For­mer law­maker de­feated ri­val to re­gain seat af­ter switch­ing par­ties

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - NEWS - BY DALE DENWALT Capi­tol Bu­reau dden­walt@ok­la­

When Ken Lut­trell last worked at the Capi­tol, he was a Demo­cratic state rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the Ponca City area in north­ern Ok­la­homa.

He is set to re­turn to of­fice in Fe­bru­ary — this time as a Repub­li­can af­ter switch­ing par­ties and de­feat­ing the po­lit­i­cal ri­val who had de­feated him eight years ago.

“When I lost the elec­tion in 2010, we didn’t cry over it and we didn’t take it per­sonal as votes against me. We were swept up in the anti-Obama fever and ac­tu­ally lost the elec­tion be­cause of straight-party vot­ing. Peo­ple just went in and voted against Obama and pulled the Repub­li­can straight-party vote,” he said. “They didn’t choose Steve Vaughan over me; they chose any Repub­li­cans over a Demo­crat.”

In time, Lut­trell left the Demo­cratic Party and set out to take back his seat. He beat Vaughan con­vinc­ingly dur­ing the June 26 Repub­li­can pri­mary with nearly 58 per­cent of the vote. He has no Demo­cratic op­po­nent in the gen­eral elec­tion.

Lut­trell said he joined the GOP be­cause it aligned more with what he thought was im­por­tant.

“I be­gan to feel like some of the Repub­li­can Party ideals were more in line with busi­ness growth, and that the Democrats were be­com­ing more of the so­cial is­sue party rather than con­cen­trat­ing on things that would move the state for­ward,” he said.

His po­lit­i­cal ri­val, Vaughan, dis­putes the claim that po­lit­i­cal winds dur­ing Obama’s first term in of­fice cost Lut­trell the elec­tion in 2010.

“If that was true, I wouldn’t have been there eight years later,” Vaughan said, adding that Lut­trell could have waited one elec­tion cy­cle for the fer­vor to die down if that was the case. “It prob­a­bly was the per­fect storm as far as what was go­ing on, but I think it was the right time for me to win.”

He also crit­i­cized the party switch and said he thinks Lut­trell be­came a Repub­li­can to have a bet­ter shot at tak­ing back the seat. Still, he ac­knowl­edged Ok­la­homa’s cur­rent an­ti­in­cum­bent mood played a part in the pri­mary.

“Some­times if you’re an al­li­ga­tor in the swamp, you get drained with them,” Vaughan said by phone while on a fish­ing trip in Mis­souri. “It’s a very honor­able job. I was hon­ored for eight years to be the rep­re­sen­ta­tive and you know what, time goes on.”

Lut­trell re­tired af­ter 28 years as a man­ager at Wal­mart, then worked in eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment for the Kaw Na­tion for four years dur­ing his time out of of­fice. He re­mains semire­tired as he heads back to the Ok­la­homa State Capi­tol for what some law­mak­ers con­sider a full-time job of leg­is­lat­ing and re­spond­ing to con­stituent is­sues.

Lut­trell said he heard very lit­tle feed­back about his party shift. In fact, the dis­trict he rep­re­sents is solidly Repub­li­can with nearly two thirds of reg­is­tered vot­ers be­long­ing to the GOP as of Jan­uary.

“What I said at pub­lic fo­rums was that this cam­paign doesn’t change who I am, but it changes what I’ll be able to ac­com­plish,” he said.

As a mem­ber of the ma­jor­ity party for the first time, Lut­trell could have pri­or­ity on com­mit­tee as­sign­ments and lead­er­ship, along with a bet­ter chance his legislation will be heard both in com­mit­tee and on the floor. He’ll also be privy to closed­door cau­cus ses­sions where House GOP pol­icy is for­mu­lated be­fore it’s rolled out to the pub­lic.

De­spite that new­found au­thor­ity, Lut­trell said he’ll re­mem­ber what it’s like to be on the other side of the glass, and he’ll be the only Repub­li­can in the room who’s ever served in the mi­nor­ity.

Repub­li­cans have held a ma­jor­ity of seats in the House since 2004.

“I know what it’s like to serve in the mi­nor­ity. I know what it feels like, feel­ing they’re shut out and what their re­ac­tions are to that,” he said. “Of course, I’m go­ing down there to be a prob­lem solver and a con­sen­sus-builder, which is what I was able to do as a Demo­crat. I was able to work with Repub­li­cans and had some very close Repub­li­can friends.”

He said he’s ex­cited to work on busi­ness­re­lated top­ics and will shy away from be­ing a one-is­sue rep­re­sen­ta­tive, cit­ing con­tro­ver­sial abor­tion and gun de­bates that some­times con­sume Ok­la­homa pol­i­tics. Lut­trell also crit­i­cized law­mak­ers for kick­ing the can down the road when it came to the state bud­get by mov­ing money be­tween agen­cies and forc­ing de­part­ments to raise fees to pay for op­er­a­tions.

Dur­ing ear­lier elec­tions this year, Repub­li­can vot­ers ousted 11 sit­ting law­mak­ers in what some de­scribed as a re­buke for vot­ing against a tax hike meant to fund a teacher pay raise. Vaughan was one of the few Repub­li­cans ousted who did vote for the tax in­crease on cig­a­rettes, mo­tor fuel and the pro­duc­tion of oil and gas.

“I think they reached a day of reck­on­ing that they had all post­poned,” Lut­trell said. “I think the peo­ple spoke loud and clear in the pri­mary and pri­mary runoffs that they’re not op­posed to a tax in­crease if it’s needed to fund the core el­e­ments of state gov­ern­ment and to give teach­ers a raise.”

I be­gan to feel like some of the Repub­li­can Party ideals were more in line with busi­ness growth, and that the Democrats were be­com­ing more of the so­cial is­sue party rather than con­cen­trat­ing on things that would move the state for­ward.” Ken Lut­trell

Ken Lut­trell

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