Let’s be honest: Come November, either Dewey Bartlett or G.T. Bynum will likely be elected Tulsa’s next mayor. They both have deep pockets, ties to the state’s political elites and long connections to the city.
Bartlett is seeking his third term as mayor; he’s a previous city councilor and his father was once Governor of Oklahoma and U.S. Senator. Bynum, a city councilor, is related to three former Tulsa mayors and also has a deep political legacy.
Following the Nov. 8 general election, it would be shocking if one of them wasn’t in charge of Tulsa.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t try.
While much, if not all, of the public and media attention has been focused on Bartlett and Bynum, three lesser-knowns have tossed their hats in the ring. One of those candidates rides his bike around town, occasionally dresses like Santa Claus, and supports marijuana reform. Another is a jeweler/disc jockey/ex-comedian who decided to run for mayor after listening to a Bartlett radio appearance. The other candidate lives in a small north Tulsa house and has a self-mandate to attend more city council meetings than Bartlett.
They all say their candidacies are met with skepticism: “Why throw yourself against the Bynum-Bartlett political juggernauts,” “Why invest the time in a losing cause,” “Wait, who are you?”
They’re the other guys. And this one goes out to them.
You may recognize Tay from such things as “running for mayor multiple times,” or “dressing up like Santa and collecting signatures on a medical marijuana petition,” or “making memes of Tulsa County employees to put on Facebook.”
Wearing a cowboy hat that doubles as a hard hat, (“I manage my mom’s rental properties,” he said, “and some of them aren’t in great shape.”) a suit jacket and a tie, Tay is a well-known gadfly to Tulsans who follow politics.
Tay, who is Chinese, was born in Burma and immigrated with his family to Tulsa when he was 8 1/2 years old. He said he went to the University of Texas after high school, then to Colorado for a few years before returning to Oklahoma and finishing up his physics degree at the University of Oklahoma.
“What I remember about Burma was a race riot between the Burmese and the Chinese,” Tay said. “I’ve always felt like an outsider, and a lot of my platforms are colored by that experience.”
What are those platforms? Gun rights, marijuana legalization, reparations, and north Tulsa development.
Oh, and putting a Tulsa space base on the moon. (Really.)
“I’ve personally seen and reviewed blueprints for moon bases,” Tay said. “…We need to have a presence there. I have an informal business connection with folks in China now developing an energy source that could actually put Tulsa on the moon.”
Tay said his political aspirations began in 2002, as Susan Savage was winding down her tenure as mayor.
“In 2002, I had no clue how to get my name out,” Tay said. “So I got my bike, and my American flag, and I started riding. Within a month I was on radio and TV.
“The quickest way to get visible is on the streets.”
He feels like all citizens should arm themselves out of a sense of not relying on someone else to protect them. He wants to decriminalize drug possession, to treat it as a public health issue rather than a criminal one, and to legalize medical marijuana.
He wants more high schoolers to head to trade school after graduation. Rather than hire mowers to keep public spaces in shape, Tay argues that we should hire gardeners to grow fruit and vegetables there.
He wants to shift a large portion of Tulsa’s city development efforts to north Tulsa.
“The way we judge the greatness of a nation, of a city, is how we treat our most powerless, vulnerable citizens,” he said. “We’ve ignored north Tulsa for way too long. The mayor’s office needs to focus on getting business in north Tulsa just as much as we’ve focused on getting them in south Tulsa.”
Tay, you might argue, has a stranglehold on his 15 minutes of fame. The news cycle is a never-ending churn, and as the public catches onto Tay, then forgets about him, he continually finds a way to stay somewhat relevant.
This week, he crashed a debate between Bynum and Bartlett. That debate was the second one that day, and it was the second one Tay was not invited to participate in.
During his first snub, he merely stood up with his back to the candidates in silent protest (days before he had attended a debate with duct tape over his mouth to symbolize his forced silence.)
But this time he’d had enough. So as the debate wound down, and the candidates began their closing statements, Tay jumped in front of the live television cameras and made his splash.
It was not Tay’s first run-in with controversy. He once threatened to defecate on the Tulsa County Courthouse lawn in protest of the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office. He’s banned from Tulsa Tough’s popular Crybaby Hill. At various times he’s tried to get a city-wide “naked bike ride” off the ground.
In 2004, he was charged with a misdemeanor in Oklahoma County for outraging public decency and assault on a police officer, and he’s been arrested numerous times in Tulsa — most recently for allegedly stealing blankets from the Route 66 Marathon. (Tay disagrees with that assessment, and said a staffer allowed him to take the items to donate to the homeless. A preliminary hearing on the case is set for later this month.)
In 2014, a protective order was filed against him by a woman who says she felt threatened by Tay. He claims she was renting a property from his mother, and hadn’t paid rent in months.
