Local candidates debate issues ahead of upcoming election
By Alanna Bradley
Grading the state on COVID-19 management, whether to strike down abortion and police reform were topics discussed by candidates running for local offices at Monday night’s debate held in Okemah at the Okfuskee County Historical Society. The debate was hosted by the Okemah News Leader.
Candidates featured are running for Okfuskee County Sheriff: Jim Rasmussen and John Woods, State Representative District 24: Logan Phillips and Steve Kouplen, and State Senate District 7: Warren Hamilton and Jerry Donathan.
The State Senate District 7 candidates, Hamilton and Donathan, had differing grades on how they would rate the state’s pandemic response.
Hamilton said overall he is happy with the way state leaders have handled the COVID-19 response, while Donathan said he believes state leaders dropped the ball on tackling an effective and safe pandemic response early.
Hamilton said the reason he would not give the state an ‘A’ is because of the impact the pandemic has had on small businesses. He said too many have closed. He said he also does not agree with schools closing (to in person instruction). He said while he understands the desire to keep people safe, he believes the government has overstepped their role.
“I understand the idea of wanting to keep people safe, but we’ve overstepped our part,” said Hamilton. “I think Governor Stitt has made the right moves, albeit a little bit late, in regards to opening things back up. I’m not trying to minimize the effects from the disease, it’s a serious disease, but I don’t think it’s more serious than the flu,” said Hamilton.
Statewide, districts have made their own decisions concerning in person and virtual schedules, mask mandates, and other COVID-19 precautions.
Donathan graded the state as “average” on their COVID-19 response. He asserted the lag in federal response was mirrored by state leaders which has caused undue crises in Oklahoma.
“I blame a lot of it on our leadership on top. They did not emphasize the seriousness of this disease when they got the information,” said Donathan. “I believe they did it for financial reasons and it’s caused a lot more financial problems (for people).”
Hamilton and Donathan also differed in their views on the legalities of abortion. Hamilton said abortion should be illegal because it is not in line with Christian principals, while Donathan agreed the procedure should not be done without limits, he said he believes it’s important to allow medical professionals the discretion to decide what is appropriate when it comes to protecting the life of the mother.
Okfuskee County Sheriff’s candidates, Rasmussen and Woods, addressed police reform at Monday night’s debate.
Rasmussen says one advantage of smaller communities, like in Okfuskee County, is the ability to know what deputies are dealing with when they come on the scene of a report. This is an advantage he said his team has when compared to the large cities which often see instances of brutality that are reported on the news. It’s the disconnect inside larger communities and cities that often trigger newsworthy cases.
Rasmussen says he is looking into a Crisis Intervention team concept which is a model used in larger cities that allows an officer and a professional, for instance in mental health, to respond on a call together. He said the required training for deputies is 48 hours and is free.
Woods said police reform starts with law enforcement agencies and their representatives treating everyone with respect. He said the office is to serve the public, and while a consequence for some is to go to jail, the role of the office is to serve members of the community in the best way they can.
State Representative District 24 candidates, Phillips and Kouplen, discussed several issues affecting rural Oklahomas. Topics ranged from giving rural Oklahomans access to affordable and quality healthcare, whether or not school districts should consider being consolidated, State Question 814 (which would amend the Oklahoma Constitution to change Oklahoma’s tobacco settlement money distribution to help fund the state’s Medicaid expansion program), to whether or not the state minimum wage should be raised.
On healthcare access, Phillips emphasized the importance of working on programs that keep doctors and health care providers working in rural communities, pushing forward on telemedicine options, and also working to make it easier for veterans to access healthcare closer to home, rather than limiting their options to Oklahoma City or Tulsa.
Kouplen focused on the need to make it more appealing for nurse practitioners to work at sites in rural Oklahoma.
Kouplen said he leaned toward supporting State Question 814, while Phillips said he supports State Question 814 to finance the medicare expansion.
Both candidates agreed that school consolidation should be left up to the rural communities in which they affect. They also agreed that minimum wage issues should be handled on a district level rather than state one.
The debate may be viewed in its entirety on the Okemah News Leader’s Facebook page.