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US representative Ernest Istuk says he's running for governor to help Oklahoma grow. He claims Brad Henry's legacy is a bigger state government and fiscal irresponsibility, but Istuk's vision is a stronger private sector, which he says would create more higher paying jobs and lots of opportunities. Among his campaign pledges are plans to cut taxes, strengthen education, and crack down on undocumented immigrants. Yesterday on KGOU, we spoke with Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Sullivan. So today, as part of our ongoing primary election coverage, we talk with Ernest Istuk about the race and his political views on a variety of issues. When I met with Istuk recently at his campaign office in downtown Oklahoma City, I asked him why he decided to give up his secure seat in the US House to enter a tough race against a highly popular incumbent governor. The answer is that this is not about me. This is about our state. This is about the future of Oklahoma.
Yes, people tell me, Ernest, you could have stayed in Congress the rest of your life. If you'd wanted to do that, it could have been re-elected easily. And I appreciate the compliments that they're giving me there. But no matter what I was accomplishing in Washington, if things were not on the right track here in Oklahoma, I sure wouldn't be happy. After all my job in Washington is representing Oklahoma, and I want to continue to represent the state. I hope Oklahoma to grow. And we're not growing like the rest of the country. We're growing at about half the rate of the rest of America. We're the only state west of the Mississippi that lost a seat in the US Congress. It's not because we like good people. We have lots of good people. We have some great resources. But it's a leadership issue. Oklahoma has done some things for decades. I think that have held us back. And certainly the current governor, I think, represents the old way of doing things. And I want to represent a new way. How is your campaign been going so far? Oh, I'm really happy with it.
Obviously, the first step is to win the Republican nomination, which we're going to do on the 25th of July. And then we have the ability to focus people's attention upon the contrast between myself and brand Henry, between what I believe and what he believes. And between the leadership I want to provide and the lack of leadership, which I think he represents. I suspect you enter this race not expecting you'd have to do much campaigning or spend much on ads until after the primary. Were you surprised at the fierceness with which your opponent Bob Sullivan has campaigned against you? Well, I know that he probably would not like to be described as fierce or angry or anything like that. I mean, I just meant the momentum of it. Okay. Well, people can decide for themselves the tone of his advertising on whether it fits that. But certainly, you know, when you have a well-funded opponent who is a wealthy individual, he, you know, his business has been running the family business and so forth. And certainly, you know, he's worked hard, which I appreciate.
I think we've worked every bit as hard. In fact, I think that we've worked harder and I think we're going to have a very strong and solid victory in the primary. I imagine you expected his campaign to be much quieter, like those of your other opponents, Jim Evinoff and James Williamson. I don't think that I could answer that that way because I didn't have an expectation, so to speak. I didn't enter the race to run against him or anybody else in the Republican ticket. I decided to run my own race and we've run it on our terms, not somebody else's. I did want to give you a chance, though, to respond to some of the charges he had raised a while back. And some of his ads, the first one, as you recall, was that you were a big liberal spender, which I know kind of raised some eyebrows among many political observers, even many who may have. That doesn't pass the laugh test to put that label on me. His ad criticized several, your specific votes on funding for so-called pork barrel projects like the Realism Kentucky tattoos, tattoo removal in California. First of all, it's unfortunate that somebody tries to distract people from the true issues in this race about the size of government, about the growth of government, about the growth
of the state of Oklahoma, nevertheless he tried to focus attention on some things that really were doubly dishonest, for example, making people think that there was ever a vote about whether to fund Gorillas of the zoo in Kentucky. There was never a vote about that. That was one tiny part of a $52 billion bill to fund veterans programs. And I don't like it when some senator slips something into a bill that shouldn't be in there. But ultimately you have to give an up vote or a down vote on a package and you cannot pick and choose which persons you want. So it was either vote to fund the veterans in their hospitals to fund the benefits for veterans' widows, for disabled veterans, for orphans of veterans and so forth, or to say because somebody put something into the bill that didn't belong there, I was going to vote against all the veterans funding.
