Stakes raised for Lieutenant Governor's race

Saturday, October 15th 2005, 6:26 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The stakes have been raised in more ways than one for the 2006 race for state government's No. 2 spot.

The contest to succeed Republican Mary Fallin stands to be the most expensive lieutenant governor's race ever in Oklahoma.

It also could be the most important of all lieutenant governor campaigns because it could determine the balance of power in the state Senate, said Gary Jones, state Republican chairman.

Democrats now hold a 26-22 majority in the Senate and Republicans are shooting to take over the 48-member chamber for the first time ever.

The possibility for a 24-24 tie exists if Republicans pick up two Senate seats, which they did two years ago. That also would give control to the GOP if they can again elect a lieutenant governor, who presides in a ceremonial capacity in the Senate and can vote to break a tie.

House Speaker Todd Hiett, R-Kellyville, announced last week that he will run for the Republican nomination and plans to become the first lieutenant governor candidate to spend over $1 million to get elected.

Hiett already has about $650,000 and says his expenditures on the race could approach $2 million.

Four years ago, Fallin spent $982,504 in her successful re-election bid against Democrat Laura Boyd. Fallin has announced she will run next year for the congressional post Ernest Istook is giving up to run for governor. Democrat Brad Henry has said he will seek a second term as the state's top executive.

State Sen. Scott Pruitt, R-Broken Arrow, is looking at taking on Hiett for the GOP prize and is expected to have an announcement this week.

``I feel very good about the prospects of funding a campaign that will be very competitive,'' said Pruitt, managing partner of the Oklahoma City Redhawks baseball team.

``To ensure there is a conservative voice in the race, we will be making an announcement soon about our intentions,'' the senator said.

If Hiett wins in the primary, he could be pitted in the general election against his Democratic counterpart in the House, Rep. Jari Askins of Duncan, who is seeking her party's nomination.

Askins stood to be the first female speaker until Republicans picked up enough seats in the 2004 elections to take control of the 101-member House for the first time in more than eight decades.

The Democratic House leader would not say how much she likely will spend in her bid to be lieutenant governor. ``We have a budget that we are working on,'' she said. ``I expect to spend a sufficient amount to get my message across to the voters of Oklahoma.

``It's unfortunate that we are talking about spending that much money on a campaign when working Oklahomans are having to worry about putting gas in their cars and heating their homes in the winter.''

The lieutenant governor's office has not been particularly good as a political stepping stone.

Democrat George Nigh is the only lieutenant governor to be elected governor of Oklahoma, although two lieutenant governors became chief executives after governors were impeached early in the state's history.

In 1982, Nigh became the first Oklahoma governor to be re-elected in the state's first $1 million gubernatorial campaign.

He is amazed about projections of a $1 million to $2 million lieutenant governor's race next year.

``I probably never spent more than $300,000 in any of my races (for lieutenant governor),'' Nigh said.

Oklahoma lieutenant governors have had longevity _ with three people serving 48 years since statehood in 1907. Nigh served 16, second to James Berry's 20 years. Fallin is nearing her 12th year in the office.

Hiett, a rancher, and Askins, an attorney and former judge, are running for statewide office after having served in the House the maximum 12 years allowed by term limits.

Pruitt could run for one more four-year term in the Senate.

During her tenure, Fallin drew attention through efforts to preside over the Senate in a bid to force the Democratic majority to pass a right-to-work referendum and workers' compensation reform.

Both Pruitt and Hiett see the office as a providing a good forum for promoting public policy.

Hiett said the chances of a 24-24 Senate deadlock means the lieutenant governor's office could be ``critical in determining the direction'' of the Legislature.