Last week, I was commenting to friends about how clean a race Markwayne Mullin and Jason Nichols had run for District 2 Congress. I spoke too soon.
Last week, we endorsed Jason. We could have played it safe, especially after a Mullin supporter told us the congressman had it in for us, and it would get worse after the election. There's not much he can do except bad-mouth the paper, and we already know he doesn't think much of us, since he doesn't talk to us personally, though his communications director usually responds. His campaign hasn't - until Friday, that is.
The first few years Markwayne was in office, we wrote complimentary editorials. His down-home approach was commendable, and he seemed forthright. We had a good working relationship with his staff, although he began to have turnover. When people left, they would call and tell us we were about to get another contact. One said: "He's a really nice guy, but he doesn't listen to other opinions." That sounds like someone else, except the "someone else" isn't all that nice.
TDP staffed every town hall Markwayne held, but the worm turned after he cancelled an event in Tahlequah because the Cherokee Nation would not ban placards held up in protest when Markwayne uttered what audience members believed were misleading statements. So Markwayne refused to appear, and that was front-page news - for every media outlet in the district. It also spurred critical editorials. Markwayne didn't appreciate that, apparently - and who can blame him? He's probably a likeable guy, as his staffers have said. I wouldn't know; I've never met him. I've called him a few times, but never got through, even before the aborted town hall. As far as we know, he's never come by our office.
Even for someone of his status, that's unusual. When Dan Boren was in office, he dropped in every time he was in town. The last time I saw Dan, he had hurt his middle finger putting up signs in Peggs, and had been at the hospital. Dan had blood splattered on his shirt but he showed up, anyway, and he was making some hilarious comments. His PR guy explained Dan had taken a pain pill, and I commented that he should do that more often. Dan did some things I liked, and some I didn't, and I criticized him on a number of occasions. He took it in stride. Years earlier, when the legendary Mike Synar represented District 2, he would come right through the front door, by himself, and stroll into the newsroom. This was when journalists still smoked in the newsroom. One day, he came in and jokingly said as he fanned his face: "Why is it always you women and your cigarettes?" I suggested he leave us alone and stick to smokeless tobacco. He laughed.
Politicians should have thick skins, like Dan and Mike did. Jason does, too; he's never retaliated against us when we've criticized him. But we're used to the attacks. I was sent screen shots of a post from a former local elected official, who claimed on Facebook that Jason has "his head up the editor's *ss." It's ironic that being responsive to the media and constituents would get someone labeled a brown-noser, but not surprising; this former official - and practically every other one - has been in the cross-hairs at one time or another. This particular fellow also tried repeatedly to suppress stories he knew might make him look bad, going through a friend of his who worked here. I recorded one of those attempts.
One of the reasons we decided to endorse Jason was because we know him, like we knew Dan and Mike, and we think he'll do a better job than Markwayne. We know he'll be more responsive and open. Jason's not perfect, but he has the courage of his convictions and won't rubber-stamp the president - a strength we need in a public servant. I personally see Jason as a geek. He likes all things "Star Trek" and is a fellow fan of "Sherlock." But what was crucial to us was that he has always been forthright when we've asked him questions, and we liked his answers to our questionnaires. Jason's responses suggested pragmatism and compassion, and detailed, well-considered positions on key issues. More importantly, he pledged loyalty to his constituents and the Constitution, rather than the president.
Does Markwayne have good ideas? Does he care about his constituents? What are his opinions, really? We don't know, because he didn't answer our questions, and he wouldn't debate his opponents. Sean Rowley writes our political stories, and he seeks comment from the Mullin camp, but we don't usually get answers - or if we do, they're pat, not tailored for TDP's audience. It's not that we think we're important enough to merit special treatment, but we take our role seriously as a conduit of information for Cherokee County - especially for those with no voice, even if they despise us. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker always returns our calls, usually right away. So do NSU President Steve Turner, and Police Chief Nate King, and U.S. Attorney Brian Kuester, and on and on. As far as we're concerned, all these men are just as important as Markwayne.
Political affiliation has nothing to do with how TDP operates. We have Democrats, independents, and Republicans on staff, including one who wears a MAGA hat. We seek comment from all three parties for every political story. If we were choosing candidates based on which party members talk to us most often, we would be begging Justin Kennedy to run for office. He's the leader of NSU's Young Republicans, and he is always willing to talk to us. Libertarian Party Chair Shannon Grimes almost always responds, and former Sen. Jim Wilson has been speaking for the Democrats. The most accessible current officeholder - excluding Jason, who is Tahlequah's mayor - is Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, also a Republican. If anything, TDP gives more ink to the GOP, both because of Justin and Dewayne. We also publish more conservative national columnists than liberal ones, and we print every scrap of copy the Republicans send us.
A couple of local Republicans privately told us they support Jason. A couple of others reacted in a puerile manner, and their attempts to discredit were immediate. A nice young man had brought partial copies of documents to us the previous day, suggesting we erred when we said Jason "apparently has nothing to hide." Then, the Mullin camp went after Jason with a flyer in local mailboxes that was frankly misleading, painting him as someone who refuses to pay his debts. We began looking into it and questioned Jason, and we gathered enough information to stand by our assertion that he isn't hiding anything. That's public record.
It seems Jason and his wife, Jennifer, have been late paying their state income taxes a couple of times since 2006, and on a third occasion, they underpaid by $15.91. By the time the tax commission got around to dunning them, the fees and penalties had racked up to over $2,800. I know how easily this can happen, because it almost happened to me. The IRS thought I'd made a mistake, and wanted us to cough up $9,500 for $3,000 in taxes; based on that, the state was demanding $12,000 on a $138 bill. If it hadn't been for the genius of John Yeutter, who proved I didn't err, we would be bankrupt. This is the same John Yeutter who is running for state auditor, so I know he'll do a good job.
In our editorial on Jason, we didn't mention Markwayne's ethics issues because we thought that was stooping to a low level. But a sense of fair play compels us to point out that if Jason has made a couple of mistakes, so has Markwayne. Jason's wasn't a possible breach of ethics, though - just a couple of oversights on tax bills, with no intent to defraud. Those are paid in full; the flyer's assertion that he still owes is a provable lie. A couple of other people have asked about the tardy tax payments, which Jason explained. It seemed odd to us that at least one of them - and indeed, many prominent people in the community - have appeared on the delinquent property tax rolls we publish. It's amusing, but not criminal; it could happen to anyone, but around these parts, pots make a sport of calling kettles black.
TDP recently revamped our policy on personal columns, which is why readers see ones by Bill John and Steve. It may surprise Markwayne's fans to know that if he's re-elected Tuesday, we will begin publishing his, too, as long as he is open to our questions and uses it to discuss issues and activities rather than self-promote. Of course, he might not want his column to appear in our paper; some folks are petulant that way. But we'll still be here, and in whatever role he may find himself, we will welcome his contributions. Because that's just what we do.