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Libertarian gubernatorial candidates sound off on issues facing Oklahoma

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Libertarian gubernatorial candidates (L to R): Chris Powell, Rex Lawhorn, and Joe Maldonado
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OKLAHOMA CITY-- Next year, Oklahoman voters will go to the polls again and cast their vote in various elections, one of which will decide the next governor. One big difference voters might notice this time around: a Libertarian on the ballot. Last year, the Libertarian Party of Oklahoma (OKLP) gained official recognition and had a candidate on the ballot for President, as well as candidates for many local offices. 

The Libertarian Party, like Republicans and Democrats, will be holding a primary in June so that those registered in their party can choose who will represent them in the general election in November (the Democratic Party voted to also allow Independents vote in their primary while the Republicans and Libertarians chose to close their primary to only those registered in their party).

The three candidates currently running for the Libertarian nomination for Oklahoma Governor are Chris Powell, Rex Lawhorn, and Joe Maldonado.

Chris Powell, a former chairman of the Oklahoma Libertarian Party, ran for Oklahoma County Clerk in 2016.  Rex Lawhorn is a telecommunications technician from Broken Bow.  Joe Maldonado, also known as Joe Exotic, a former Police Chief, is the owner-operator of an animal park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma.

This interview was conducted with the three candidates via e-mail. In it, we discuss their vision of state government and their stance on the various issues such as the budget, education, criminal justice reform, and immigration, among others.

Why are you running for Governor of the State of Oklahoma?

POWELL:  Both because this is the first gubernatorial election in which the OKLP will be able to participate and because of the very high level of dissatisfaction with both establishment parties; 2018 represents a tremendous opportunity to grow the LP in Oklahoma.  As the most successful candidate the OKLP has had, I believe I am best situated to capitalize on this opportunity to increase the visibility and relevance of the Libertarian Party in Oklahoma.

LAWHORN:  I’m running because I am tired of living in an Oklahoma that offers no positive future for our children. I’m tired of being over-taxed and over-regulated and I’m tired of watching my community suffer from the abuses inflicted on it by big government. Consumer-driven market options and pro-liberty policies can change those things.

MALDONADO  I am running for Governor of the State of Oklahoma for the working people of this state. I am tired of the legislature passing thousands of laws without actually getting anything done. I am tired of the corporations and special interest groups buying our politicians. I am tired of taxes going up while our state sinks further and further into debt. It’s time we run this state like a business instead of a slush fund for the oil and gas industry and their political puppets at the capitol.

What do you feel is the proper role of the state government and the proper role of the governor?

POWELL:  The proper role of government is to protect the rights of the people.  In my view, the governor's job is to act as a check on the legislature, carry out the will of the people within the law, and represent the state.  Within that role, I would seek to pare down state government to its proper functions.

LAWHORN: Government serves a single function – to protect the rights of the individual. Period. I leave that vague, and open to interpretation because many people have become dependent on government programs simply to exist, and in the period of transition to a leaner, stronger society, we must remember that many citizens have been abused by our current system and they have real fears about falling through the cracks. We must move toward a better society bearing those thoughts in mind, and subscribe to our own principles that we won’t cause harm in the transition back to the natural state of man.

MALDONADO: The state government should exist to provide the basic framework for how the state should operate, giving as much control to the local level as possible. The role of the governor should be one of leadership by example. As chief executive of the state of Oklahoma, the people should be able to look to their governor during hard times. We also need a governor that is willing to fight for everyday causes, not those of the special interest groups.

If you were to get elected as governor, what would be your first act? Briefly explain what the first day of your administration would look like.

POWELL: Traditionally, the governor does little more than give a speech after taking the oath of office. Oklahoma does not have a lot of time to waste to begin fixing state government; a good place to start would be at the offices of the various agencies in the buildings at the capitol complex.  Introducing myself to employees in these offices, particularly those who do the actual work rather than the upper management, and learning firsthand what is done well, what is not, and what is being done that is unnecessary would be an appropriate way to start off on the right foot.

