Largent says he was misunderstood in Washington

Monday, June 24th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Vowing to be the kind of governor who can bring people together, Steve Largent says he was misidentified in Congress as a member of the radical religious right.

Largent, who is seeking the Republican gubernatorial nomination, said the wrong impression of him stuck in many people's mind after his first year in Congress, when he led an effort to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts.

``When you come out and let people know that you operate on a set of values and principles that emanate from your faith, as soon as you say that _ boom _ in Washington, D.C., you are part of the Christian Coalition _ Pat Robertson, or whatever the guy's name is, you're pigeonholed there.''

Largent, in an interview with The Associated Press, said he was ``not one of those people who's going to sit in front of this table and tell you I saw the Lord writing on the wall: 'Steve, run for governor.'

``I don't handle snakes, you know. I'm the guy next door in Oklahoma.''

While expressing pride as a social and fiscal conservative and railing against pornography on the Internet, Largent said he considered himself to have been part of the ``center right'' majority of 70 percent in Congress, not the ``radical'' 15 percent on the left and 15 percent on the right.

On a lighter vain, Largent wanted to set the record straight on another issue. Unlike baseball's Jim Palmer, the former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver said he never did men's underwear commercials on television.

While his young son wore boy's briefs in one ad, Largent said he was wearing sweats ``so don't think that I did underwear ads because I didn't.''

Largent, who grew up in Oklahoma City and now lives in Tulsa, faces political newcomer Jim Denny in the GOP primary. Running as Democrats are Vince Orza of Oklahoma City, a restaurant chain owner, and state Sens. Brad Henry of Shawnee and Kelly Haney of Seminole and state Rep. Jim Dunegan of Calera.

Some gubernatorial candidates, including Independent Gary Richardson of Tulsa, have advocated a state lottery to produce revenue for education.

Largent said a public official supporting a lottery was like saying, ``I've just thrown in the towel, I've given up on the faith that I have in the productivity of Oklahomans.''

Largent embraced several conservative causes, including expansion of the use of faith-based organizations to deal with social problems such as drug and alcohol abuse and poverty, saying they had a proven track record of success.

He also stood up for parental notification legislation, saying it is ``insane'' that his daughter could not get an aspirin from school officials without his permission but could get an abortion without notifying him.

On the issue of school prayer, he said he favored a moment of silence, but not a state-sanctioned prayer.

Largent said he had no problem with funding the arts, but attacked the NEA because in the 1980s it was using taxpayer dollars to finance what he called ``reprehensible'' and ``grotesque'' art work that was offensive to ''99 percent'' of Americans.

In other comments, the 47-year-old former congressman and NFL Hall-of-Fame receiver said that if elected he would raise teacher salaries, end state mandates on education, reform and reduce taxes, change the workers' compensation system and work to eliminate waste and fraud in government.

``I'm not necessarily sold on the idea that tax reform has to be revenue neutral,'' he said. ``It may be that at the end of the day, it has to be close to revenue neutral in order to get bipartisan support. But as a Republican, I still believe in lower taxes, not higher taxes.''

Largent said he favored reducing the state income tax rate from 7 percent to 4 percent and elimination of the estate tax, corporate franchise tax and sales tax on groceries. He said he wanted to phase out the income tax entirely over eight to 10 years.

He was not definitive on how he would make up the revenue loss, saying the debate on proposals to extend the sales tax to certain services was ``far from over.''

He said Gov. Frank Keating, the outgoing, two-term GOP governor, had built ``a launching pad'' for state growth ``if we choose to take off.''

Largent also said he will be ``dealt a better hand'' than Keating because he anticipates the state House will be going Republican, perhaps in his first term. Both the House and Senate have had Democratic majorities under Keating.

Largent contended a Republican governor will be better equipped to enact ``real reforms and real funding solutions'' for education.

``I think the political dynamic is such in Oklahoma that you elect an independent or a Democrat, you're going to have a tremendous fight on your hands from the right, from Republicans, to not do anything.''

He said he believed he could fund teacher raises, even in the current economic climate and while passing a tax package.

He proposed performance audits for every agency to find efficiencies and said there is room to cut administrative cost of education and the Medicaid program.

``I think everybody believes, Republican and Democrat, that there is a lot of duplicity, a lot of waste, and in some cases fraud that is going on in the dollars we appropriate in the state budget,'' Largent said.

While he backed a voucher system for schools in Washington, D.C., he favored vouchers in Oklahoma for failing schools only if other reforms do not work.