Folks in Norman have always thought there is something strange about their water. But it's hard to imagine that "Lake Dirtybird" " what some Norman residents call Lake Thunderbird " could have this much influence over a political race.
Wallace Collins is a familiar name to Normanites. The Democrat served in the Legislature for two terms during the Nineties, lost two close elections to regain the seat, and finally prevailed in 2006. He served as Cleveland County Democratic Party chair while waiting for his chance to get back in the state Capitol.
Collins is known as a hard campaigner, and that reputation will be tested again this year, as an unusually crowded Republican primary has emerged. Four GOP candidates filed to hopefully take him on in the fall, some of whose names are as known in Norman as he.
"I've offered to loan some of them (opponents) to other legislators who didn't draw an opponent," Collins joked. "I've said I've done this job and made it look so easy that anybody thinks they can do it."
IN THE HUNT
In the hunt to unseat Collins are former Mayor Ron Henderson and City Council member David Hopper. Also competing for the Republican nomination are Aaron Stiles and Les White. Having a crowded primary field to take on an incumbent in a state House district is not a common political trait. Is there something in the water?
"When a bunch of people line up to take on an incumbent, that's a sign of vulnerability," said Keith Gaddie, a University of Oklahoma political science professor and Norman resident. "You would think one would be enough, but you got several in this race. They sense something going on."
One fact the Republicans know: Collins has lost before.
"I think Republicans in Norman see the opportunity to bring more conservative representation to District 45," Hopper said. "This district has a recent history of being represented by a conservative Republican for six years before Mr. Collins won the seat in 2006."
History of the district also shows that even when Collins has won, his victories came by slim margins. In beating Rep. Thad Balkman two years ago, the margin was only 90 votes, out of more than 10,000 cast. Collins' previous victory in 1998 was by even fewer votes.
"That district is like the 50-yard line of Oklahoma politics," said Gaddie, who also serves as an Oklahoma Gazette commentary writer. "It's a swing district. The incumbent has never been safe in that district."
Stiles interned in former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts' office before settling into his Norman home-renovation business. A 1997 graduate of Carl Albert High School, Stiles earned a degree in communications from OU in 2003 and a Juris Doctor in 2007. He also served in the Oklahoma Air National Guard.
Hopper has spent the past six years on the Norman City Council. He has also served on the Norman Public School Foundation and the Cleveland County Citizens Advisory Committee. He believes this experience will convince voters he is the candidate to separate out among the crowded Republican field.
Stiles said he believes it will come down to sweat.
"I think that all of the Republican candidates have a very similar message, and that is, each one of us (is) a much better alternative to Wallace Collins," Stiles said. "The primary will simply boil down to which one of us is going to work harder."
Henderson served on the City Council for 10 years, starting in 1991, then moved on to mayoral office in 2001. He was defeated in his re-election bid in 2004. He has owned the Mr. Shortstop convenience stores in Norman for more than 35 years.
White, 34, is currently a student at OU majoring in economics.
Although Collins does not have a primary opponent, he is taking no chances. His campaign signs have already dotted east Norman.
"The district is big," Collins said. "It takes six months to cover it. I can't wait until September and say, 'Well, I need to start campaigning.' I've got to start as soon as the session is over."
The primary is slated for July 29. If none of the GOP candidates receive at least 50 percent of the vote, a runoff of the top-two primary finishers will take place in August. "Scott Cooper