"Jari ain't Mary." So says the website of the same name sponsored and maintained by the Oklahoma GOP. Without exception, both sides in the gubernatorial race believe the statement, so it's at least a little ironic that such an ambiguous domain name was chosen.
Sid Hudson, Askins' campaign manager, chuckled at the name of the site. "We have to agree with them on that," he said.
The site purports to compare the positions of both candidates on key issues, yet no one in the Askins camp recognizes the alleged positions of the candidate they are supporting.
"I don't know a single person who knows Jari or who has worked with her who would call her a dangerous liberal," Hudson said. "This is a bunch of crap. Some politicians do use their position as a bully pulpit; they do give their opinions about things for which they can't even vote. Jari could give an opinion on cap and trade, but it's just an opinion. I think Oklahomans would prefer she be more concerned with helping run the state of Oklahoma."
Like her opponent, Lt. Gov. Askins is one of the best-known politicians in Oklahoma, male or female, and the state has been her passion for most of her life. She's earned the begrudging respect of her opponents, out-of-state attack ads aside.
Matt Pinnell, chairman of the Oklahoma GOP, talked about what a remarkable year this is in Oklahoma politics, primarily because the gubernatorial race is one of the most interesting in the country, and because the candidates are Oklahoma icons.
"This year, in this election cycle, it's not about personalities, though," Pinnell said. "It's about positions on issues. Mary Fallin has vastly different positions than Jari Askins on the most important issues facing Oklahomans: health care reform, immigration reform and cap and trade energy policy. The Democrats are saying that they are focused on issues related to Oklahoma, but those are issues related to Oklahoma. The people of Oklahoma need a governor who will stand up to an overreaching administration."
Alex Weintz, communications director for Mary Fallin's campaign, said the new television ads for Askins are "pretty striking."
"They are devoid of substance and issues," Weintz said. "She talks about Oklahoma, being from Oklahoma, and how much she loves it. That's great. I'm not demeaning her for that, but Mary is talking about issues: health care, spending, energy, education."
According to her friends and co-workers, Askins is quintessentially Oklahoman. She can no more run for governor without discussing her love for her state than she can do her job without loving her state. Oklahoma and its people are what motivate her. It is, in the words of close friend Sherri Boyd, "the higher aspiration that helps Jari be a force for good."
'THE PROPER MIX'
Askins grew up in Duncan, and the values of an Oklahoma farming community are fused into her ethics: hard work, integrity, decency, morality, faith and family. It may sound a bit like a campaign brochure, but those are the words used by people who both worked with her and ran against her.
"I worked with hundreds of legislators over the years," said Cal Hobson, former Senate president pro tempore and runner-up to Askins in the 2006 lieutenant governor primary, "and Jari was one of probably five legislators who were prepared to be effective when she arrived. The breadth of her experience is amazing: education, judicial work, executive experience, legislative experience, volunteerism and civic duty. She is the real thing."
Hobson called the recent ads that have been sponsored by the Republican Governors Association, a Washington, D.C.,-based political action committee, "a Washington hit job by people who don't know and don't care about Oklahoma."
The ads run through the same list of bullet points used on jariaintmary.com.
"If people in America didn't want their politics the way they want their lunch " fast food " lies and distortions wouldn't be believed," Hobson said. "Jari Askins is Oklahoma. She is the proper mix of well-educated, progressive, experienced woman combined with the conservative values of Duncan, Okla."
Laura Boyd, a former state representative who served in the state House with Askins, called the ads "interesting and dishonest."
"Why does a Washington-based organization attack someone who has never been to Washington? Her record of service in Oklahoma has been exemplary," Boyd said. "I think she will be an exciting governor and an experienced voice of reason at a very challenging time in Oklahoma history."
Boyd called Askins' ability to lead unparalleled: "From economic concerns to budget issues to corrections to issues of concern for Oklahoma families, Jari has the ability and depth of understanding to listen to all sides, find common ground and lead. I was always impressed by her complex thinking, her brilliant mind and her willingness to listen and to increase her depth of understanding."
Askins remembers the day she decided to take those attributes and apply them to legislative efforts in and for Oklahoma. She was a judge at the time, and she was listening to attorneys argue the interpretation of DUI laws.
"It's not that DUI was particularly the issue," Askins said. "It was that the DUI laws seemed to change every year, and I was being asked to interpret laws that didn't need to change every year. I thought to myself, 'This is ridiculous. We can do better.' I left the bench shortly thereafter."
'WHO DEMOCRATS ARE'
Askins said she knew she was a Democrat; there was never any doubt that she would run as such.
"My dad was a small-town businessman," she said. "He owned a business. My mother was involved in community volunteerism. I believed then and I believe now that that is who Democrats are."
This seems to be the rub, and it's certainly the focus of the RGA's ads: Democrat equals liberal equals Obama. One of the ads even has an image of Askins next to President Obama.
"People in my church in Duncan laugh when they see those ads," Askins said. "If those ads accurately reflected who I am, I'd never get elected in Stephens County. This is a tactic that's being used across the country, and I'm not going to be a notch in someone's belt. Those people don't care about Oklahoma; they care about winning, about putting a notch in the win column."
Robert Butkin, a professor of law at the University of Tulsa's College of Law, was the state treasurer from 1995 to 2005. He met Askins 29 years ago, before the list of accomplishments in Oklahoma political history began: first Democratic woman elected lieutenant governor, the first woman to become Democratic leader of the state House, the first woman to be elected state representative from Southwest Oklahoma and the first woman to chair the state Pardon and Parole Board.
"People sometimes overlook the breadth of her experience," Butkin said. "She has experience in all three branches of government, she has experience with banking and finance and with criminal justice. And, critically for our political climate, she has the ability to disagree without being disagreeable. Jari is strong and she is smart, but she is also able to hear all sides and take what's good from all sides. The older I get, the more important I realize that trait is."
As for the woman portrayed in attack ads, Butkin doesn't know who she is.
"I'd say the paid political media doesn't do anyone any good these days," he said. "I was a better public servant because I knew Jari Askins. That's the kind of public servant she is."
Askins is not new to the innuendo and rumor mills. Those who follow Oklahoma politics know that Askins is a lifelong single female.
"I'm a lifelong single because I prefer not to be married to someone I don't love," she said. "I always anticipated being married, being a mom, and holding the political office of PTA president. It didn't work out that way. Instead, I've chosen to take care of children in my home state by channeling my energies into child welfare issues and education in a legislative capacity."
Irrespective of the outcome, Oklahoma will have a female governor. Both sides are excited and hopeful about that, because, as Askins put it, "It says to young girls and young women that there is no limit to their aspirations in this state."
Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series on Oklahoma's gubernatorial candidates. A story on Mary Fallin ran Oct. 13.
top photo Candidate Jari Askins speaks at a gubernatorial forum at Oklahoma City University. Photo/Mark Hancock
bottom photo Barry Switzer said he's impressed with Jari Askins' "ability to speak to many different demographics, and how she had something of value to say to anyone who heard her."