OKLAHOMA CITY — State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister criticized Gov. Kevin Stitt on Wednesday evening for his handling of abortion, crime and medical marijuana.
During a debate between the two, Stitt touted his record and repeatedly tried to tie Hofmeister to Democratic President Joe Biden in a state that is considered one of the most conservative.
Outside the Will Rogers Theater in Oklahoma City, where the debate was held, Hofmeister supporters chanted “VOTE. Let’s vote Joy to victory.” They stood next to a handful of Stitt supporters.
Inside, the popcorn was popping and the free bar was flowing.
Hofmeister, who switched from Republican to Democrat to run against Stitt, said the current governor had hijacked the GOP and has pitted neighbor against neighbor.
She avoided the question when directly asked if she is a Democrat, saying she is an independent thinker and is running for “Team Oklahoma.”
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“I will also say I was a Republican longer than Gov. Stitt was registered to vote,” Hofmeister said.
Stitt said Hofmeister couldn’t see a path forward as a Republican and so she joined Biden’s party, which he said believes in open borders and tax hikes.
“We don’t want to put Biden’s party back in control of Oklahoma with higher taxes and more regulation,” Stitt said.
Hofmeister accused Stitt of reading off a national script.
While Stitt touted the successes of the state’s economy under his watch, Hofmeister said the state needs a governor who “can close a deal.” Some companies have bypassed Oklahoma for other states, despite being offered economic incentives here, she noted.
“The only business that is thriving under Gov. Stitt’s watch is his own,” Hofmeister said.
Under specific questioning, Stitt acknowledged having used marijuana, while Hofmeister said she has not.
“My parents are in the room and are going to be very disappointed, so yes,” Stitt said.
State voters have already legalized medical marijuana in Oklahoma, and both candidates were asked about the current State Question 820, which seeks to legalize recreational marijuana. It will be on a March 7 special election.
Hofmeister said Stitt’s implementation of medical marijuana has been a disaster.
“If you think this governor, with all the scandals and what we have seen, is going to be able to have a safe and robust recreational marijuana (program), then you are smoking something,” Hofmeister said.
She said she was not sure whether she would support State Question 820, but she said the tax revenue legalizing recreational marijuana would generate is attractive and that people have a right to vote on it.
Stitt said the medical marijuana state question was poorly worded and that the situation he inherited with it when he came into office was a mess. But the state has hired more enforcement agents and put a two-year moratorium on new production licenses.
He does not support legalizing recreational marijuana, he said.
“It is still illegal federally,” Stitt said. “We should not have a checkerboard jurisdiction across the states.”
The candidates were asked about Oklahoma County killer Julius Jones, who was convicted of killing Paul Howell in Edmond in 1999. Just before his execution was to take place, Stitt commuted his death sentence to life without the possibility of parole following a recommendation from the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board.
Stitt said he was not the jury and didn’t see all the evidence but met with the prosecution, the defense and the Howell family.
He said the commutation was the right thing to do for the state.
Hofmeister accused Stitt of not doing his homework in the area of criminal justice.
Stitt also commuted of the sentence of Paul Anderson, she noted. Shortly after his release, he was accused of killing Andrea Blankenship, Leon Pye and Pye’s 4-year-old daughter.
Hofmeister also brought up Stitt’s parole of Jimmie Dean Stohler, known as the Crossbow Killer. He was serving a life sentence for the 1982 murder of Michele Rae Powers in Tulsa. Stitt later rescinded the parole, saying the change was “based on new information.”
Stitt accused Hofmeister of trying to score political points by bringing up the criminal acts of former inmates and called the tactic a cheap shot and “disgusting.”
He said that as governor he has released low-level offenders and signed the largest commutation in state history in 2019. The state leads the country in the lowest recidivism rate, he said. He also noted that he has closed two private prisons, saving the state money.
He said he believes in second chances.
Both candidates were asked about abortion.
Stitt said he believes that life begins at conception but would be willing to sign a bill that contains exceptions for rape or incest or for women who are pregnant and entering rehabilitation for a chemical addiction if the Legislature put it on his desk.
Hofmeister said Stitt has shown no mercy for victims of rape or incest.
“I am personally pro-life, but I don’t walk in every woman’s shoes,” she said. “I don’t favor extremes on either side of this issue.”
The debate was sponsored by the State Chamber and moderated by NonDoc’s Tres Savage and News 9’s Storme Jones.
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