Tulsa busi­ness owner touts out­sider sta­tus in cam­paign

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - BY CHRIS CASTEEL Staff Writer ccas­teel@ok­la­homan.com

Ed­i­tor’s Note: This is the first in an oc­ca­sional se­ries about the can­di­dates for Ok­la­homa gover­nor.

Kevin Stitt stood in a cir­cle of busi­ness peo­ple and com­mu­nity vol­un­teers Wed­nes­day morn­ing wait­ing for a chance to speak.

A 45-year-old en­tre­pre­neur who built a mort­gage com­pany with of­fices around the na­tion, the Nor­man na­tive is ac­cus­tomed to com­mand­ing a room.

Here, though, in cramped quar­ters at the YMCA, Stitt was an un­known guest and given the floor only for a few min­utes, in be­tween an­nounce­ments about help­ing lo­cal causes and the up­com­ing Martin Luther King Jr. Day Pa­rade.

When his turn came, Stitt, a Repub­li­can run­ning for gover­nor, dove in to an ab­bre­vi­ated ver­sion of his stan­dard stump speech.

“I haven’t ever been in pol­i­tics,’’ Stitt said, adding that he was fol­low­ing the ex­am­ple of the coun­try’s fore­fa­thers in tak­ing time from his pri­vate busi­ness for pub­lic ser­vice.

His op­po­nents, he said, were some of the same

peo­ple re­spon­si­ble for the state’s cur­rent con­di­tion.

“It just looks like more of the same,” he said.

“We don’t know who we’re go­ing to be. We don’t have any di­rec­tion.”

On Tues­day night, speak­ing to a small group at the Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Arts of Ok­la­homa, in Chickasha, Stitt said, “It’s go­ing to take an out­sider to get our state go­ing again.”

That’s the essence of Stitt’s pitch: I had no role in that mess at the Capi­tol; I was busy be­ing suc­cess­ful.

“All my op­po­nents in the race — I think they’re all nice folks,” he said in an in­ter­view. “I just think the state needs some­thing dif­fer­ent. I don’t think the guys that got us in this mess — or girls — are go­ing to lead us out of it.

“I just think I’m so much of a dif­fer­ent can­di­date com­ing from the pri­vate sec­tor. I started my com­pany Gate­way Mort­gage with $1,000 and to­day we have over 1,100 em­ploy­ees.”

Amid nu­mer­ous scan­dals and fail­ures at the state Capi­tol, Stitt is count­ing on that mes­sage to carry him over well-known Repub­li­cans, in­clud­ing Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb and Ok­la­homa City Mayor Mick Cor­nett.

How­ever, as an out­sider, Stitt has no po­lit­i­cal base.

Right now, his name is a draw at a town hall meet­ing only for the very po­lit­i­cally en­gaged. He has spent many weeks on the road in Ok­la­homa to in­tro­duce him­self, but that’s a tough way to build name iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Stitt is wealthy, and he’s will­ing to spend a lot of his own money to get elected. In the third quar­ter of 2017, he loaned $800,000 to his cam­paign, match­ing the $811,000 he re­ceived from con­trib­u­tors. He

has pledged to use per­sonal funds to match all do­na­tions, and he very well could in­vest be­yond match­ing money.

So far, most of the big­gest checks writ­ten by his cam­paign have gone to con­sul­tants. Even­tu­ally, he will start putting money into tele­vi­sion ads, a much more ef­fi­cient method of in­tro­duc­tion.

Stitt isn’t the only rich out­sider from the Tulsa area run­ning for gover­nor this year. At­tor­ney Gary Richard­son, who got 14 per­cent of the vote as an In­de­pen­dent in the 2002 gu­ber­na­to­rial race, is in the GOP race this time. He loaned his cam­paign $825,000 in the third quar­ter of 2017 and has al­ready bought TV time.

Learn­ing curve

An Ok­la­homa State Univer­sity grad­u­ate whose com­pany, Gate­way Mort­gage Group, is based in Jenks, Stitt has the pol­ished de­meanor of a suc­cess­ful CEO.

In his new field, how­ever, he’s prone to rookie mis­takes.

Speak­ing at USAO, a pub­lic univer­sity, Stitt said he wasn’t fa­mil­iar with how higher ed­u­ca­tion was funded in Ok­la­homa, and he was al­most in­co­her­ent in re­spond­ing to a ques­tion about it.

He cham­pi­ons higher teacher pay but fal­ters on how to pay for it. His pol­icy pre­scrip­tion for some is­sues is to do what other states are do­ing.

“We don’t have to rein­vent the wheel here,’’ he said in Chickasha.

Like more ex­pe­ri­enced can­di­dates, he knows how to avoid tak­ing a stand on sticky is­sues, like tax in­creases. De­spite the in­ten­sity of de­bate around rais­ing the tax on oil pro­duc­tion — and the sup­port of many en­ergy com­pany lead­ers for do­ing so — Stitt’s stock re­sponse is that he wants to take a look at the whole tax code.

Stitt said he has been a

Repub­li­can since he was 18 and that he voted for Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

“We all kind of ques­tion some of his tweet­ing,” he said. “But I like the fact that he’s up there mak­ing change and do­ing things.”

Stitt spoke Thurs­day night to about 70 peo­ple who turned out for a meet­ing of the 912 Project — tea party con­ser­va­tives — in Tulsa.

“He sounded good; he really did,’’ said Ronda Vuille­mont-Smith, who helped or­ga­nize the event. “He’s got a great story.”

She said many in her group are re­cep­tive to the out­sider mes­sage and that Stitt will now likely be on the radar screen of peo­ple as­sess­ing the many can­di­dates.

In an in­ter­view, Stitt said he wasn’t plan­ning to crit­i­cize any of the state’s cur­rent lead­ers by name.

He said he had con­tacted ev­ery mem­ber of the Leg­is­la­ture for sug­ges­tions on im­prov­ing the state.

“I love our state,” Stitt said. “But I travel to Texas all the time, and I go to Ten­nessee and Colorado and all th­ese other states. And I see all the mo­men­tum and the pos­i­tiv­ity and the growth. And I come back here and I’m just like, ‘What is go­ing on?’

“I know we can do so much bet­ter.”


GOP gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date Kevin Stitt, of Tulsa, speaks Tues­day night in Chickasha.

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