Gay candidate Jim Roth has been target of mailers attacking his sexual orientation
OKLAHOMA CITY — Political mud has been flying for weeks as four candidates vying for two seats on Oklahoma’s Corporation Commission make their final push for voters in the Nov. 4 election.
Underground videos of candidates raising money from regulated corporations, allegations of forgery, attacks about one candidate’s sexuality and claims of illegal campaign activity all have surfaced in recent weeks.
Running for a seat on the panel that regulates the state’s utility companies, trucking, and oil and gas industries generally doesn’t usually energize voters, but with recent spikes in gasoline prices and rising utility costs, voters seem to be paying attention.
"It’s not the sexiest job in the world, but it’s a very important job and the things they do touches people’s pocketbooks," said Rob Thormeyer, a spokesman for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissions. "Basically, they regulate the biggest industries around — utilities, telecommunications, transportation. These are industries that touch every fabric of life."
Also unusual is that voters will decide who wins two seats, a majority of the three-member panel. The six-year terms are typically staggered, but Commissioner Jim Roth was appointed last year to fill a vacancy created when former Commissioner Denise Bode stepped down.
Roth, a Democrat seeking to fill the remaining two years of Bode’s term, is pitted in a tight race against Republican Dana Murphy in a campaign that has turned particularly nasty.
In the other contest, incumbent Republican Jeff Cloud is seeking his second term on the commission against former state lawmaker Charles Gray.
Sparks started to fly when voters received a direct-mail piece questioning the morality of Roth because he is openly gay. Although Murphy’s campaign said it had nothing to do with the mailer, Roth’s camp struck back quickly with a pair of ads detailing court records from Murphy’s 1992 divorce in which she acknowledged signing her ex-father-in-law’s name to a legal document.
A woman in a buckskin jacket at the end of the ad says, "If Dana Murphy says she’ll treat you like family — run!"
"To go back and dig into a person’s personal life, I think that’s pretty unfair and pretty uncalled for," said Murphy, an attorney and geologist from Edmond. "I think it’s a cheap shot and really detracts from what the race should be about."
Roth, also an attorney who served previously as an Oklahoma County Commissioner, said voters deserve to know about a candidate’s background and says that he’s no stranger to personal attacks.
"Every opponent I’ve ever had has always attacked me personally, but I’m thankful that my job performance is so strong that they can’t attack my work ethic or my job accomplishments," he said.
If elected, Roth would become the first openly gay statewide elected official in Oklahoma and likely the first ever in a Bible Belt state, said Keith Gaddie, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma. Roth has the backing of numerous prominent business leaders in the state and has earned endorsements from Oklahoma’s two largest newspapers, The Oklahoman and the Tulsa World.
"There’s no such thing as gay electricity. It’s that simple," Gaddie said. "It’s also because Jim gets along so well with the business community.
"It’s still an issue that he’s got to confront, but it’s not something that will drop him."
It also hasn’t stopped him from raising money, with Roth reporting having raised more than $880,000 in the period ending Aug. 11, the most recent figures available. Murphy reported raising more than $224,000 during the same period.
For her part, Murphy says Roth lacks experience and touted her own record as a geologist in the oil and gas industry and her time as an administrative law judge at the commission.
"He was given this job, and I know a lot of his powerful political friends lobbied the governor so he could get it," she said. "Please tell me why a person who has been in government as a county commissioner is qualified to be a corporation commissioner?"
Roth has touted himself as an advocate for protecting Oklahoma consumers and says his job performance over the last year and a half speaks for itself.
In the other race for the full six-year term on the commission, recent polls suggest Cloud is enjoying a double-digit lead over Gray. Cloud’s most recent fundraising report shows he’s raised more than $313,000, while Gray only reported raising $17,000, most of that in the form of a personal loan to his campaign.
But Gray got some mileage out of a grainy video he released to the media that shows Cloud meeting at a swanky hotel in Dallas for a fundraiser with telecommunications officials.
Gray said he hasn’t raised as much money as his opponent because he refuses to accept contributions from industries he would regulate on the commission, a practice he said creates an obvious appearance of a conflict of interest.
"What sets me apart from all of these candidates is that I refuse to take money from people I would regulate," Gray said. "I just don’t think you can serve the people of Oklahoma and take money from these companies. You can’t do that."
Cloud said all of his contributions are legal and countered that Gray has made an issue of fundraising simply because he hasn’t been successful at it.
"He tried, I’m sure, to raise money from every source and he was rebuffed," Cloud said. "I wonder if when he was a legislator for all those years if he ever tried to change the law or if this was just a last-minute epiphany he had."