TAHLEQUAH — On a blazing hot Thursday in July, Mick Cornett is making a trek through eastern Oklahoma to convince those who may be unfamiliar with him that he is the right Republican to pick for the governor’s race.
The campaign signs, brochures and stickers are all laid out for a stop at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Tahlequah. Cornett arrives in a suit with his wife Terri wearing a sleeveless red dress.
Dower Combs, a local city councilor, said he came to see Cornett because he wants to be an educated voter.
“I like what he has done in Oklahoma City,” Combs said. “We try to do some of the things in Tahlequah with development and growth. They have kind of turned it around in Oklahoma City.”
While the former Oklahoma City mayor and journalist has better name recognition in the central portion of Oklahoma, prospective voters in other parts of the state appear eager to learn more about him.
“I have never run statewide, so I think I have a responsibility to go meet people where they are, and I know that means a lot of travel and a lot of time, but I think it is important,” Cornett told the Tulsa World in a later interview.
Cornett, who served as Oklahoma City mayor for 14 years, faces Jenks businessman Kevin Stitt in the Aug. 28 Republican primary runoff. Cornett was the top vote getters in the 10-candidate GOP primary.
Most in the crowd at the Tahlequah restaurant are clad casually. Cornett makes the rounds, introducing himself to just about everyone before his stump speech.
He tells them he is the son of a teacher and a mailman.
Cornett said he realizes there are parts of the state where he is less well-known. He talks about his first phone conversation with his wife, who didn’t know he was mayor of Oklahoma City at the time.
Once voters are exposed to his record, he thinks he can win them over.
Cornett recites the successes he has had as Oklahoma City mayor in the area of job creation and business development.
During his tenure, the city created nearly 100,000 new jobs and 9,400 new businesses. He wants to apply those skills on a statewide level.
He said his record is there for everyone to see.
He is passionate about seeing the state improve. The first priority, he said, is to get the fiscal house in order.
“People are emotional about this state — where it is and where they want it to go,” Cornett said.
He said his philosophy is to listen, learn and lead.
For too long, the state has had low expectations in the area of education and health, something that needs to be fixed, he said.
The governor is the person who can control the narrative on those issues, even when lawmakers are not in session, he said.
“We need to work on the culture of the Capitol,” Cornett said. “It is all politics all the time.”
He said he can produce results, not rhetoric.
He takes several questions, admitting in some cases that he doesn’t have the answer but is open to ideas.
Tom Lynn of Claremore doesn’t need convincing.
He said what Cornett accomplished in Oklahoma City is “nothing short of amazing.”
“Stitt might be wonderful, but he is not as good as Mick,” Lynn said.
While Stitt can advertise a lot, Cornett has grass-roots support and connects with people, Lynn said.
A few hours later in Muskogee, Cornett is on stage with Stitt for a gubernatorial forum.
One of the larger distinctions between the two candidates is in the area of education.
Stitt said he would not have signed a tax hike bill to give teachers a pay raise.
“I am not for any new taxes,” Stitt tells the crowd, adding that the answer to funding would be found in eliminating waste in state agencies.
“I am glad the governor signed it,” Cornett said. “Teachers need a raise.”
The strong differences have attracted the attention of the education community, which could play a significant role in the outcome of the election.
Both are asked about what major policy reforms should be on the horizon.
For Cornett, it is about jobs and economic development. He tells the crowd that he has a lot of experience attracting jobs.
For Stitt, it is about budget reform.
Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, attended the Muskogee forum.
Thompson said two good men are running for the GOP nomination for governor. Both articulated their positions on how they would approach governing.
“You can see there is a difference in the two candidates,” he said.