To hear former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson tell it, the state is at a precipice, or as he calls it — a “watershed year.”
“We’ve gone downhill the last seven years, going on eight,” Edmondson said, referring to Gov. Mary Fallin’s two terms in office. “If we get four or eight more years of these policies, we may dig a hole so deep we can’t get out.”
Edmondson is, depending on how you look at it, tasked with a tall order. A Democrat, the former state AG would typically be considered a longshot in what is a predominately Republican state. But fueled by repeated budget issues, low education rankings, high incarceration and, possibly, unease at the 2016 election of Donald Trump, momentum in the state has swung to Democrats in recent special elections.
Leaving Edmondson in position to pounce on that energy.
“The momentum is a very real, palpable thing that I have felt all over the state in my travels,” Edmondson told The Frontier in a recent interview. “There’s an energy I have not seen in an awfully long time.”
Edmondson said the momentum extends even beyond counties where one might expect more Democrat turnout.
“I’m not just talking about traditional democratic counties,” he said. “I’m talking about some that are traditionally red. Democrats are turning out in numbers I haven’t seen in a while.
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it stays that way.”
But first he must reach November’s general election, a feat that eluded him the last time he ran for governor.
In 2010, polling showed Edmondson comfortably ahead of Jari Askins, his primary opponent, and he appeared primed for a showdown later that year with Fallin.
So it surprised many when Askins edged Edmondson out by fewer than 1,500 votes (slightly more than one-half percent.) From there the story is well known, Askins was swamped by Fallin in the general election as Republican voters turned out in droves.
This time around, polling again shows Edmondson with a comfortable, albeit early, lead on his primary opponent, former state senator Connie Johnson. In a recent Soonerpoll, 40 percent of Democrats polled said they favored Edmondson, to only 21 percent who chose Johnson.
The biggest takeaway from the poll, however, is that 35 percent of respondents were unsure — a number that showed the race could still swing either way.
So what separates Edmondson and Johnson? The medical marijuana state question will be on the same ballot as the governor primaries, and both Johnson — a longtime pro-marijuana advocate — and Edmondson have come out in favor of the proposal. Both have mentioned raising the gross production tax and shifting away the state’s reliance on the oil and gas industry.
“I talk about what I advocate for and what I’ve accomplished as a public servant,” Edmondson said. “That record is pretty compelling. Everyone can say ‘I’m for this, and for that,’ but to point to death penalty appeals, the tobacco settlement, the Illinois River Lawsuit, what we’ve done for victims of domestic violence, those are very real accomplishments.”
In a media release earlier this month, Edmondson said he hoped to one day not just raise the state’s gross production tax, but to shift the money raised through it to a capital improvement fund and away from the state’s budget entirely. He had previously said that, as governor, should the Legislature not increase the GPT, he would let Oklahomans vote on the issue.
But with Oklahoma legislators facing a seemingly annual budget crisis, how would he fill the hole created by shifting the GPT away?
Edmondson told The Frontier he supported a $1.50 cigarette tax — “For public health if nothing else” — which would raise “a lot of money,” as well as tax credits and tax incentives that “have outlived their useful life.”
“A prime example is the capital gains tax credit that was supposed to spur development and jobs,” he said.
Critics have said that particular tax credit offers no benefit to Oklahoma’s middle class, and instead keeps money out of the state’s coffers. In 2017 Oklahoma Policy Institute called for the credit to be repealed, and Former State Treasurer Scott Meacham, who helped the tax break pass under former Gov. Brad Henry, has since said it would make sense to possibly “recalibrate” or even consider eliminating it.
Edmondson said not only would he end the tax credit, he would seek to end the commission that has favored keeping it.
“They said yes, it’s created jobs and $20-$30 million in economic development,” he said. “But it cost us $400 million in revenue, but the commission recommended we keep it. Doesn’t make sense to me … it doesn’t equate.”
He also said that if possible he would opt in to Medicaid expansion, an Obama-era policy that extended Medicaid eligibility to nearly all low-income individuals significantly under the poverty line. Fallin declined to be involved in the expansion when it was offered to Oklahoma.
But for now his focus is on convincing voters of two things — that Oklahoma is in bad — but fixable — shape, and that he’s the person to right the ship.
“We’re very fortunate that the problems in this state were man-made,” he said. “These are man-made decisions. If it’s man-made, it can be fixed.”