Dr. Ervin Yen, an Oklahoma City anesthesiologist and former Republican state senator, plans to challenge Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt in the 2022 governor’s race, saying he’s disappointed with the governor’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Even as ballots are still being counted in the 2020 presidential race, Yen, 65, filed candidacy paperwork this week to run for governor in 2022. Campaign finance reports show he still had about $159,000 remaining in his 2018 Senate campaign committee.
A Chinese-American, Yen was the first Asian American elected to the Oklahoma Legislature when he was elected in 2014.
He said he’s been disappointed with several decisions Stitt has made, including a push to privatize Medicaid, eliminate Health Department rules that would have increased vaccination rates and move the state health lab from Oklahoma City to Stillwater.
“All of those things bother me, but what bothers me the most is the state’s response, or lack thereof, to this coronavirus,” Yen said. “It just ticks me off, and the more deaths we have, the more ticked off I get. And I have no doubt it’s going to get worse, because we’re not doing anything to slow it down.”
The number of new confirmed coronavirus cases and hospitalizations both reached record one-day highs on Thursday, and data from Johns Hopkins University shows the rolling seven-day average of daily deaths in Oklahoma has increased from 11 to 15.
Yen said if he were governor he would impose a statewide mask mandate for people in public indoor places and mandate vaccines for everyone unless they have a medical reason.
A spokesman for Stitt’s campaign declined to comment on Yen’s candidacy.
Stitt, a mortgage company CEO who had never run for public office before, emerged from a crowded Republican field in 2018 that included former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett and then-Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb. Stitt has faced criticism from some medical groups for not imposing more restrictions, including mask mandates, to help control the spread of coronavirus in Oklahoma.
Dr. George Monks, the head of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, which has pushed for a mask mandate and criticized Stitt’s plan to support managed care for Medicaid, also declined to discuss Yen’s candidacy.
“Right now, our most important issue is working with Gov. Stitt and trying to save as many lives as possible in Oklahoma,” Monks said. “We’re not even thinking about 2022 and who’s running for office.”
During his time in the Senate, Yen was an advocate for improving Oklahoma’s childhood vaccination rates. He tried unsuccessfully to get rid of an exemption that allows parents of public school children to opt out of required vaccines for religious or personal reasons.
Anti-vaccination groups targeted Yen in the 2018 GOP primary, and he lost to veterinarian Joe Howell in the primary. Howell then lost in the general election to Democratic state Sen. Carri Hicks.
Although he describes himself as a “pro-life” Catholic, Yen would often push back against some of the more far-reaching anti-abortion bills, like a measure in 2016 that would have made it a felony for a doctor to perform an abortion in Oklahoma. Yen described the measure as “insane” and voted against it.
Former Republican Gov. Mary Fallin later vetoed the bill, saying it was clearly unconstitutional.