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  •   Throwing a Curveball At Okla. Democrats

    Daryl Roberts (left) delivers a campaign speech while Walt Roberts, his rival for Oklahoma's 3rd District seat, listens. (Michael Wyke / The Post)
    By Lois Romano
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, June 20, 1998; Page A06

    Tornadoes are touching down not 30 miles away and the sky is turning ominously black, but on this steamy night in Oklahoma's sprawling 3rd District, the Democratic candidates for Congress have much bigger troubles ahead.

    Just hours before they head into an ice cream social at a local ranch here, they received word: Wes Watkins is back. They thought the district's Republican incumbent was retiring, laid up by major brain and spinal surgery. But he was roused from his sick bed by the blandishments of Republican leaders in Washington who are dead serious about this season's political mantra: every seat counts.

    "Wes Watkins got back in the race because he's more concerned with keeping Newt Gingrich in the speaker's chair than representing the district," declared Democratic candidate Walt Roberts, who, as a champion fiddler and auctioneer, was also the entertainment this evening. "I plan to show Wes for what he is come November."

    And how will Roberts deal with his three primary opponents in the meantime? "I am going to ignore them," he said.

    That just about summarizes the strategy of the leading Democratic contenders here, who in a matter of days went from waging an intense but low-cost intramural battle with no Republican opponent to big-time, expensive politics.

    The fight for the soul of the 3rd District is poised to become one of the more important – and vicious – races in the country as Democrats attempt to win back the House in November. For one, both parties are waging a war over the long-term future of the seat. This overwhelmingly Democratic and poor agricultural area was represented for 30 years by House Speaker Carl Albert, a Democrat, and by all accounts it should still be in Democratic hands.

    Watkins himself represented the district as a Democrat for 14 years, before leaving the House to run, unsuccessfully, for governor in 1990. In 1996, with the promise of a seat on the influential Ways and Means Committee, Watkins switched parties and won back his old seat, becoming the first Republican ever elected in the district. Republicans now hope that by convincing Watkins to run again, they have a shot at shifting long-ingrained voting patterns.

    "He's probably the only Republican who could win that district today; it would have been a very hard seat for us to hold on to," said Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "He will train them to vote Republican in due course."

    Candidate Bill Anoatubby (D) checks out at the crowd during a rally. (Michael Wyke / The Post)
    In addition, the stakes are enormously high for state Democrats, who have no congressional representation in Washington. "We feel the consequences in terms of federal appointments, national fund-raising and the policy initiatives we care about," said Pat Hall, state party executive director. "Who do you go to?"

    In the end, both sides agree that the race will come down to whomever voters believe can do more to bolster economic development, create jobs and improve vocational and public education. Some of the poorer counties in the district have unemployment rates hovering around 8 percent.

    Watkins long has been committed to rural economic development, and has the incumbent's advantage of being in a position to get things done. The legislator indicated that his strategy will be similar to that of 1996: to assure voters that he's the "same Wes" who has been representing them for years. "I have a very close personal relationship with the people of the Third," he said. "They know me as Wes, not as a partisan candidate."

    Democrats aim to prove the opposite: that Watkins is no longer in sync with the district but instead is an opportunist and active supporter of the Republican agenda. Said Hall: "The key for us is to demonstrate that he is not the same Wes – that he lied – and that he's voting with Newt 97 percent of the time on issues that are not helping his constituents."

    Zona Mullinax, a factory worker and union official, said that for her it's all about jobs. "We need better jobs and better pay so that we can establish a strong tax base to help the district," she said. "I don't believe Wes is the one to do it anymore."

    Still, even in a district known as "Little Dixie," where Democrats outnumber Republicans 4 to 1, making the GOP the issue may be easier said than done.

    In this vast southeastern quadrant of the state, there is no major broadcast market to effectively get out the message. To make any kind of television impact here, a candidate must buy time in four markets spanning three states, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. Watkins reentered the race with two critical advantages: enormous name recognition and money. He has $575,000 in campaign funds, nearly three times as much as the richest Democrat, and promises of major help from the national Republicans.

    Without comparable funds, candidates must rely on grass-roots efforts and a lot of driving. It takes five hours to cross the district nonstop. Democratic candidates find themselves driving hours to attend a yard party such as the one here for 50 or 60 people, then rushing 50 miles south to reach another event the same evening. "They'll let me speak in Sulphur if I get there by 8," explained Darryl Roberts, another leading candidate who is no relation to Walt. "There are 2,000 people there."

    Walt Roberts (D) plays a number with the band at a Tecumseh, Okla., rally. (Michael Wyke / The Post)
    Walt Roberts, 35, began assembling a grass-roots organization last winter to challenge Watkins. State party officials say that at this juncture the nomination appears to be his to lose. Roberts is leading the pack in fund-raising, with more than $200,000, and has wrapped up the endorsement of the state AFL-CIO as well as the 19 of the district's 21 Democratic county chairs. He's also single and quite colorful. After playing his fiddle the other night, he got back up on the flatbed and auctioned a couple of dozen homemade pies.

    A former state senator, Roberts has taken some heat for accepting a job in the private sector in Texas before completing his senate term in 1992. He said he did so to prevent his parents from facing "financial ruin" over a large cattle debt. However, this hasn't stopped his opponents from casually referring to him as "AWOL," or assuring voters that they would stay on the job if elected.

    Within weeks of Watkins's short-lived retirement announcement, the field crowded up a bit heading into the Aug. 25 primary. Among the newcomers was Darryl Roberts, 53, who ran unsuccessfully against Watkins in 1996, but garnered a respectable 45 percent of the vote. He is a pro-education state senator and Vietnam veteran, and has the endorsement of the state's largest education lobby. He is considered a serious player but there is some concern that Darryl Roberts did not carry his home county in the 1996 congressional race. As Walt Roberts points out: "Why, his own neighbors didn't even vote for him."

    The third Democrat is Bill Anoatubby, 52, governor of the Chickasaw Nation, which employs 1,500 people and has a budget of more than $100 million. Anoatubby is putting himself out as the most conservative of the lot, and a viable alternative to Watkins for those who would prefer to vote for a Democrat. He even contributed $250 to Watkins in March.

    Anoatubby initially was concerned that 3rd District voters would hesitate to vote for a Native American, because as one aide bluntly put it: "There is a huge Bubba factor down here." However, political observers believe his ethnicity could be an asset because the district is headquarters to three major tribes, the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole.

    His presence in the race could attract the Indian vote – 10 percent of the electorate and enough to get Anoatubby into a runoff – in a tight primary. On Thursday, Wilma Mankiller, the highly respected former Cherokee chief, endorsed him.

    The fourth Democrat is a little-known college professor, Tony Litherland, who as yet has not attracted significant attention or support.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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