Jim Priest, Democratic nominee for Attorney General, reflects on faith and policy

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 16-Jun-2010

Jim Priest, a Democrat and Oklahoma City attorney who is his party’s nominee for attorney general, contends his legal work experience makes him the best candidate the “top cop” job.  He points to work with private clients, businesses and various state agencies to make his case that “wisdom comes from this kind of expertise.”

Concernng his two Republican opponents, Priest contends they are “preoccupied with the federal government” and opposition to some current policy priorities emanating from Washington, D.C.  Priest says the attorney general’s priorities should be “to protect children, seniors and victims of domestic violence, protect our vital natural resources – especially water  — and fight crime effectively.”

Priest wants to succeed Drew Edmondson, who is running for governor.

In the “big picture,” he hopes to emphasize efforts aimed at prevention of crime and avoidance of unnecessary conflict in the form of litigation over policy issues.

“We have to work on the front end, dealing with the root causes of problems.” He pointed as an example to government combat against the methamphetamine plague, telling CapitolBeatOK that law enforcement officers have told him “an absolute majority, 50 to 80 percent” of all crimes are linked directly to drugs or addiction. 

One of his campaign slogans is “Tough on crime, tougher on criminals.” He argues, “We’ve tried the lock-‘em-up and throw-away-the-key approach; done that for years. I say we have to lock up those who can’t live in civil society, but for others there are many alternatives to incarceration.” He saluted House Speaker-designate Kris Steele, a Republican, for pressing ahead on several policy initiatives, including those aimed to reduce incarceration of women.

Priest said he wants to “affirm and encourage” Oklahoma’s local District Attorneys in “this era of fiscal challenge and stress. I’ve been heartened by what they’re doing, what I’m hearing from them. I intend as Attorney General to come alongside them to support their work.”

Aiming at the “meth” challenge facing law enforcement, Priest said, “There is no silver bullet, but there are strategies aimed at influencing the thinking of young people and at limiting access to the means to produce meth.” Priest pointed to public service announcements and education campaigns that have shown early success in Montana, Colorado and other states.

He continued, “I was only somewhat aware of the breadth of the prescription drug abuse problem that has become so challenging in recent years. I’ve learned a lot just in recent months about the ‘pharm parties’ and other nightmares that flow from the availability of powerful prescription drugs.

CapitolBeatOK asked Priest about the nexus of his Christian faith and work on public policy and law enforcement. He said faith informs his public service, pointing to reformer Martin Luther’s expression: “my conscience is held captive by the word of God.” He thought about such issues “a lot as I considered this race. I have a deep and abiding faith that informs my world view.”

Pointing to the Great Commandment, Priest said that although the Bible is not always specific in terms of policy questions, the teachings of Jesus affirm the primary aims of a personal relationship with God, and the treatment of other human beings. “The Great Commandment is the root, the baseline. Flowing from my relationship with God is a belief that I am to encourage and uplift others in their own walk of faith.”

He continued, “I believe in the separation of church and state, and the integration of faith and life.” He observed, “There are those who advocate a sterile environment, where government makes no reference to God, or those who believe separate belief from action. This is un-pragmatic and unrealistic. People of a variety of faiths participate, and they should. I don’t abandon my faith at the door of my office or the door of my home. I am humble in this, knowing that very seldom, and maybe never, do you argue people into the Kingdom of God.”

With a laugh, Priest related a story of a woman who heard him speak many years ago, and assumed he was a minister. When he told her he intended to become a lawyer, she responded, “Why would you go over to the other side?”

He told CapitolBeatOK he would work “to touch people and help people, especially those in need. I won’t impose either my personal religious or political beliefs on those I serve. I will be a zealous advocate for the state and its interests.” He said, “Faith informs my conscience but does not dictate my performance as Attorney General.”

Asked about abortion policy controversies in this context, Priest said, “The role of the Attorney General is not a legislative role. I defend state laws. Roe v. Wade and subsequent cases create a right to choose. Tempered against that are some laws that have been upheld. I’m pro-law, to the greatest extent I can reconcile that. I will work with the Legislature, to give informal opinions on the wisdom of laws they’re proposing. After they act, I will ‘prosecute the law’ – meaning seek to sustain and enforce the law.”

The discussion with CapitolBeatOK then turned to issues of federalism and natural resources. On the first, “a lot of people are angry, but not sure what to do about some federal policies. If we believe the federal government has overstepped its bounds or failed to fulfill its duties, our job is to seek cooperation rather than litigation, when possible. As a practical matter, the state cannot afford protracted litigation.”

He reflected, “When any one fight is over, the federal government is still going to be there, and it does us little good to shake our fists at them. I will use the state’s limited resources wisely in any discussions about federalism issues.”

As for natural resources, “water is the new oil. The attorney general needs to be committed to preserving our water resources.” He believes sales should be delayed until after completion of a comprehensive water study. Priest characterized the recent clash over Sardis Lake water as “emblematic of the thorny, multi-layered problems facing the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.”

He said the state “might need to find a way to capture some of this resource on an interim basis,” but repeated his believe the comprehensive plan should be the predicate for further action.