Gwen Freeman’s resume touts her experience as a radio host, interior designer, marketing expert and country music singer. It doesn’t list any experience in politics. So how did she become Tulsa County’s newest election board secretary?
Other than a longtime interest in politics, Freeman said she knows she lacks experience and knowledge about her new role.
“But I’m a quick learner,” she told The Frontier on Friday. “State election board officials informed me I would be well trained, well equipped, and well backed. They said any questions that came up, they would have my back.”
Freeman is set to replace Patty Bryant on May 1 after Bryant informed the state election board she did not want to be reappointed when her current term ends. Election board secretaries serve two year terms and are nominated by the state senators of the county where they reside. The state election board then reviews the nomination and eventually chooses whether to make an official appointment.
County election board secretaries are in charge of managing that county’s elections, as well as voting precincts and precinct workers. The Tulsa County Election Board has about 20 full-time employees and, depending on the size of the election, can have more than 100 part-time workers at polling places spread around the county.
Since the position is not up for a public vote, it has historically been a patronage position across the state, Oklahoma Election Board Public Information Officer Bryan Dean said.
“It has been that way for 100 years,” he said. “You can make your judgments based on that, but it is the way it has been for forever.”
Circuitous route to Freeman
Freeman’s appointment came as a surprise to many, considering she had been away from Tulsa for nearly a decade.
A well-known local radio host for years, Freeman first worked at KRAV from 1999 to 2002 before spending six years at conservative radio station KFAQ as a morning show host. She left that station following a dispute, and spent four years hosting a midday show on WWTN in Nashville.
How does one go from the radio to the election board? Freeman said Sen. Dan Newberry called her and asked her if she might be interested. Freeman said she and Newberry, a District 37 Republican, have been friends since well before the former was in politics.
“He said the job was coming open and asked if I would be interested,” Freeman said.
She said she was technically residing in a small Texas town with her daughter at the time Newberry asked her about the job, but had been in Tulsa living at a friend’s house while involved in an interior design project. Freeman’s resume touts her experience as an interior designer for more than 25 years.
“It had always been my desire to return to Tulsa,” she said.
Freeman ultimately submitted two resumes to the the state election board. The first, she said, was more of a “radio station resume” that touted her radio experience, as well as time spent in marketing for a Suzuki dealership and her stint as lead singer for a country band.
State election board officials said they received a second more conventional resume from Freeman on Friday.
Voter registration records show Freeman registered to vote in Tulsa County on March 28 at an address near 81st Street and South Mingo Road. The address belongs to a longtime friend, Freeman said, noting she has since secured a rental property in Tulsa.
Freeman’s sudden appointment may have been a surprise, but in many ways it closely resembled the appointment of her predecessor.
Patty Bryant was a realtor when she was appointed election board secretary in 2007. Bryant’s appointment made her the “first Republican in recent memory” to be named Tulsa County Election Board secretary, according to a 2007 Tulsa World story.
Bryant told the newspaper that former Sen. James Williamson had called her to gauge her interest.
Despite eventually accepting the job, Bryant said her initial response was “But I can’t do this,” according to the newspaper story. Bryant recently told the Tulsa World she was returning to real estate when her time at the election board ends later this month.
Bryant’s political background stemmed from years of being married to Rep. John Bryant, who is since deceased, while Freeman’s is related to her time as a radio host covering political matters.
“When I was on the air, the focus … was civic involvement, “ Freeman said. “When you’re in politics one of the best things you can do is encourage people to join the process and vote. So from that standpoint, (the job) interested me, because in this position I would be able to encourage people to join the process.”
Still, she does lack experience, something she’s open about.
“I know there will be a learning curve,” she said. “It’s a job with a lot of rules a lot of regulations. Making sure it operates with integrity, transparency, and efficiency is important to me.”
It’s yet unclear what Freeman’s salary as election board secretary will be. State statutes place secretary salaries in a tiered structure — counties with more than 150,001 registered voters (which includes just Oklahoma and Tulsa counties) are paid $58,845.15 per year. Salaries go as low as $22,667.69 in counties with fewer than 10,000 registered voters.
Those salaries are paid by the county, but are reimbursed by the state. However, for the past few years Bryant has also received additional salary from Tulsa County. County Clerk Michael Willis said Bryant had worked to restructure the election board and was given additional money to place her at the same salary level as a division head — about $90,000 a year.
Freeman’s personnel action sheet — which will determine how much she is paid — has not yet gone before county commissioners. Commissioners indicated on Friday that while nothing was set in stone yet, it was unlikely the county would immediately pay any of Freeman’s additional salary.
Correction: This story incorrectly listed the salary of election board secretaries. It has since been corrected.