About 12 hours after what had to be a deeply satisfying primary election night, Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler spent Wednesday morning picking up stray election signs.
“You know, you’re looking around and you see all these green trees and then there’s just yard signs everywhere,” Kunzweiler said. “I don’t want anyone else to have to go pull mine up, so I try to pick up a lot of them.”
On Tuesday Kunzweiler survived, at least for a few months, what had become a hotly contested challenge to his district attorney position. Despite being massively outspent — public campaign finance filings showed Kunzweiler spent about $20,000 in his re-election bid, compared to about $54,000 by Ben Fu, his chief challenger — Kunzweiler grabbed nearly 43 percent of the vote and flirted with an outright majority.
Kunzweiler and Fu will now advance to a runoff election on Aug. 28. The winner there will face Democrat Jenny Proehl-Day in November.
Tuesday’s results — Kunzweiler finished more than 10,000 votes ahead of both Fu and fellow Republican Tammy Westcott — seemed contrary, juxtaposed to the most recent State Question votes.
In 2016, Tulsa voters overwhelmingly supported two criminal justice reform measures (State Questions 780 and 781) that overhauled the penalties for some drug and property crimes. And then on Tuesday, nearly 63 percent of Tulsa County voters supported State Question 788, which legalized medical marijuana.
Leading up to the election Fu, while not a supporter of State Questions 780/781, had generally supported criminal justice reform as a topic and had sided against criticizing the upcoming medical marijuana vote. His campaign had focused on data-driven techniques for lowering crime and he certainly appeared to be the most reform-minded Republican in the race.
Meanwhile Kunzweiler, a prosecutor now for nearly three decades, had spoken out against the criminal justice reform measures as well as the medical marijuana state question.
Yet when it came time to vote on the county’s top prosecutor, Kunzweiler established himself as the clear favorite to move on to November’s general election.
“There’s so many emotion elements to the marijuana issue,” Kunzweiler said on Wednesday. “But when it gets down to it, what do people want from their DA? They want someone who is focused on public safety.”
He said that while Oklahoma’s prison population has swelled — state leaders have called for the construction of at least two new prisons to ease the burden — only 14 percent of incarcerated Oklahomans come from Tulsa County, opposed to 26 percent from Oklahoma County.
“Tulsa County has led the state every year in the number of people we have in alternative courts,” Kunzweiler said. “I think (on Tuesday) people said ‘We want someone who is a public safety servant but also someone who will continue the job we’ve done over the last decade.’”
For Fu, the former prosecutor stopped short of calling Tuesday’s results disappointing, instead opting to refer to them as “surprising.”
Fu had a large fundraising lead in the race and added the support of the local police union in the months leading up to the vote, yet edged out Westcott by just 635 votes to reach the runoff.
But he’s focusing on the other numbers: 31,761 people voted for Kunzweiler, but 42,459 voted for “non-Kunzweiler,” he said.
“I understand he certainly got the most votes,” Fu said. “But he didn’t get the majority.”
Fu said he believed the State Question 788 result squared up nicely with the district attorney election: 62 percent of Tulsa County voters were in favor of State Question 788, and and 57 percent of Tulsa County voters picked someone who wasn’t Kunzweiler.
“Now the question is, are the people who came to vote for myself and Tammy still going to be interested and engaged on these issues (in August?)” Fu said.
“This whole campaign has been the question of are we ready for this change? And last night’s results proved that we’re ready and we want it. Can I convince the people we that represent that change? I think we can.”