That would have been an irresponsible vote if I had said the overwhelming good things in the bill don't count and just one little corner of it as all that matters. So those ads were not an honest portrayal of that vote at all. You know I have been one of the leaders for responsible spending in Washington. I was recognized last year as one of the top 25 conservatives in the House of Representatives. The challenge in Washington is this. You have to make agreements on an overall budget and which I've always worked to make that as low a number as possible. But you have to make agreements and you know some people on a higher number, some people on a lower number and if you don't participate in the process they'll go make it compromised with somebody that wants a higher number still. Sullivan's second ad accused you of blocking lawsuit reform and costing Americans billions of dollars in his words. Your campaign manager responded as you've said this is another case of Sullivan deliberately ignoring the truth and that you voted in favor of lawsuit reform more than 60 times including
voting yes on every major reform bill signed into law since he took office. I interviewed Sullivan the other day and he actually handed me this list. I just wanted you to take a look at and have you respond specifically. He says it documents about 15 instances over the years where you voted against lawsuit reform measures often when most of the other Republicans in the House have voted for them just looking at that. What's your response? Well first of all, I'm not spending my campaign trying to spend all my time responding to the distortions from Mr. Sullivan. Now you may want to make the whole interview about that but I think that's misplaced. But let's talk about lawsuit reform. I have as I said, voted over 60 times for lawsuit reform. That doesn't mean that everything that somebody brings up that they choose to label as lawsuit reform is actually a good proposal. I actually pay attention to those if something is a good lawsuit reform I'm for it. If something goes too far and might hinder people's legal rights in our justice system, then I don't vote for it.
So perhaps you have some people that will vote for anything that is labeled by a proponent as lawsuit reform. Well, that would not be a responsible thing to take. It's like doing all your shopping according to a label on the box and paying no attention to the contents. I pay attention to the contents. I think we do need legal reform. I've supported it, you know, I've supported it and we passed the bills that I supported on products liability reform, on class action reform, on bankruptcy law reform. I've supported legislation to make it mandatory, not just optional, but mandatory that you award legal fees against people that bring frivolous lawsuits. So I've supported plenty of lawsuit reform and it's a distortion to try to claim otherwise. So as you've just explained, you record me on both these two issues, lawsuit reform and government spending. You're saying that they're not at all the way, Selvins portray them. So I'm just wondering, these are the two biggest issues he's chosen to focus on. It's pretty weak, too, aren't they? So are there really any substantial policy differences that you see between you and him?
The sense I'm getting from you is that he's trying too hard to make differences where there aren't differences. Well, he's trying to manufacture differences for political purposes. For someone that says he's a political outsider, he seems to learn the dirty tricks game pretty quickly. So, you know, I'm not campaigning on differences between myself and Bob Sullivan. I'm campaigning based upon the vision that I have for Oklahoma, a vision that I think will never accomplish with Brad Henry in the Governor's office. You know, Brad Henry represents the old, chronistic ways that have kept Oklahoma stagnant for too many years. Yes, right now, we have a state economy that has oil and gas revenue that is producing some money for state government, but that conceals the fact that Oklahoma is not growing as we should in other areas. And I'm talking about these things. You see, my opponent talks about distracting issues. I'm talking about the big picture.
I'm talking about the fact that we have too many young people that leave Oklahoma to seek opportunity. We have too many job-creating businesses that leave Oklahoma for tax reasons. And let's talk about immigration here. A big reason we have the immigration challenges we do is that we have failed to fix the welfare system. We pay Americans not to work. And then that attracts people to come here to fill the jobs that should have been taken by Americans instead. It's not enough to talk about border security when we talk about immigration, because most illegal immigrants are not at the border. They've migrated here to the heartland. So the state government needs to be involved, not just expect the federal government, but the state government needs to be involved in making sure that illegal aliens do not get public benefits, also to make sure that they are not the ones that are being hired. The state governments have a major role in the immigration issue. It's been recognized by most states, but Brad Henry doesn't want to address it. And that's why I'm running for governor.
It seems like the decision many voters will be making in this primary basically comes down to the experience and background levels of the various candidates. You've of course been a politician for more than two decades, Sullivan, on his side's been a long time businessman. So on the one hand, for your advantage, you've been in politics a long time. You know the system in and out on his side. He's calling you a career politician, and he's saying career politicians are responsible for the financial mess our governments in right now. How do you respond to that criticism that you're a career politician? Well, the point here is that I have devoted years that I could have been using to generate a higher income for myself and my family, and I've devoted that to public service. Here's the real difference. The point is not just whether somebody is conservative. I'm staunchly conservative, but I'm also capable. I've done a lot of things to bring high-paying jobs to Oklahoma. I've dramatically expanded the funding available for medical research that brings some of the best high-paying jobs that we have, has made Oklahoma City one of the fastest growing medical research communities in the country and improves the quality of health care.
