The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Okla. governor mocks Democratic challenger for accurately noting state’s crime rate

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) listens as Joy Hofmeister (D) speaks during a debate in Oklahoma City on Wednesday. (Sarah Phipps/Oklahoman/AP)

In a debate Wednesday night between Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) and his Democratic challenger, Joy Hofmeister, the governor took issue with Hofmeister pointing out — accurately — the state’s violent crime problem.

“So let’s talk about facts: The fact is, the rates of violent crime are higher in Oklahoma under your watch than in New York or California,” said Hofmeister, who is Oklahoma’s superintendent of public instruction. “That’s a fact.”

Stitt interrupted twice to protest that it wasn’t true.

“We’ll have that fact-checked by the Frontier,” said the moderator, Tres Savage of the nonprofit news outlet NonDoc, referring to the routine fact checks conducted by another independent media site.

What was not shown at the debate was that Hofmeister was correct. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oklahoma has a homicide rate of 9 deaths per 100,000, compared with California’s rate of 6.1 and New York’s rate of 4.7.

At the debate, however, Stitt turned and pointed to the audience, mouth agape.

“Hang on, Oklahomans, do you believe we have higher crime than New York or California? That’s what she just said!” he said.

Hofmeister nodded as some in the audience cheered.

“Safety and security is my top priority, and it will be as governor,” she added.

“Thank you very much. Let’s move on to the next question,” the moderator said.

The exchange quickly spread on social media, with many viewers pointing out that a quick fact check would have revealed Hofmeister was accurate. The attention on the debate also highlighted what polls have shown to be a tight race between Hofmeister and Stitt — unusual in a red state that former president Donald Trump won by 33 points in 2020.

But several factors have made the race a competitive one, even in an election year when the party not in power would typically have an advantage. Hofmeister is a former longtime Republican who switched parties last year to challenge Stitt. And Stitt, a member of the Cherokee Nation, also has clashed with the state’s tribal leaders since taking office.

Lisa Billy, formerly Oklahoma secretary of Native American affairs, resigned from Stitt’s Cabinet early in his term, accusing him of mishandling tribal gaming compacts.

“It has become increasingly clear you are committed to an unnecessary conflict that poses a real risk of lasting damage to the State-Tribal relationship and to our economy,” Billy wrote in her 2019 resignation letter, according to the Oklahoman.

“You have dismissed advice and facts that show the peril of your chosen approach and have remained intent on breaking faith with the Tribes, both by refusing to engage with the compact’s language and, more recently, by suggesting you would displace our Tribal partners with private, out-of-state commercial gaming operators,” Billy added.

Those strained relations prompted five of the state’s largest tribes to collectively endorse Hofmeister earlier this month.

“When it comes to working with the tribal nations in Oklahoma, [Hofmeister] understands our sovereignty is not a partisan issue or a threat, but instead is a chance to forge new partnerships while strengthening those that already exist because Oklahomans thrive together when we all work together,” said the leaders of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Muscogee, Choctaw and Seminole Nations.

After the debate Wednesday night, Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. went on Twitter to reprimand Stitt for suggesting he was open to speaking with tribal leaders.

“There has been no invitation to meet with Gov Stitt and there is no meeting scheduled,” Hoskin tweeted. “That Gov Stitt thinks he can command tribal leaders to his office by simply declaring it on live television speaks volumes of why [he has] been a failure at state / tribal relations.”

Stitt also has doubled down on his antiabortion stance, vowing he would make Oklahoma “the most pro-life state in the country.” In May, Stitt signed into law a measure that banned abortions from the moment of “fertilization,” effectively prohibiting almost all abortions in the state.

Abortion has been a galvanizing issue for Democratic voters since the Supreme Court in June overturned Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years guaranteed the right to abortion in the United States. Hofmeister, a lifelong Southern Baptist, has said that she is “personally pro-life” but has vowed to reverse Stitt’s abortion ban because she believes it is a health-care decision between a woman and her doctor.

The Republican Governors Association has intervened to help Stitt in the unusually competitive race, launching a massive ad campaign against Hofmeister this month to try to secure what would ordinarily be a safe GOP office.

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