LAWHORN:  I would ask to address a joint session of the legislature and tell them not to bother passing any new bills that didn’t either reduce the scope of government or promote individual liberty. In essence, if it’s not a repeal, I won’t sign it.  I would ask the prison board to get me a list of every non-violent, non-property related offender and have someone start drafting pardons on the condition there were no convictions of personal or property harm.  Further, I would direct the state departments to start failing to enforce ‘crimes against the state’ with the exception of tax evasion. Again, we must drain the tub without throwing out the baby. Finally, I would start reviewing departmental oversight and replacing leadership with individual geared toward finding liberty-oriented solutions.

MALDONADO: The first day of my administration I will pardon all non-violent marijuana offenses. I will also order an audit on the lottery commission to determine where the money, that was supposed to go to education, has gone.

What do you feel are the three biggest problems facing Oklahoma right now and what would you do, if elected, to address them?

POWELL:  We have too many people in prison, too much political control of our schools, and too much legal graft in the form of incentives and favoritism for various special interests. I would work to re-evaluate criminal justice priorities and sentencing guidelines so that we make more efficient and appropriate use of our limited prison space to keep truly dangerous people away from society and keep people who aren't a threat out of the prison system so they are not trapped into criminality. I would seek to devolve authority over and responsibility for our local schools to the elected school boards and the administrators within those schools and away from both Washington, D.C. and 23rd & Lincoln, as well as promote migrating the funding system away from reliance on the state Legislature and towards more local sources.  And I would demand, by threat of veto if necessary, that the legislature pass budgets that include real examination of agency spending and substantial cuts to special interest tax credits, incentives, and subsidies.

LAWHORN:  Our three largest “problem” areas are education, the economy and criminal justice. I’ll address all three here:

Education: We need to flatten our school district administration, first. We have 527 independently operating districts while Kansas has less than 300 by comparison.  Of our comparable states in our region, only Missouri has more. Combining school district administration without closing even one school will save an estimated $15 million, with no student even being aware it happened. Other opportunities exist for synergies in our rural schools, allowing us to save up to $70 million in overhead costs. Correcting out-of-proportion administrative expenditures will save another $40 million.  This money, by itself, funds half of the requirement to give teachers a salary comparable to surrounding regions.  Secondly, we need to do a complete rework of our higher-education programs. The number of non-teaching positions outnumbers professors 2 to 1. Most other states have a 1 to 1.2 proportion and are performing at much higher levels. Why are our employees not teaching? Why are those that are teaching not getting results? Why is our research and publishing level so low? Oklahoma has the people and the money to outperform most states in our region, but the leadership to do so is lacking.  We need to stop subsidizing other states’ education.  Even for those that are successful here, they have to leave to utilize their new-found talents due to the state economy lacking opportunity.  Finally, we need to remove legal restrictions from opening accredited alternative education programs. Opening the field will have 3 major ramifications for our state. First, we can bring in high-quality programs not currently being offered. Secondly, we force the public system to step up their game or risk losing students to the alternatives. Thirdly, we create a more stable, innovative educational environment that can take our schools from the 1930s and bring them to today. 

Economy: The future is bright for tech industries and the medical field is in perpetual need. Oklahoma has a wealth of talent, and the only issues that prevent industries like this from joining our ranks are an unfavorable tax structure, a lack of reliable infrastructure, and a fractured support network. Correcting some of our education issues will further enhance our ability to compete on not only a regional scale but in the world market as well. Oklahoma has all the tools to be a leader in innovation and technology, and the next administration should take the steps to ensure our future. An easing of licensing restrictions and creating an economic advisory commission complete the final leg of the task of creating an environment where a company can build, hire, expand and dominate their competition, regardless of industry. There are many things we can do to expand our employment base and increase our economic diversity. Just one, minor example is the removal of the ban on industrial hemp.  Having a large market for that would also attract textile and paper industries. We have all the native resources necessary to attract high-quality jobs and businesses, but it is also a firm conviction of mine that we need to give our own people the opportunity to build their own businesses and restore the American dream, which is possible in Oklahoma, arguably, more so than anywhere else in the United States. Our unique combination of manpower, raw materials and low cost of living make us ideal for starting and growing a small business. By reducing restrictions on economic development and supporting incubation projects, Oklahoma could be the go-to state for starting a new industry. Lastly, we can protect our family farmers and our environment, both, by stopping the economic favoritism created by the current and previous administration under the guise of ‘stabilizing agriculture’. The current codes have done nothing but create frustration at every level which culminated in the failure of the Right to Farm question. They already have the right to farm. They just live under the thumb of a state agricultural policy which encourages them not to. This must end.

