Kevin Stitt got started in business selling books door-to-door on what amounted to straight commission. It was not an easy gig.
But it seems to have suited Stitt, then an accounting student at Oklahoma State University. He says he recruited about 50 of his friends to do the same thing and wound up supervising them.
More than 20 years later, Stitt is knocking on doors again, this time selling himself to the people of Oklahoma as a viable candidate for governor despite having no political or government experience.
“I started looked at the resumes of the people running (for governor), and to me they all looked like the same as the resumes as the previous administration,” Stitt tells 50 people packed into the back room of a Chickasha barbecue restaurant. “I don’t think anything will change if we keep electing the same people.”
It’s a pitch Stitt will make later the same day to a smaller group in Duncan, and that he’s made countless times across the state: His business background, especially his 18 years building a successful mortgage company, makes him a better choice for governor than anyone with experience in politics or government.
It seems to be working, at least with Republicans. Stitt, the ultimate outsider, edged Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, the perceived ultimate insider, in the GOP primary to snag the second runoff spot behind former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett.
Now, less than two weeks out from that Aug. 28 vote, polling shows Stitt ahead of Cornett for the right to face Democrat Drew Edmondson and an undetermined Libertarian candidate in the November general election.
Oklahoma has elected governors from outside the usual political orbits before, but never one quite so remotely connected as Kevin Stitt. Until two years ago, he’d made only a few scattered political contributions and hadn’t paid much attention to politics except to the extent they affected his mortgage business.
In fact, he appears to have never even voted for governor, much less thought about running for it.
“About three or four years ago, I began to see a change in Kevin,” Stitt’s wife, Sarah, said during the campaign stop in Duncan. “He would come home from traveling to our offices around the country and he would be frustrated.
“He would say stuff like ‘Nobody’s proud of Oklahoma’s flag. In Texas, they fly the Texas flag everywhere. It feels like people (in Oklahoma) are depressed about their state.’ It started to bother him, and I think that was the start.”
Then, 18 months ago, Stitt told his wife he wanted to be governor.
“I really didn’t know what to say,” she said. “It was totally out of left field. Suddenly, I’m seeing the the future I thought we had for our family totally change.”
Kevin Stitt grew up in Norman, where his father was a pastor. While at OSU, he signed on with what was then called the Southwestern Company, a multi-level marketing firm that recruits college students to sell books and other educational materials door-to-door.
By most accounts it’s hard and often discouraging work. Dealers, as the sales force is called, are sent far from home — in Stitt’s case, Ohio — and considered independent contractors whose only compensation is a share of the profit from what they sell, and “residuals” from the sales of dealers they’ve brought on board.
The organization has its critics, but some dealers do well. And, they get a taste of entrepreneurship.
That’s what happened to Kevin Stitt. After graduating from OSU, he took a job in Tulsa — where he met Sarah — and in 2000 started Gateway Mortgage with, as he tells it, a computer and a $1,000.
Today Gateway is one of the largest private mortgage companies in the country, with 1,200 employees and offices in 41 states. And it has made Kevin Stitt wealthy — so wealthy he’s been able to spend more than $3 million of his own money running for governor.
His detractors say Gateway has used some questionable methods in its climb. Stitt admits the company has had to pay some fines along the way. More than a decade ago, it was banned from doing business in Georgia, although Stitt says the sanction has been lifted.
A few months ago, Stitt bridled when asked about the rumors that he’s been guilty of shady business dealings. Now, on the stump, he encourages people to bring it up.
“We can go back into any state we want,” he says.
As Stitt’s grasp of issues and the workings of state government has improved, so has his ease in front of voters.
“What are our strategic advantages?” he asks them when campaigning. “What makes us different? We have the best location of any state in the entire country. We’ve got all of the land, all the natural resources, and we have low utility prices.
“We should be No. 1 in manufacturing, No. 1 in distribution and No. 1 aerospace.”
To get there, Stitt wants the Legislature and the voters of Oklahoma to give him authority no previous governor has ever had — the power to hire and fire all state agency heads and boards.
Stitt is not the first governor to seek such power. Probably, he won’t be the last to discover just how unwilling the lawmakers and the people of Oklahoma are to accommodate such designs.
And there are still gaps in Stitt’s understanding of state government. He says teachers have to be paid a competitive salary and the public education system has to be better, but paying for that seems to depend on manipulation of the “funding formula” to “incentivize more competition.”
But he’s been learning and appears more undaunted than ever.
“People say, ‘He’s a business person, he may be like a bull in a china cabinet’ ” Stitt said. “I think all of the principles I know and how I lead in the private sector, I’ll do the same in state government. When you’re focused on winning and don’t care who gets the credit, you can (attract) people around you to do the work.”
The specter of a school shooting has Tulsa-area school districts adding more security, improving entrances, building relationships and figuring out ways to anticipate and prevent possible threats.
