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Open seats offer chance for varied candidates

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GUTHRIE (AP) -- The pungent smell of fermenting sand plums fills the large steel building next to Bill Stovall's Logan County home.

In addition to his full-time work as a laboratory technician at the Lakeside Women's Hospital and his responsibilities as a father to a 3-year-old daughter, Stovall owns and operates the Moonfeathers Winery. He also recently added one more job to his busy life.

Like many average Oklahomans, he's running for elective office this year.

More than 30 posts in the Oklahoma House of Representatives are being forced open by a term limits law approved by state voters in 1990, creating opportunities for people with little political experience to run for office without facing an entrenched incumbent.

Stovall, 44, is campaigning for the Republican nomination for the District 31 seat covering portions of Logan and Oklahoma counties. The seat was held for 26 years by Frank Davis, R-Guthrie, who is leaving office because of term limits.

Stovall has more experience making wine than in making stump speeches.

"I've been making wine as a hobby since 1988," he said while striding through neat rows of Riesling and Merlot grapes near the winery. "The hobby has gotten a little out of control."

Disappointed with the Legislature's failure to enact a bill this year sought by the Oklahoma Grape Growers and Wine Makers Association, Stovall said he hopes to enact some change from the inside.

"The people that are representing us aren't in touch with who they're representing," he said.

Five other Republicans will join Stovall in the July 27 primary, Dale DePue, 68, an Edmond pastor; Steven Farley, 53, and Wayne Hlinicky, 54, both business owners from Guthrie; William Wheeler, 31, a Guthrie attorney; and Jason Murphey, 26, a web designer from Guthrie.

Independent Harvey Derrick, 57, an Edmond retiree, and Democrat Thomas Cook, 55, an Edmond attorney, await the GOP nominee in the Nov. 3 general election.

Similar races are setting up in districts across the state, where seats long held by popular incumbents are thrown open to a host of candidates who see themselves on equal footing with the rest of the field.

"There's no question that incumbency matters a lot at the state level," said Cindy Simon Rosenthal, associate director of the Carl Albert Center at the University of Oklahoma. "It's the open seats that are most likely to be winnable and attract competition in both parties."

In south-central Oklahoma, 62-year-old Democrat Willie Bridgeman and his family spend the week preparing catfish and roasting ears for the busy weekend rush at his restaurant -- the Catfish Platter -- south of Madill.

"We're farm people," said Bridgeman, who also runs some cattle in Marshall County. "Home folks is what they call us down here."

He said neighbors and restaurant patrons encouraged him to seek the open District 49 seat being vacated by term-limited Rep. Fred Stanley, D-Madill.

"I hadn't planned on running, but term limits got Fred," Bridgeman said, "and I had this business and I know everybody."

Joining Bridgeman in the five-way Democratic primary are Eric Ballou, 23, a Madill Banker; Terry Hyman, 52, a Leon farmer; John Rushing, 69, a Marietta rancher; and Georganne Westfall, 55, a retired educator.

Kingston Republican Wanda Cruson, 75, is the only Republican in the race.

Rushing, who served in the House in the 1960s, said after selling his custom van business in Texas, he thought the open Dist. 49 seat was a great opportunity to return to the Legislature.

"I've still got a few cattle, enough to keep my mind occupied," Rushing said. "Really, I don't have enough to do. A guy as active as I am, I need something to do."

Bridgeman and Rushing both say they would not have challenged Stanley, who held the seat for 14 years.

Oklahoma Democratic Party Chairman Jay Parmley said having a large pool of varied candidates running for an open seat is a positive effect of term limits.

"The candidates run the gamut," Parmley said. "They're school teachers, firefighters, farmers, former government officials. They really run the whole spectrum of professions, and that's exactly what our legislature is supposed to be. It's a citizen legislature."

But Simon Rosenthal said term limits in other states have not resulted in the diversity among lawmakers that supporters had hoped for.

"One of the things that term limits were supposed to promise was the opportunity for more women and minorities to get in the picture," she said. "That is not happening nationwide, and I don't see that happening in Oklahoma either.

"It's still predominantly white males who are running for state legislatures."

And while open seats may be attracting candidates with a wide variety of backgrounds, she said that doesn't mean those candidates will be serving in office in 2005.

"Open seats are likely to draw more people and more candidates, but the proof of the pudding will be at the end of the day when we see who's successful," she said. "You'll likely still see some of the same professions and backgrounds most likely to be represented."
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