Criminal Justice Reform: The very first thing I will do when elected, is pardon every convict that is in Oklahoma state prisons with no victim other than the state on record. The upheaval from this would lead to drastic reforms in the private prison system, and make them responsive to the state, rather than the stockholder. We also need to stop criminalizing seeking help, and a stronger recognition that mental health, early-childhood development and community all play a major part in keeping kids out of the pipeline.  Education reforms also play a large role in this.  A multi-disciplinary, community-driven approach is the only method by which any successful society has been able to restore the promise of life to any group of people, and we must foster those changes by getting out of the way.  The passage of cannabis legalization would further these goals as well.

MALDONADO:  The three biggest problems facing Oklahoma right now are our broken education system, a stagnant economy and oppressive criminal justice policies. If we can legalize and tax marijuana, we can start the process of tackling all three issues at once. With the addition of a new revenue stream, we can give our teachers a much-needed pay raise, save money by clearing out our prisons and open Oklahoma up as a much more attractive tourist destination.

As Governor, what steps would you take to correct the budget deficit?

POWELL:  We have an Incentive Evaluation Commission to review all the incentives handed out by the establishment parties, but in its short time in existence, it has yet to review all of the many incentives that exist and rarely does anything but give rubber-stamp approval. Nevertheless, there is over $450 million in incentives, not counting those that don't have a specific dollar amount attached.  Surely, at least some of these giveaways can be eliminated in order to fill our budget hole.

LAWHORN:  Reducing overhead and criminal justice reform would, by themselves, eliminate the budget deficit. Economic development is key to ensuring that we would never face these issues again, and I’ll address that below.  In short, restoring the core functions of government would eliminate the word deficit from our vocabulary. The specifics on the economic development plan include things like the previously discussed lifting ban on industrial hemp production – reducing subsidy impact on crop selection. Tax equalization among industries – ensuring fair protection under the law and reducing the burden on those industries not pumping fuels out of the ground. Eliminating oil and wind subsidies – we will stop paying companies to make a profit.  Believe me, they’ll find profit all by themselves. Eliminating councils at state level removes governmental influence in the market and allows the consumer to make the best decisions.  We’ll have better companies, better products and a higher quality of living all the way around. Eliminating state preference between start-ups and family businesses with corporate corruption at the state legislature level. Part of a healthy economic system is having that balance between small and large, by promoting market adaptability and creating low, medium and high-level positions. Elimination of corporate sponsorship of the state government, eliminating corporate influence from lawmaking.  Let’s remove the temptation for the legislature to misbehave.

MALDONADO:  I would personally go to the capitol and start working with all parties to get a comprehensive bipartisan budget agreement. So many of our politicians are afraid to compromise for fear of what their own party might do to them. I have no such fears, this state is split into many ideologies, and a truly effective budget solution will come from all sides of the aisle, not just one.

One solution to cutting waste in state government would be to consolidate or even eliminate certain state agencies, boards and commissions.  Which ones would you eliminate and why?

POWELL:  Two targets would be the various agricultural agencies and the state's several law enforcement agencies.  I don't know of any good reason why the Pecan Marketing Board, the Peanut Commission, and the Boll Weevil Eradication Organization should not be incorporated within the Agriculture Department.  It also seems to be reasonable to place the Bureau of Narcotics, the OSBI, and the ABLE Commission within the Dept. of Public Safety, a move that will make it much easier to eliminate some of the functions of these entities when, and if, they are deemed unnecessary than when they are separate agencies.

LAWHORN:  See my answer above. There will be more, but that gives you an idea of where I would go with this.  You can add in the majority of the agricultural councils and consolidation of the state’s 8 law enforcement agencies.

MALDONADO: The list of boards and commissions I will eliminate, and departments I will consolidate, would be the subject of an entire interview of its own. We have too many regulations and our administration costs are out of control. We can consolidate and cut a lot of waste and streamline government with my approach.

What manner of tax reform solutions would you advocate for?

POWELL:  I would seek to implement policies reflecting greater equality before the law, such as one rate on all energy production from day one forward, rather than the current hodgepodge of different rates based on political favoritism.  The decision to drill wells or raise wind turbines should be based on if it makes economic sense to do so, not because of tax favoritism.  Other so-called economic development tax policies, such as Tax Increment Financing, should also be eliminated as they do little but steal economic activity from neighboring areas while simultaneously reducing revenue to municipal, county, and state government and to our local schools.