Officials at Jenks, Broken Arrow and Tulsa public schools say they aren’t more concerned about a school shooting than they have been in the past. But the districts have made serious enhancements this school year.
Broken Arrow added two full-time resource officers so students see the same faces every day and develop trust. Tulsa has stepped up its efforts to make people aware of how to report things that disturb them. In Jenks, doors have been altered so anyone entering a school has to interact with someone before getting near the student body.
“I wouldn’t say more or less worried. I would say that we want to continue to evaluate our processes and our procedures every single year, and I do think we want to learn from some things that have happened in other parts of the country,” said Jenks spokesman Rob Loeber.
Whether local school district officials will say it or not, a fear of mass shootings, particularly school shootings, seems to pervade the public consciousness. News reports of a rural Pennsylvania district providing buckets of rocks to potentially fend off an intruder went viral across the internet in recent weeks, but the story was from March.
Several rural Oklahoma districts are working to arm teachers. Survivors of the February Parkland, Florida, attack have toured the country this summer, registering voters and holding rallies advocating for gun control.
Many districts have studied their emergency plans because of Parkland. Districts are required by law to submit plans to handle such events to the Oklahoma School Security Institute, a division of the Oklahoma Department of Homeland Security.
Jenks has added an extra layer of security, Loeber said. They’ve modified school entrances to force people to interact with someone at the door.
“Anybody who walks into the main office of one of our buildings now is going to run into an extra barrier, an extra layer of security that wasn’t there before,” Loeber said. “In some of our buildings, it was easy to go in and maybe dart down a hallway or get up the stairs very quickly and gain access to the classrooms where the students and teachers are. That’s not going to be the case any more.
“Now you’re going to be stopped. You’re going to be checked and you’re going to have to have a one-on-one interaction before you proceed any further. If someone intends to do harm at one of our schools, we want to make it as difficult as possible.”
In Broken Arrow, the state’s sixth-largest school district has long employed off-duty Broken Arrow police officers to work as security at Broken Arrow High School. For the coming school year, the district plans to hire two full-time school resource officers, said Jeff Martin, head of campus security for BAPS.
“The idea is so the kids can see the same face every day. We are so relationship driven within this that we want to create a deeper relationship. The off-duty Broken Arrow guys are fantastic with it, but they’ll work one — at the maximum two — days up here. Now, at least one of those people they’ll get to see them every day,” Martin said.
“They become one of those trusted adults that you can go to,” Martin said. “Kids will say ‘Hey there’s something going on over here that’s not right.’ ”
He said trust is very important among staff, students and police because many tips come from students.
Building those relationships is something that Chief Operating Officer Jorge Robles and Chief of Police of Tulsa Public Schools Matthias Wicks also emphasized this week.
“We realize that it’s a community wraparound for each child. If the issue of bullying comes up and that young person feels comfortable sharing with an adult, we come up as a team to work those situations out,” Wicks said.
Robles said TPS, the state’s second-largest district, is looking at students holistically to make sure that mental health needs are addressed and the district isn’t just working on preventative safety measures.
TPS is also promoting its hotline to report incidents more than it has before to make sure that the community knows where to report threats.
“It’s an ever-changing landscape as to where threats might be coming from,” Robles said. “It’s not that we are now suddenly more on edge or feel that this is more important. We just know that we need to have this approach of continuous improvement.”
Just last week, a shooting plot was reportedly thwarted at Pawnee Public Schools. According to the Cleveland American, the tip about the threat that led to the arrest of two students came from overseas after someone playing video games with the suspect heard something that they didn’t like.
“I think the reality of it is that we live in a day and age where something scary can happen at any public place at any time, whether that’s a school, a church, a movie theater,” Loeber said. “We’ve seen examples of all those things occur in our country. Yes, we are a place of learning. But we feel an effective learning environment can’t take place until kids and staff members feel safe.
“In this day and age, it’s unfortunate that parents who put their kid on a bus in the morning or drop their kid off at school maybe have a little more fear in the back of their mind than they did 10, 15 years ago.”
McALESTER — One day this summer, Donnie Harris pressed a blue ink pen to white paper and wrote these two sentences: “Nobody knows for sure when, or how, their life will end. There is only one guarantee in life and that is, sooner or later, death will come to us all.”
It’s true that Harris, who is 35, doesn’t know for sure when or how he will die. But if his murder conviction is never overturned, he will have more advance warning than most. Harris wrote those two sentences from H Unit — the Oklahoma State Penitentiary’s death row.
As for how he will be killed, the state of Oklahoma is still working out the details. Harris arrived at H Unit just two months before Clayton Lockett writhed violently during his 43-minute execution in April 2014. He was there the following year when Charles Warner was killed with the wrong drug. No one has been executed in Oklahoma since.
“I believe when anyone maliciously takes the life of another, it’s only fair that in one way or another, that person has to forfeit his or her own life,” Harris wrote in a letter. He was convicted of killing his girlfriend in Talihina in 2012 but maintains his innocence.