“I was trying to annoy her out of the place,” he said.
He said he knows people consider him “crazy,” and he’s heard himself being referred to as a “joke candidate.”
“I don’t care if they call me a joke candidate, really,” he said. “Maybe they feel that way, but my voice is being heard. My words are out there.”
Like Tay, Kirkpatrick — who lives in a house just a little north of downtown — wants to see more economic development in north Tulsa. But he also wants to see west Tulsa get a little love, too.
“There’s parts of west Tulsa I’d like to see improved,” he said. “Crystal City Shopping Center has a lot of space open.”
Sitting on a bench outside his home, Kirkpatrick cuts a figure far different than the Bynum-Bartlett archetype. At 70 years old, his hair is grayed, his face is wrinkled and he admits it takes him a little while to get up and get going. When he nears the end of a sentence, he squints with his left eye.
Born in Tulsa, Kirkpatrick briefly lived in Tahlequah, spent four years in the United States Army in the ’60s, then returned to Tulsa. When he first ran against Bartlett, he said he didn’t really study the race, so it was more of a flying-by-the-seat-of-his-pants endeavor.
“Really,” he said, “it just looked like something I ought to get into.”
He still lacks the funds to really battle the juggernauts, but he said his life experiences and prior candidacies have given him some ideas. He doesn’t have campaign signs, so to speak, but wherever he goes, he keeps a stack of yellow pieces of paper with his name and number on them.
Asked what differentiates him from someone like Bartlett and Bynum, Kirkpatrick taps the pocket on the front of his shirt, then pulls an old flip phone out.
“It’s not easy to compete with them,” he said. “I understand the feeling (that he doesn’t have a chance.) It’d be interesting if I had the money to do more stuff. But I’ll be available to the public whenever they need to get a hold of me. I’m available to talk to be, and I’m involved in the community.”
Kirkpatrick volunteers twice a week at a nearby library, helping kids with homework, but he said the most enjoyable work of his life was the two summers he spent years ago driving an ice cream truck.
“You see the kids’ faces when they hear you coming and see you and it’s pretty great,” he said. “I miss that a little.”
Unlike Tay and Kirkpatrick, two men considered “perennial candidates” for public office, it was a “Pat Campbell Show” radio interview with Dewey Bartlett in February that launched McCay’s political aspirations.
McCay believes Vision Tulsa, which easily passed in April, will eventually result in a tax increase on the public. Bartlett, McCay said, refused to call the package a tax increase during the interview (the package is set to replace expiring taxes, keeping the city’s tax rate the same.)
Sales taxes are considered “regressive taxes,” meaning they affect different members of society disproportionately — i.e. taxing eight percent of a poor person’s incoming is more of a burden to them than would be eight percent of a rich person’s income.
“The activity you tax, you get less of that activity,” McCay maintains. “If you tax sales, you will get less sales.”
McCay was born in Tulsa, and has been a jeweler for more than two decades. To illustrate, he pulled out his iPhone and showed off pictures of various jewelry he’s designed. Before that, he was part of “Obnoxious Party Guests,” a comedy troupe here in Tulsa.
But now, his sights are set on City Hall.
“You can stop choosing between the ‘lesser of two evils,'” he says on his website. “I am your viable alternative choice.”
How viable he is remains to be seen. Though he said in his interview that he had “been told” the mayor race is coming down to “Me and G.T.,” McCay garnered no votes in a recent Soonerpoll that polled nearly 400 voters. (Tay got six votes; Kirkpatrick received 13.)
“The reason nobody knows of me is because I’m a representative of the median,” McCay said. “G.T. Bynum is not.”
While Bartlett’s radio appearance may have lit the fire that turned McCay onto local politics, it seems as though Bynum’s mere existence is what keeps the flame burning.
During a 45-minute interview, McCay referenced Bynum nearly a dozen times — “Bynum has an elitist attitude,” “Bynum doesn’t represent Tulsans,” “Bynum is a Washington D.C.-establishment insider.”
“Bynum brags about collecting the most tax money for fixing streets,” McCay said. “But he doesn’t brag about fixing the most streets.”
McCay feels like both Bynum and Bartlett “govern on the come,” meaning they string voters along by promising upgrades in the future that may or may not ever happen.
“I have kids here right now, they need improvements right now,” he said. “I don’t want to wait 10 years.”
As for Vision Tulsa, McCay said he has an idea of how it could have been improved.
The Tulsa Performing Arts Center got $1 million for small-scale improvements, and some planning and design work.
“For a million dollars, I could have made a set of high-quality videos on how to drive on the BA Expressway,” McCay said. “We’re blowing our money on stuff that doesn’t help.”