LAWHORN:  Until we have our ducks in a row on the budget, I advocate for ensuring that the tax burden is equally shared among all the corporate interests.  In that vein, the GPT should be increased up to 5%-7%, depending on who you ask, and the subsidies for all energy should be eliminated.  This will have the long-term effect of lowering the tax burden on everyone, including the energy industry, as we see development and a larger tax base.  Key to this is making sure that we don’t keep overspending and spending on wasteful programs.  Again, we need to stick to the basics and let the consumer handle the rest.

MALDONADO:  I advocate for a flat tax and an end to corporate welfare in the form of tax breaks. The government has no business in picking winners and losers in the private sector. A fair, flat tax will ensure that everyone is contributing their fair share. After we get our state out of debt and back on track we can look at additional cuts in the tax burden for Oklahomans.

Many people are concerned about the state of public education in Oklahoma. What are your overall thoughts on public education and what are your plans to “fix” it?

POWELL:  I strongly support returning authority and responsibility for our local schools to the elected school boards and the administrators in those schools.  Additionally, we need to look at the efficiency of our largest school districts.  These districts tend to be the ones that families move away from if they can, have the most problems with discipline, attendance, and educational attainment, and have the lowest percentage of education dollars going to the classroom.  It is exceedingly difficult for schools to be responsive to the needs of individual students when carrying the bureaucracy necessary for a district with tens of thousands of students and a geographical footprint encompassing over a hundred square miles of comparatively densely populated urban area.  We can certainly look at non-teaching staff at all of our schools, but our largest schools absorb the most funds while producing the least desirable results.

LAWHORN:  I addressed this previously in the initial question about the three areas most broken.  Public education has held a monopoly in Oklahoma forever, and the usual results have occurred – stagnation, loss of innovation, and ultimate failure.  By adding in some private, some alternative options, we can reverse that trend and watch our students flourish again.  Eventually, the public system will either adapt themselves to provide value again or they will vanish, and every student will be the better for it.

MALDONADO: We can start by funding it. Once we legalize and tax marijuana and reform the criminal justice system we will be able to pay our teachers a competitive wage. We have too much bureaucracy in education; administrators spend more time with paperwork than they do the students. The final fix for education will be at the local level, between teachers, parents, and students.

What are your thoughts on the State’s corporate subsidy programs? Do you feel that the State treats some corporations and/or industries more favorable than others?

POWELL:  The two establishment parties do little but play favorites.  As a Libertarian, I will act without fear or favor to establish greater equality before the law and root out subsidies, incentives, and tax credits.

LAWHORN:  Again, I addressed this above, but I’ll make it a simple ‘eliminate them’ here.  The government has no business picking winners and losers in the economy either on a grand scale or a micro scale.  The consumer deserves the right to decide.

MALDONADO:  The state should not be in the business of picking winners and losers in the private sector, nor should it engage in corporate welfare. For too long, the oil industry has had a monopoly on the economy of this state. Economic success is directly tied to the oil industry; under my leadership, we would move Oklahoma to a more modern and diversified economy.

What is your position on immigration?  Particularly the idea of open borders?

POWELL:  Immigration is primarily a federal issue and Oklahoma is not a border state, so the governor can have limited impact on this issue.  I would seek to be a voice in favor of a policy that would reduce the incentive to enter our country illegally by increasing opportunities for peaceful individuals to immigrate legally to participate in and grow our economy. By reducing barriers for such individuals, it will be easier to detect and stop those who may attempt to come here with harmful intent, making us all safer.

LAWHORN: Oklahoma doesn’t have an immigration policy, and I feel the discussion at the state level is just as pointless as abortion. The federal government is going to do what they are going to do, and we can’t stop them, but we don’t have to cooperate, either. If a human is in Oklahoma, living as an Oklahoman, working as an Oklahoman, buying and selling as an Oklahoman, they are an Oklahoman and should be treated as such.

MALDONADO:  I am for open borders, as long as those who come here are willing to pay to stay. In Belize, you have to pay a $100 monthly fee, in return, you are allowed to stay, and even drive. The revenue from a similar policy implemented on a state level could go a long way to getting our state out of debt.

