Patrick B. McGuigan
Incumbent Republican state Sen. Joseph Silk of Broken Bow is representative of the political shift that transformed politics in Southeast Oklahoma over the last decade.
Once a bastion for the Democratic party -- which embraced the term “Little Dixie” to describe the party’s control of an area many compared to the Old “Solid South” – the region slowly shifted as top-of-the-ballot candidates from the Grand Old Party – including Ronald Reagan, Jim Inhofe and Brenda Reneau – gained support at the expense of old-line Democrats.
At the county and town level of politics, however, Democrats continued to win, until recent years.
In 2010, Rusty Farley became the first Republican to ever win the House District 1 seat in McCurtain County. News reports at the time credited his poorly-funded campaign with victory after a simple $70 newspaper ad asserted out that the Democratic incumbent had opposed keeping the Ten Commandments on the state Capitol lawn in Oklahoma City. Farley promised he would fight to keep the Ten Commandments monument where it was (http://newsok.com/article/3582813).
Democrats made a comeback after Farley’s death, but in 2014, Silk captured the Senate seat that encompasses H.D. 1. At the age of 29, local business owner Silk turned the area Republican with help from social conservatives and groups support from Second Amendment groups. In the process, he became the Sooner State’s youngest legislator – and the first Republican in state history to win a far southeast Oklahoma Senate seat.
Sen. Silk has in two years shepherded into law a range of measures, including private property rights protection, advocacy of business growth, and support for infrastructure advancements.
Members of the state Senate earn $38,500 a year. Senate District 5 includes the counties of Atoka, Pushmataha, Choctaw, McCurtain and LeFlore. Median household income in the district is about $28,000 a year.
Silk’s opponent is Stacey Ebert, Superintendent of the Battiest public schools. The Class B system has 285 students, Ebert told CapitolBeatOK.
Ebert taught Agricultural Education for nine years, and has been a public school administrator for 12 years., he said. Asked why he was running for public office, Supt. Ebert said, “We want to create jobs for Oklahoma. We need to improve health care, roads and bridges and education in our state.”
Asked to expand on his candidacy’s key issues, Ebert said that although he does not oppose all government incentive programs for economic development, “We have to figure out something. I am critical of tax credits and breaks for business.” He said he prefers North Dakota’s comparatively higher taxes on the oil and gas industry over Oklahoma’s lower levies.
Concerning roads/bridges infrastructure and health care issues, he said, “We have to restore the money. We can’t rob from roads and bridges. It’s about management. We cannot continue to give those kinds of things. …
“We get federal money for roads and bridges. Why not look at health care the same way we do roads and bridges? Why not take the health care money for Medicaid. We paid that money in.” If Oklahoma does not join those states accepting more federal money, he said, “They’re gonna readjust and send it to someone else.”
Ebert said the last time teachers in his district got a pay raise was “whenever the last state pay raise went into effect. We pay the base salary. It’s been a long time.”
As Battiest superintendent, Ebert earns $95,000 a year in salary and benefits.
In an interview this week, Ebert was asked to state his position on State Question 790, a measure referred to the November 8 ballot by the state Legislature, in wake of a controversial state Supreme Court decision removing a Ten Commandments monument from the state Capitol grounds.
However, Ebert answered the question this way: “Is that the voucher bill? That’s a ‘no’ for me. It hurts public education in general. It would kill rural schools in Oklahoma. I’m against vouchers.”
Ebert’s expressed reason for opposing S.Q. 790 is interesting, in that the same state High Court that ruled against the Ten Commandments actually ruled unanimously in favor of the rationale behind programs affording parental choice in education, including the historic Lindsay Nicole Henry Scholarships program. That allows special needs children to access educational services that best fit their needs, including those services provided by private institutions.
Despite the laudable ruling on the Henry Scholarships (named for an infant daughter of former Gov. Brad Henry and his wife Kim, a little girl who died from a childhood illness), the Supreme Court’s rationale in the Ten Commandments case has worried several leaders of important state faith community leaders.
One of those is the Rev. Anthony Jordan, executive director for the Baptist General Convention, Oklahoma’s largest Christian denomination. In a joint essay with H. Franklin Cargill (Assemblies of God) and Paul S. Coakley (who leads the state’s Catholics), Jordan expressed support for S.Q. 790.
He backs supports repeal of the Blaine Amendment (Section 5 in Oklahoma’s constitution) because over the years litigation has sought to use similar legal texts to stop activities in which faith-based groups are involved. And, “These activities can and have included faith-based medical services, public Christmas displays, other religious symbols in public, public displays of faith in schools, church-run day cares, charitable relief and roadside memorials.”
Sen. Silk agrees with Rev. Jordan and his colleagues:
"The people I represent here in SE Oklahoma not only acknowledge the historical significance role that faith had in the founding of our state and nation, but also the vital importance that faith based organizations play in our current society. Voting ‘no’ on 790 would be sending our state to ruin.
“If changes are not made, it would soon, and easily lead to the defunding and closure of all faith based organizations such as faith based charities, local food banks, Integris Baptist Hospital, St. Anthony Hospital, St. John's Hospital, foster care programs, Baptist Children's Homes, etc. I proudly coauthored State Question 790 and its passage would ensure that the bigotry of the Blaine Amendment could no longer be used by Oklahoma's liberal Supreme Court to attack religious organizations. The scare tactics about vouchers and a Satanic monument show a lack of understanding, history, and complete ignorance of this policy issue and how it will impact our state."