Incumbent Republican Gov. Mary Fallin and Democratic state Rep. Joe Dorman of Rush Springs faced off Thursday night at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater in the only scheduled gubernatorial debate before the November 4 elections.
The two candidates focused on education and public safety issues and sparred over the current administration's handling of the economy.
Dorman repeatedly challenged Fallin's record as governor and presented himself as the outsider in the race.
“We need real leadership that will not simply talk about the issues, but take action and work in a bipartisan manner,” Dorman said. “I am that person who started in the mail room and worked my way up to here."
Fallin stood by her policies as governor and sought to contrast the present situation with the conditions in the state when she took office in 2011.
"The results have been that now we have the fourth fastest growing economy in the nation, we've created over 103,000 new jobs and our state unemployment rate has dropped to 4.7 percent," Fallin said. "Our state was literally broke. We only had $2.03 in our bank account, our savings account. And we had tens of thousands of Oklahomans that were out of work and unemployed. We had a budget deficit of $500 million."
A panel of journalists and Oklahoma State University students asked questions during the hour-long debate between the two OSU alumni. The forum was co-sponsored by OETA and the League of Women Voters.
Dorman did not accept Fallin's argument that the state's finances and educational rankings have improved significantly during her administration, or under the leadership of State Superintendent Janet Barresi.
"We have seen problems especially with our education system," Dorman said. "Where teachers have not received a pay raise, where students have had trauma placed on them through third grade high stakes tests, the A-F grading system, and cuts in education to the tune of $200 million for common education."
Fallin defended the state's A-F school accountability standards.
"Along with new funding you must also have high academic standards, you must also have accountability," said Fallin. "You must inspect what you expect. And that's why I set standards as one of our top priorities."
The candidates repeatedly clashed over the issue of funding for storm shelters in schools and public safety after the 2013 Moore tornado that destroyed two elementary schools and the 2012 attack at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
Fallin suggested local bond issues as a funding mechanism for school storm shelters.
"I did propose that we would allow schools and local control of local school districts and local citizens to be able to have the opportunity to vote for a bond if they chose to be able to put in safe rooms," Fallin explained. "I wouldn't be increasing property taxes, the voters would be voting on that. That's what's called local control."
Dorman, after stating that school safety was the issue that drove him to run for governor, argued that Fallin's proposal fell short.
"We found a better solution than raising taxes, we found that we could use the franchise tax and use that to back up the bonds," argued Dorman. "Use that money and match with FEMA dollars and that would have provided the $2 billion necessary to build storm shelters in the schools."
Neither candidate’s proposal became law in the previous legislative session.
In closing remarks Fallin emphasized her track record of conservative principles.
"We stood up for the things that are important to the values of Oklahomans," Fallin said. "I'm the only conservative in this race."
Dorman stuck to his focus on educational issues and the need for new leadership at the state Capitol.
"This has been an amazing experience as I've traveled around the state learning about the needs of Oklahomans," Dorman said. "We must see real leadership and certainly, going back to education, we must have a champion for those students. A champion that will eliminate these ridiculous tests and put appropriate standards in."