When Tulsa County voters head to the polls next month, they’ll once again see incumbent Republican Vic Regalado and Democratic nominee Rex Berry running for sheriff.
Regalado emerged quickly this year from a crowded Republican field to win his party’s primary during a special election in April. He carried that majority through another primary election months later, defeating two-time challenger Luke Sherman to win the Republican nod once again.
Berry, on the other hand, did not face a serious challenge during the two primaries. Though he gave Regalado a contest in the special election last summer — and he has a resume worthy of running sheriff — Berry essentially had to be recruited by the Tulsa County Democratic Party to run for election in the first place.
That’s because Tulsa County is primarily owned by Republican voters. The latest registration data from the Oklahoma Election Board shows 176,736 county residents have registered to vote Republican, compared to 121,243 who’ve registered as Democrats.
The former sheriff, Republican Stanley Glanz, served mostly unopposed for nearly three decades.
In the two primary elections, it seemed at times as though Sherman had as much Democratic support as Berry, but due to the partisan nature of the primaries, Democrats couldn’t vote for the Republican TPD officer.
Regalado told The Frontier this week that though he believes “there are pros and cons” to both partisan and non-partisan elections, he would abide by a change if it was supported by the public. Berry told The Frontier that he was in favor of non-partisan county elections, because “too many good folks and ideas are lost to the simple R and D label.”
So why do county races remain partisan? In part because of Glanz. In 2015, democratic state representative Donnie Condit authored a bill that would have made the primaries non-partisan. Condit argued that law enforcement positions, such as sheriff or district attorney, should not be guided by party politics.
In 2015, Democratic state representative Donnie Condit authored a bill that would have made the primaries non-partisan. Condit argued that law enforcement positions, such as sheriff or district attorney, should not be guided by party politics.
“I firmly believe that it should not matter what political party a sheriff or district attorney belongs to,” Condit told The Frontier this week.
The proposal made it out of committee but was opposed by the Oklahoma GOP and by Glanz, who was represented at the hearing by his undersheriff, Tim Albin.
Albin, who spoke for Glanz, was quoted in a Tulsa World story as saying: “If you look at the direction that law enforcement has taken under the current (U.S.) attorney general, I think if a candidate for sheriff had a ‘D’ beside his name, I’d have to look elsewhere. If you look at the platforms of the two parties and how they manage their business, you’ll see a very clear difference.”
Albin resigned amid controversy after records showed he helped former Tulsa County Reserve Deputy Robert Bates maintain his status at TCSO despite his lack of training. Bates was charged and convicted of second-degree manslaughter for killing a man during a botched gun sting.
Glanz was indicted and convicted of two misdemeanor crimes, including one for attempting to hide records relating to Bates’ time at the sheriff’s office.
The OKGOP was also vehemently against the bill, with its chairman, Dave Weston, telling The Okie, “This may seem harmless on the surface, however making sheriffs’ elections non-partisan withholds valuable information from voters. Given the nature of public safety and on-going debates about gun rights, voters have a right to assess the issue positions any candidate for sheriff holds before entrusting them with their duties.”
Condit said when he filed the bill that would make sheriff elections non-partisan, “I thought people would go for it, that they were ready.”
“Now, I don’t know. Maybe 20-30 years from now it will happen. There was enough pushback, you know, when one party gets in charge they don’t want to give it up. I’m sure the same would be true if the sheriffs were all democrats too.”
The southeastern part of the state, known as Little Dixie, has its roots in the Indian removal, according to a 2015 KGOU story.
“All five major tribes side(d) with the Confederacy during the Civil War,” Logan Layden wrote. “Their ties to the south would help shape Oklahoma’s view of the federal government through statehood, and beyond.”
One side effect of the partisan nature of sheriff races has played out in those leftover “dixiecrat” counties. Considering the conservative nature of the state (Oklahoma was the only state in the 2012 presidential election to have every county vote for the republican candidate,) residents may be surprised to know that 40 of the state’s 77 counties have more registered democrats than republicans.
Which means that to be elected in one of those counties, you often need to be a democrat, no matter what your personal beliefs are.
In Muskogee County, where there are nearly twice as many democrats (21,735) as there are republicans (11,360,) Charles Pearson spent 16 years as a democratic sheriff despite leaning politically to the right.
And that meant that when a real challenger emerged in the form of Muskogee Police Officer Rob Frazier (Frazier defeated Pearson in the primary election last summer,) he had to be a democrat too.
“In this area, it’s predominately democrat,” Frazier, who will face republican candidate Roger Posey in November, said. “You grow up being a democrat, but that doesn’t mean that’s what your views are. I’m conservative. I definitely believe in things like protecting the right to bear arms, but I’ve been a democrat my whole life.”
For Kelly Beach, the secretary of the Muskogee County Election Board, it wasn’t until he graduated from college that he registered as a republican.
“It was just a decision I had to make,” he said. “In this county you basically have to be a democrat to vote in the primaries, but for me it was a matter of what platform I aligned with that was most important to me.
“The typical Oklahoma democrat is not what you would see on a national level.”
Beach said that despite being in charge of the election board, his status as a republican has meant that many county seats have been chosen without him casting a single vote.
“I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to vote in a county primary election in Muskogee County,” Beach said. “In fact, there’s only been a couple of times I’ve been able to vote in the general election.”