The attorney general's race features two candidates with remarkably similar values and a completely different understanding of the job. For Democrat Jim Priest, the role is tied to core programs that directly benefit the state. Republican Scott Pruitt is convinced that the line between state and federal issues is now blurred to the point that the job of an AG is to advocate for the state against an "over-reaching federal government."
Priest has been an Oklahoma City attorney for nearly 30 years. He has been active in charitable organizations like Habitat for Humanity and his local church's benevolence programs much of that time.
"I've always tried to render public service without running for office," he said. "My son graduated college last year, and it was always our goal to launch our kids successfully. When Drew (Edmondson) announced he was running for governor, it created an opportunity for me to consider this role."
His opponent, Tulsa attorney and former Oklahoma state Sen. Scott Pruitt, served in state government from 1998 to 2006. He too has taken an active role in community service. His longtime friend and Tulsa attorney Chris Thrutchley said of him: "Scott has always planned on using his legal skills, not just to take care of his family or make money, both those things are important, but he wants to impact the world. He's always been in public service."
Both are men of intense, personal faith. Pruitt is Southern Baptist; Priest is Nazarene. Priest speaks openly about his work with local churches to help the Oklahoma City community. Pruitt goes so far as to use a biblical metaphor to describe his role if he's elected.
In reference to the Office of Federalism he'd like to establish and the role of his attorneys as advocates for Oklahoma farmers and business owners, Pruitt said, "They have no one standing in the gap for them. I seek to be that person. ... I decided to get back into politics after being out for a few years because I see it as a step in response to what I see happening nationally," he said. "A new response is required from attorneys general nationally. An overreach from the federal government means the role of the office is now to maintain the balance between state and federal governments, to ensure the rights of Oklahomans are not violated. The federal government is seeking new, fundamental powers, like the power to force you to buy something you don't want."
He is speaking of health care, or "Obamacare," as he called it. It's one of a list of "federalism issues" that has led Pruitt to believe he must establish an Office of Federalism in the Oklahoma attorney general's office.
Priest's campaign manager, Jed Green, said it's the clearest differentiation between his candidate and Pruitt.
"The issue is priorities," Green said. "In a time of budget shortages and resurgent methamphetamine, Mr. Pruitt wants to spend tax dollars on frivolous litigation. Mr. Priest wants to focus on core issues of importance to Oklahomans: Identity thieves targeting senior citizens, cyber crimes against children and crimes related to methamphetamine."
Pruitt said it's no longer a simple matter of state issues versus federal issues.
"I was talking to the McCurtain County sheriff the other day," Pruitt said. "He was telling me about the escalation of methamphetamine-related crimes in his county. I asked him what could be done. He said, 'Cut down on illegal immigration.' The resurgence in meth is related to Mexican cartels importing meth into our state. Federal immigration law now impacts Oklahoma crime."
Priest concedes that the world is far more complicated, but he's worried about an overreaction.
"The federal government is not the enemy," he said. "People forget that they do many good things, as well as things that frustrate us. What we need is a measured response, and hauling off and suing them every time they do something that frustrates us is not a measured response." "Greg Horton
top Scott Pruitt. Photo/Mark Hancock
bottom Jim Priest.