to-workforce pipeline.

Hildebrant said career certifications should be allowed to cross state lines. He also talked about Catoosa’s vocational program, which allows students to begin training in their freshman year of high school so they can go directly to the workforce when they graduate.

Whitham said too much money goes to the administration costs of schools. Instead, he said money should be spent hiring more teachers so that students can have more interactions with teachers to improve the quality of their education.

The candidates were also asked whom they would vote for to be the next speaker of the House. Whitham said he would support speaker-elect Rep. Kyle Hilbert (R-Bristow). Hildebrant said he would support the most conservative leader.

Hildebrant: Constitution over career

Hildebrant said he would co-sponsor a piece of legislation to alter the selection process for the Oklahoma Supreme Court justices, a proposal that failed in the House this year.

“Instead of our current system through the Judicial Nominating Commission, I would like to mirror more of the constitutional system that works at the federal level where the top executive gets to nominate the justices and then they’re confirmed by the Senate,” Hildebrant said.

Another issue Hildebrant said is important is infrastructure, specifically the revitalization of Route 66. Hildebrant said he wants to work with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to finish underdeveloped exits from the turnpike and Interstate 44 to ensure highway routes run through all cities in District 23.

Whitham said the Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police endorsed him because of his police initiatives.

“We need to fund the police properly, make sure their pensions are taken care of and that we’re doing things to recruit officers. A lot of times the police academies are not full so they’re not getting as many officers as they need,” Whitham said. “We need to do something as a state to attract police officers because without them, then our communities are not safe.”

In his interview, Hildebrant said his values have been proven over time, which separates him from Whitham.

“My opponent is a good man. We both present ourselves as constitutional conservatives. I’ve spent over 25 years in the Oklahoma Air National Guard protecting and defending our Constitution, our conservative way of life and our Oklahoma way of life,” Hildebrant said.

Hildebrant said he experienced his values being tested after the Department of Defense issued a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

“That was a point I was tested on my First Amendment right of religious expression, and I stood up for that. I submitted a religious accommodation request, which was denied twice,” Hildebrant said. “I was willing to put my career on the line because the Constitution means that much to me. If the United States Congress had not rescinded the mandate, I would have lost my career.”

Whitham said his desire to do what is best for Oklahoma is a reason to vote for him.

“I have no political aspirations. This is not a thing I ever thought I would do. I’m doing this because I think it’s the right thing to do for our future,” Whitham said. “I’m not trying to get famous. I’m not trying to turn this into a higher office. I am just doing this because I want what’s best for Oklahoma.”