Running for 3rd District congressional seat risky business

Saturday, April 20th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Running for Congress is always risky business, but it's a bigger gamble than usual this year for candidates from southeastern Oklahoma.

Three declared Democratic candidates have made life-changing decisions to run for the 3rd Congressional District post being vacated by Republican Wes Watkins.

The question is: Will the ``Little Dixie'' district once represented by former U.S. House Speaker Carl Albert even exist after a reapportionment fight is settled?

The Democratic trio is betting it will, while wondering if it will be a race for an open seat or against a well-financed incumbent.

Adding to the high stakes is the fact that one candidate gave up her job as district attorney to make the race; another sold his business and the third is leaving a powerful position in the Oklahoma Legislature.

``It does make it more interesting, obviously,'' says Kalyn Free, who resigned as Pittsburg County district attorney to enter the contest. ``One of the things folks keep asking is: Are you going to be in our district?''

That question may have to be answered by the courts, which will have to sift through a plethora of redistricting plans produced during the process of whittling the current six congressional districts into five.

Oklahoma is losing one of its Congress members because the state's population did not grow as fast as other states in the 1990s.

One plan Democratic 3rd District candidates hope will not be adopted has been promoted by Republican Gov. Frank Keating and GOP members of Congress.

It would fold the Little Dixie counties of southeastern Oklahoma into a new 2nd District, now located exclusively in the growing area of northeastern Oklahoma, and represented by Brad Carson of Muskogee, the state's only Democratic congressman.

A plan advanced by House Democrats would encompass much of the ``old'' 3rd District that Watkins, formerly of Ada, represented for 14 years as a Democrat. The district was extended north to Payne County after the 1990 census and Watkins ran for the district from Stillwater, winning as a Republican.

The House plan has drawn objections from Republicans because it would extend far enough into Oklahoma County to place GOP Rep. Ernest Istook of Warr Acres, now of the 5th District, into the new 3rd District.

Another redistricting plan pushed by Senate Democrats also has been blasted by the GOP because it would place Istook into a new 5th with fellow Republican Rep. Frank Lucas of Cheyenne, now the 6th District representative.

Keating has vowed to veto any plan that places incumbent Republicans into the same district.

Both state and federal lawsuits have been filed to resolve the issues, and the Oklahoma Supreme Court is currently weighing a request that it take over the case.

Meanwhile, the 3rd District candidates say they will continue their quest for votes in southeastern Oklahoma and hope for the best.

Keith Butler of Ada, past president of the Ada Chamber of Commerce, has sold his trucking business to concentrate on his first run for public office, while state Rep. Mike Mass, D-Hartshorne, is giving up the chairmanship of the House committee that writes the state budget.

State Sen. Billy Mickle, D-Durant, also has been mentioned as a possible candidate. Mickle has not declared his candidacy and has not been actively campaigning.

So far, no Republican has announced.

Mass said prospective candidates are in a Catch 22 situation because of the high cost of campaigning for Congress, especially in the 3rd District, where candidates must buy television space in bordering Arkansas and Texas, as well as in Oklahoma.

``I'm confident we will wind up with a good district, one that keeps at least the traditional portions of the district intact,'' said Mass, whose campaigning has been concentrated in those areas.

Free said she also has been campaigning in the southeastern quadrant of the state, but also has been spending time in suburban areas like Midwest City, figuring the district will have to extend into Oklahoma County to pick up population.

``I haven't heard anybody who is for being combined with the second district,'' she said.

Mass said the Keating plan would destroy the flavor of the district. ``I don't think there is any court anywhere that would approve that kind of plan,'' he said.

Butler said he began conducting a low-key campaign last spring, well before Watkins announced his retirement.

``I've probably spent the bulk of my time from Ardmore to Idabel to Ada, in that triangle,'' he said.

Butler said he would like to keep the district's southeastern and southern counties intact, but would not mind picking up areas such as Norman.

``I do not believe that incumbency protection is one of the criteria that should be considered,'' he said. ``It is not contemplated by the Constitution.

``And I would remind everyone that before Wes Watkins decided not to run, the governor's own plan contemplated having Istook in with (4th District Rep. J.C.) Watts.''