Tulsa business owner touts outsider status in campaign
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.
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.