State rep. candidates disagree on local issues

KEVIN HARVISON | Staff photoState representative candidates running for Districts 17 and 18 discuss topics Thursday during an election forum. Pictured from left are Donnie Condit, Peggy DeFrange, Jim Grego, and David Smith.

State representative candidates varied on several local issues discussed at an election forum.

The candidates fielded questions Thursday at a forum conducted at Eastern Oklahoma State College’s McAlester Campus and presented by the McAlester News-Capital, Ignite McAlester and the McAlester Area Chamber of Commerce.

Incumbent District 18 State Representative and Democratic nominee Donnie Condit faces Republican challenger David Smith in the Nov. 6 General Election. District 18 represents Coal, Hughes, McIntosh, and Pittsburg counties — including Allen, Arpelar, Ashland, Atwood, Bromide, Calvin, Canadian, Centrahoma, Coalgate, Crowder, Eufaula, Gerty, Hanna, Hitchita, Horntown, Indianola, Kiowa, Lamar, Lehigh, Longtown, McAlester, Phillips, Savanna, Stidham, Stuart, and Tupelo.

Democrat Peggy DeFrange and Republican Jim Grego face each other in the race for District 17 State Representative. District 17 represents Latimer, LeFlore, and Pittsburg counties — including Alderson, Canadian, Crowder, Fanshawe, Haileyville, Hartshorne, Krebs, LeFlore, Longtown, McAlester, Pittsburg, Quinton, Red Oak, Savanna, Talihina, and Wilburton.

The representatives started with opening statements before being asked by News Editor Adrian O’Hanlon III and Managing Editor James Beaty about several issues facing their districts.

Condit said he has been a resident of District 18 for 38 years, that he takes the position seriously and would be honored to serve another two years.

DeFrange opened by saying she is running because “I’m a mother, a grandmother, a teacher, a mental healthcare worker, I have been a ranch worker,” and she wants to put children, families and education first.

Grego told those in attendance that they would hear differences between the candidates during the forum.

Smith said the election is not about the candidates, but about citizens “and what y’all need” before saying the people need to start getting tax breaks.

Candidates were first asked their opinions on State Question 801, which would remove restrictions on how school districts spend property tax dollars.

Condit said although it could allow tax dollars to go toward teacher salaries, he would vote against SQ 801 because it could “set up a disparity between school districts.”

DeFrange said she will vote against SQ 801 because it “will let the legislature off the hook” for some educational funding and could create friction between teachers, school boards and more.

Grego said he is “all in” and will vote for SQ 801 because he believes it provides local control in allowing school boards to make more decisions.

Smith said he will vote against SQ 801 because “it should be the state supporting the teachers and the local people supporting their schools, like it is right now.”

The next topic addressed was what legislators can do to battle the opioid crisis.

DeFrange said one of the first steps should be increasing funding in mental health care, which she believes could help with problems the Department of Corrections faces.

Grego agreed with improving mental health care, adding that he thinks the Department of Health and other agencies could spend tax dollars more efficiently.

Smith called for legislators to readdress a voter-approved measure that reduced drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Condit said properly funding drug courts and mental health programs will help address addiction in the area.

Each candidate was then asked how their political philosophy compares to that of their political affiliation.

Grego said he stands for small businesses and creating more jobs to improve the economy and stands by the Republican party “100 percent.” Smith said he is also a proud Republican.

Condit said he stands with the Democrats and believes in rebuilding core services. DeFrange said she is proud to come from a long line of Democrats and believes it is the party that takes care of children.

Candidates were then asked about their top priorities.

Smith said children and education are his top priorities as he wants to reintroduce some programs that would set up students for future careers.

Condit said he wants to continue taking care of the elderly, the young, mentally and physically challenged, and veterans, in addition to focusing on local control in education.

DeFrange wants to emphasize children and education, but said caring for the elderly, veterans and mental health care services are also important.

Grego’s top priority is creating jobs “to get the ball rolling,” and said strengthening local schools and the rural health system are also keys.

Candidates were then asked their positions on expanding Medicaid.

Condit said “the hospital in Wilburton would be open today if we had expanded Medicaid” under the Affordable Care Act to take care of people in need.

“The only reason we don’t expand Medicaid is because of the title,” Condit said. “Everyone hears ‘Obamacare’ and they don’t want to have anything to do with it.”

DeFrange said millions of dollars “went out the door” when the state did not expand Medicaid, as both Democratic candidates said they favor expansion.

Grego said he would rather put the dollars he believes are needed to support Medicaid expansion back into education “because we can’t afford it.”

Smith agreed with Grego as both Republican candidates said they oppose Medicaid expansion.

A recent study listed Oklahoma as No. 1 in the world in incarceration rate and candidates were asked how criminal justice reform could help.

DeFrange reiterated that she believes in improving funding of mental health programs and “doing away” with private prisons.

Grego said “we need to do a better job of who we let out” and believes in improving the current prison facilities across the state.

Smith looked to education to help reduce criminal activity and said “we need to teach them that crime don’t pay.”

Condit said believes the biggest problem is that the state has not properly funded the criminal justice system.

Candidates were then asked how they will balance the needs of rural and urban areas.

“That’s why I’m running,” Grego said. He added that he believes the urban areas have the majority of votes and thinks he can help rural areas have more of a voice.

Smith said he believes they “go hand in hand” as people in both rural and urban areas work together.

Condit said he has lived in both kinds of areas and believes in working for the interests of constituents in both.

DeFrange said she was raised in Canadian and understands the struggles rural citizens face.

When asked about how to increase economic development, Smith said he wants to improve education in the area to strengthen the workforce.

Condit said education to build the workforce will help as he plans to work with various agencies to create more jobs.

DeFrange echoed the importance of education, saying “If we don’t put education No. 1, then we are not going to get companies here.”

Grego said the district has to work with the education system in place and has natural resources that “need to leave here as a finished product, not a raw product.”

Voters will decide which candidate will represent their districts at the Nov. 6 General Election.

Contact Adrian O’Hanlon III at aohanlon@mcalesternews.com