Do you feel that the state’s drug laws are too stringent?  If so, what do you think needs to be done to change these laws?

POWELL:  Attempting to arrest our way out of a problem with an intoxicant has never worked and will never work, it does nothing but incentivize bad behavior on the part of everyone involved including law enforcement.  We need to end cannabis prohibition, not just to avoid the waste and immorality of punishing those who use cannabis rather than a more accepted substance such as alcohol, but in order to allow for medicinal and agro-industrial uses.  With other substances, we need to move away from filling our prisons with users through foolishly heavy-handed laws and move towards increasing opportunities for those who develop an addiction problem to find a path towards more healthy behavior.

LAWHORN: Of course they are.  The War on Drugs needs to be renamed the War on the Poor, and it has been ineffectual on solving the addiction issues so strongly affecting Oklahoma. First, pass SQ 788, likely on the same day you elect me.  It needs to be carried forward into recreational marijuana as well, and the next step is to stop prosecuting people for seeking help.  Putting people in jail who have already taken the first step to admitting they have an issue to conquer is completely counterintuitive to the discussion of criminal justice.

MALDONADO: Oklahoma’s drug laws are more than stringent; they are downright oppressive. Much of the reforms needed, such as restructuring the scheduling system, are going to have to come from the federal level.  As governor of Oklahoma I will appoint judges that share these views and start to roll back the many roadblocks that stand in the way to true reform.

How would you reform the state’s criminal justice programs?

POWELL:  We need to prioritize how we use our valuable prison space to make sure that only those individuals who are a danger to others are imprisoned, while those who aren't likely to harm others are not put into a prison system which is in many ways is the higher education institution of the criminal world.  We also need to address the vast array of criminal fees that can quickly bury an individual with limited resources in debt, trapping them in a permanent outlaw status from which they cannot escape, a situation that not only harms the individuals caught up in the system but the rest of us as well as we pay law enforcement to try to squeeze blood from a turnip while creating more and more people who have little incentive to avoid engaging in criminal behavior.

LAWHORN:  I’m afraid of getting too repetitive at this point.  My plans on the pardoning of non-violent, non-property offenders, combined with the education, mental health and ceasing to prosecute those crimes are in detail in other answers.  Here, I will give special attention to the 19,000 non-profits operating in Oklahoma, and emphasize the importance they play in the treatment of addiction and mental health.  I think the most important thing the state could do is have a web-page will all the available services listed to ease in the finding of someone to help.

MALDONADO:  We can start by declaring an end to the drug war in Oklahoma. It costs the state far less to provide treatment than it does to incarcerate someone. Once the underlying issue has been treated we can teach them a trade and get them back into society. This approach is a win for everyone except the prison industrial complex.

Lately, certain members of society have come under scrutiny due to their religious preference. What is your opinion on the “threat” of Islam and what liberties do you believe they are entitled to?

POWELL: Religious freedom must necessarily mean religious freedom for all, or else it means nothing.  The behavior of a tiny number of people with extreme views, be it fundamental or radical religious groups from Wahabbists to Westboro, or extreme or discredited groups such as Sovereign Citizens or Antifa, should never be used as a means to restrict the rights of the vast majority of individuals who merely wish to abide by their own religious, secular, and cultural tenets in peace.

LAWHORN:  Islam is a religion, not a threat, and they are entitled to the basic liberties of every other person, regardless of practice. Like in everything else, if you aren’t hurting anyone else or their property, you have the right to practice, OR not, as you see fit.

MALDONADO:  I believe Islam is a religion of peace; however I do recognize that the radical elements of the religion have made this question relevant. My view is that anyone who is found guilty of terrorism beyond a reasonable doubt should be charged with the death penalty. Terror comes in many forms and from many places, not just Islam, and not just from religion.

Why are you running as a Libertarian as opposed to running as a Republican, Democrat or Independent?

POWELL:  I am a Libertarian, a word that means to be in favor of liberty.  That means something in a way that those other labels do not.  The label 'Independent' clearly doesn't give an indication of any particular belief.  Nor do those establishment party labels carry any substantive meaning, as one can hear a Republican talk about the sanctity of the electoral system or a Democrat talk about the rule of law without recognition of the etymology of those words and such arguments are only made with an eye towards temporary political advantage except in the rarest of cases.  It means something to be a Libertarian, and growing the Libertarian Party is the surest means to increase the popularity and influence of the ideas of individual liberty.  To choose instead to promote either of the two establishment parties is to choose to help self-serving entities that otherwise serve little useful purpose.

