CHANDLER — Speaking to a small group of cattle ranchers and retirees gathered in a library meeting room, Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate Kevin Stitt fielded questions about everything from job creation to medical marijuana on a recent January morning.
Stitt, CEO and founder of Gateway Mortgage Group, was wrapping up a four-county tour of rural Western Oklahoma. By the end of January, Stitt says he will have already made campaign stops in all of Oklahoma’s 77 counties.
In Chandler, one man complained that the nearby school district of Davenport has switched to a four-day week to save money. A woman said she was concerned that people on food stamps like herself weren’t being properly vetted by the state after the local Oklahoma Department of Human Services office consolidated with another county, also a cost-saving move.
Stitt is running for governor on the not-so novel promise to run the state as a political outsider—more like a for-profit company.
“I don’t think the guys who got us into this mess can get us out of it,” Stitt said.
Although business friendly, “pro-growth” policies have been Gov. Mary Fallin’s hallmark over the past eight years, Stitt says he will place even more of an effort on job creation in Oklahoma.
“I think there is tremendous opportunity to get our economy growing over the next 10 years,” Stitt told voters in Chandler.
Jim Swafford, a farmer and cattle rancher from Chandler who came out to meet Stitt said he wasn’t totally sold, but would keep an open mind.
“I would like to see him react more on how he going to straighten things out — we have a lot of problems and what’s going to be his game plan,” Swafford said. “At least he’s not a politician and maybe that’s what we need.”
Carissa Menefee came to hear Stitt speak in Chandler because the state’s ongoing budget problems have made her more politically aware over the past year.
“I like that he’s a businessman and not a politician,” she said.
Menefee said she’s frustrated with Oklahoma’s seemingly endless budget crisis and cuts to mental health programs in the state.
She’s emailed her state and federal lawmakers about her concerns, but said she only received one or two responses.
“I was very upset about that,” Menefee said.
The role of political outsider has so far played well for Stitt.
He has already amassed more than $800,000 from about 500 individual donors, and added another $800,000 of his own money to his campaign war chest, according to disclosure statements from the third quarter of 2017. He’s so far outraised nearest Republican competitor Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb by about $200,000.
Stitt’s employees and their spouses, some from Texas and New Jersey, made up about 10 percent of donors, contributing about $109,000 to his campaign.
Gateway is one of the largest private mortgage lenders in the country and about 1,100 employees spread across 40 states.
Stitt says he has already stepped away somewhat from leading Gateway — he now goes into the office only once a month. If elected, Stitt says he will distance himself from the business even further and ask the Oklahoma Attorney General for an opinion on whether his business holdings are a conflict interest.
Entertainer Toby Keith and wife Tricia Covel also are among Stitt’s donors, each contributing the maximum $2,700.
Stitt said he was inspired to run for office after seeing how Oklahoma compares to other states while traveling for his business.
“I see all of this momentum in these other states that we are missing out on. We are not growing like we should. We don’t have the education system like we should,” Stitt said. “I look at who else is running and nothing is going to change if we keep hiring the same people.”