By JOSH NEWTON
Candidates for state and federal offices stumped before a full house Tuesday evening at the Tahlequah Armory Municipal Center.
Participating candidates included those for Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional District, Republican Markwayne Mullin and Democrat Rob Wallace; those for Oklahoma House District 86, Republican Russell Turner and incumbent Will Fourkiller, a democrat; Republican Barney Taylor, who is seeking to unseat Sen. Earl Garrison, a democrat for District 9; and Democrat Jim Bynum, who challenges Republican Wayne Shaw for Oklahoma Senate District 3.
Garrison was unable to attend the forum, according to Kelly, though he did provide written responses to questions before the forum; and Shaw declined to participate in both the written questions and the forum.
Candidates were provided with nine questions approved by the Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce, the Cherokee County Republican Party, and the Cherokee County Democratic Party. Two questions were taken from the audience and presented to all six candidates in attendance.
Questions for Wallace and Mullin became heated at times when Wallace began to prod Mullin, a Westville businessman, on whether he is certain he doesn’t employ illegal immigrants or convicted felons. Wallace targeted Mullin during questions related to Social Security, Medicare, taxes, and health care.
“We should live a life on principals, and one of the principals my mother taught me was when you make a promise, you keep a promise,” said Wallace. “Social Security and Medicare are promises that this government has made to our seniors. We have seen them for years now pay into the system, not buying an entitlement but buying an insurance policy that will help them in retirement.”
Wallace said Social Security and Medicare are both insurance policies.
“We need to make sure that we keep our promises to our seniors,” said Wallace. “I’m against privatization of Social Security, I’m against voucherization of Medicare. It’s disturbing to me that we live in a part of the country where we have a lot of folks who are here illegally, and I’m concerned about what the impact of their presence has on those programs.”
Wallace then asked Mullin if he could “100 percent guarantee us tonight that there are not illegal aliens working in your business?”
Mullin said it was “without question” that all of his business’ employees are legal citizens of the U.S. He said he conducts background checks, and all employees are required to have state-issued licenses.
“They pay taxes, I pay taxes on them. Easy enough,” said Mullin. “That doesn’t make any difference at this point. We’re here to answer a question about Social Security and Medicare.”
Mullin said when someone pays into a system, they expect a return.
“Our government made a promise, and they want to come back on a promise,” said Mullin. “I would walk through fire, I’d walk through high water, I’d break my back and my bank before I would break a promise to somebody.”
Candidates were later asked to explain how cutting taxes spurs growth.
Wallace said he doesn’t believe taxes need to be raised because of the current economic climate, but he later said he’d seen people who take advantage of “the system” in ways that injure others. Wallace said leaders need to be sure they are securing the borders and securing communities, and asked Mullin whether he could guarantee his business employs no convicted felons. He asked the question a second time after candidates were asked whether a congressional effort to reduce spending will impact Oklahoma, and a third time when asked whether it’s possible to be “pro-life and deprive people of health care.”
The moderator had to ask the audience to silence their boos each time Wallace questioned Mullin.
“Well, obviously one of us is more interested in deflecting the answers than actually answering the questions,” Mullin said.
Mullin said he understands debt and knows the tough decisions that have to be made when facing cuts. But he said the government must prioritize.
“As Americans, we invest back in this country, we invest back into our employees, we invest back into our companies, back into our land,” said Mullin. “So you’re going to tell me that the government is going to be able to keep our money and they’re going to know how to spend it better? I don’t buy that argument. They’re irresponsible in what they have because they have one agenda, and that’s to get re-elected year after year, because politics is their career.”
In response to the health-care question, Mullin, like Wallace, said he is “pro-life.”
All candidates were asked, by an audience member, whether they believe a state comprehensive water plan adequately accounts for the value of Oklahoma’s water. Turner, Taylor, Mullin, Wallace, Bynum and Fourkiller all said they believe water is an important resource.
Turner said the state needs to use its water wisely and the protect it, and Bynum said he doesn’t support the state water plan but instead would like to see regional water plans throughout the Oklahoma.
Taylor said the state needs to look at better ways of “doing things” and getting revenue to smaller communities who may face issues when they don’t have the money to pay for upgrades to water and sewer lines in the future.
Wallace said the state plan doesn’t account for non-consumptive use of water, which he said creates jobs for the state and is “by far the greatest value” in that water.
“The comprehensive water plan, in determining whether there is excess water available for sale to other entities ... that plan says that consumptive use is the only economic consideration in the process,” said Wallace. “I would submit to you that if you drive around Tenkiller, you drive around Grand Lake, Fort Gibson, or any of the lakes in this part of the country, what you find are businesses that are dependent upon those bodies of water.”
Mullin said politicians shouldn’t be involved in deciding state water issues.
“For some reason, politicians try to get involved in something that’s our resource,” said Mullin. “Oklahoma is blessed with natural resources. We can take care of ourselves, and that’s our first priority. We understand the value of our water, and we enjoy it, and the way we get to enjoy it is our business, not someone in elected office trying to dictate that to us.”
Attendees also asked candidates how they would tackle gridlock in the political system and “get something done.”
Turner said gridlock can be, at times, a good thing.
“[But] we’ve got to be able to articulate our beliefs,” said Turner.
Fourkiller said he isn’t afraid to “step out across the aisle,” and said his goal is to do what’s right for his district while at the same time keeping in mind that it will affect the entire state.
Taylor said there’s a time and place for partisanship.
“I’m not going up there to make friends, but I’m not going up there to make enemies, either,” said Taylor.
Bynum said it’s important to consider ideology versus idealism.
“I am an idealist,” said Bynum. “We need smart government, not small government. There’s too much ideology going on in the parties. I believe we should do what’s best for the people of Oklahoma.”
Wallace said it appears partisanship is “the most important thing” in Washington, D.C.
“It’s more important to fight political battles, to score political points up there than it is to find solutions for people like you,” said Wallace. “People are sick to death of ‘R’ and ‘D’ and republican and democrat and blue and red. People want strong voices that share their experience, who will take their experience to Washington.”
Mullin said it’s important for elected leaders to put America’s interests first.
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