LAWHORN:  This is the easiest question you’ve asked.  Simply, it’s because I believe in the core values of the Libertarian Party. Our message is one that has been lost in the U.S. for well over a century and it’s time that we reinstate the idea of personal ownership and accountability into society.  It is the best way to affect social change and economic reform that will provide the environment where the phrase liberty and justice for all will again have meaning.

MALDONADO:  The motto of the Libertarian Party of Oklahoma is, “All the rights, all the people, all the time." The two-party system has run this state into the ground. New leadership is needed, with fresh ideas, and everyday common sense.

Why should the people of Oklahoma vote for you over your primary opponents?

POWELL:  I first became actively involved with the OKLP in 2000.  Neither of my opponents can claim such a long association with the state party, and I have experience as the state chair of the party and as a candidate of the party that my opponents do not.  For instance, in 2016 I received over 89,000 votes for Oklahoma County Clerk, beating out presidential candidate Gary Johnson's statewide total by over five thousand votes. 

LAWHORN: Although all three Libertarian candidates have many core principles in common, I have the education and the experience to put everything I’ve suggested into action, and I’m a natural facilitator. I’m highly responsive to the public and their desires, and I can meet them all, where they live because I’ve likely been there also.

MALDONADO:   I am the only true outsider in this race; the establishment is doing everything they can to keep me down. They are so scared I am going to win, they closed the primaries in an attempt to keep the nomination from me. If elected, I promise to be a governor for the people and that scares the establishment.

A commonly held libertarian position is regarding the non-aggression principle.  What is your understanding of this principle and what is your opinion on it?

POWELL:  The non-aggression principle is a proscription against the use of coercion to achieve political or social goals.  It is important to note that it in no way conflicts with the basic human right to self-defense.  I am in favor of the non-aggression principle and support having prospective LP members agree to it as a way to ensure that the LP continues to be the party of individual liberty.

LAWHORN:  It is the core value that most simply gives the underlying principle behind every Libertarian position. Don’t hurt people, except in self-defense. Don’t interfere with other people’s right to live their life as they see fit. Don’t take their stuff. Don’t break their stuff. It’s a very simple idea, yet is highly applicable to every aspect of a person’s life. Live free, and let others do the same.

MALDONADO:  I think the non-aggression principle is a great idea on paper, but neither practical nor effective in politics. In order to win we need to fight for our rights. My determination to fight is what sets me apart from my opponents. I want to win this election; the others only want to win enough votes to ensure we maintain ballot access. I want to be governor of ALL of Oklahoma, not the governor of the Libertarian party.

If you were nominated, how can you convince Republicans, Democrats and Independents that they would not be throwing their vote away on a third-party candidate?

POWELL:  There is a high degree of dissatisfaction with the establishment parties both on a national and a state level at this time.  The voting public has little confidence that our elected officials have their best interest at heart, and rightly so.  I will effectively make the case that the only way to effect change is to hit the establishment parties in the ballot box with a full rejection of both.  Voting for me and my fellow Libertarians sends an unequivocal and unmistakable message that what the Democrats and Republicans are doing is unacceptable, and that is the only vote that delivers that message.

LAWHORN:  Through practice.  Oklahoma is extremely fed up with the combined failures of both of the old parties, and we have the added benefit of two failed 2 term governors, one from each of the old parties.  I’ve been at this for 9 months now, and the ball is rolling.  It has not even been remotely difficult to convince them that we’re a positive vote and that we can win.  The larger challenge has been convincing them that we’re not like the old parties, and that can only be changed through conversation and personal relationship.

MALDONADO: I have the most diverse and inclusive voter base, broader than any other candidate running for governor. Not only do Libertarians like my message, but it also resonates with Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. My largest groups of supporters are millennials; the youth of Oklahoma are ready for a change. I am the only candidate that can bring together folks from all walks of life and bring this state back from the brink.

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Steve Long
Steve Long is a freelance writer that moved to Oklahoma from Seattle, Washington in 2010. He...
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