I got the start-up money for the Weather Research Center down at Norman that is attracting jobs from all over the globe, again, great-paying jobs. Senator Inhoff and I got the start-up money that attracted a $1 billion investment from Boeing at the MRO at Tinker Air Force Base. That's the maintenance repair overhaul training center that's being put in there. I've been involved in these things to bring jobs here. The difference here is, yes, I have a track record. That means somebody can try to single out things and attack you over them, but it also shows that I don't just talk to conservative rhetoric. I put into action and I achieve results that have been beneficial to people here in Oklahoma and their families. I wanted to ask you about a few specific issues, first of all, Tabor. The taxpayers' bill of rights, you've come out in support of it and you said you said that you would vote for it if it's on the ballot this fall, but the greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce actually has voted to oppose it, and some critics have said that when Tabor was enacted in Colorado, it was disastrous to government services led to dramatic
budget cuts for things like teacher pay and childhood immunization programs, how do you feel about that? Well, first of all, what we call by the acronym Tabor, which stands for taxpayer bill of rights, is a proposal for a constitutional limit on the size and growth of government. That's, you know, first of all, the concept, I think, is a solid concept. The priorities that we have, whether it be like you say immunizations, early childhood education roads, you name it, all of those things need to be funded within the constraints of the limits of a balanced budget and the limit on the size of government. So it's not a threat to any specific program, it's just a requirement that you prioritize. Now this particular proposal, I don't think it's perfect. As I said, if it's on the ballot, I'm going to vote for it because we've seen dramatic growth under Brad Henry in the size of state government that's been uncretailed. We do need a constitutional limit.
However, I think we could do better than what's proposed. Just limiting the size of government does not guarantee the growth of the private sector. If this table is not on the ballot, then I want to work toward a better constructed table, one that not only controls the growth of government, but also stimulates the growth of the private sector. That's the kind of constitutional language that I would like to sponsor. So perhaps the private sector could take up some of those services that government formerly took care of? Well, it's not a question of services, it's a question of growth, it's a question of opportunity. Some people like Brad Henry think that anytime there's a problem, there should be a government program to address it. Well, most Oklahoma's don't think that way, and I don't think that way either. I believe that government should be limited government, and people should accept more personal responsibility. You've also been vocal in your criticism of so-called activist judges who've issued rulings
that have been troublesome to you on issues such as gay marriage and largely because of them you've pushed for a constitutional amendment that would define marriages between one man and one woman. I heard an interview recently with former Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor where she expressed serious reservations about the kind of label activist judges, the gist of what she said was that much of the conservative criticism of the courts threatens in her words, the independence of the judiciary and the freedoms of all Americans, how do you feel about that? Well, you know, I appreciate Justice O'Connor, he even had the opportunity to have dinner with her one time when she was here in Oklahoma City, but I don't think it's any threat to say activist judges are a problem. And I think the term activist judges does apply. And I think the argument that we're threatening the justice system by condemning judicial activism is a bogus argument. I mean, I think she was concerned about kind of the separation between the judicial and legislative branches.
You know, when the judicial branch injects itself in decisions that belong either to the people or to the people's elected representatives, they are undermining democracy. You see, we have too many decisions that have been taken away from the people. And that discourages people from participating in the political process. If people think that they no longer have a say in important decisions, that those decisions instead will be made by unelected judges, then people don't engage in the political process. They don't vote. They don't get involved. The underpinnings of democracy are threatened by that. Religion seems to have played a major role in many of the campaigns this primary season. I know that you're a Mormon. Would you mind speaking a bit about your own faith and how it influences your public life and your political decisions? Sure. I'm a faithful member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is often known by the nickname of Mormons. As a Christian, my faith in Jesus Christ is essential to me. It's an important part of who I am.
And I've worked with the faith community on a lot of initiatives. I've worked obviously with Christians of all types, whether they be evangelicals or baptists or other Protestants or Catholic or whatever. I've worked with a lot of members of the Jewish community. I've worked with the Islamic community and others too. My point there is that we need to protect faith in America. And again, sometimes people take the approach of saying, all the way to protect faith is to stop people from talking about faith in public forums and to actually censor it. People should not be offended by religious expression. Tolerance means that you let somebody express their faith rather than trying to stifle that expression. So that's why I've sponsored the legislation, for example, trying to say, it's okay. If kids want to be able to pray in school, they should be able to do a graduation ceremonies. If people want to have public displays of the ten commandments for goodness' sakes,
permit that. And these judges that tried to take out under God from the pledge of allegiance, again, were part of the activist judges that we talked about. They're out of step with the American people and also out of step with what I believe our founding fathers believed. Ernest Isstuk has represented Central Oklahoma in the U.S. Congress since 1992, and before that as a member of the State House of Representatives, he's currently seeking the Republican nomination for Governor. To hear this interview again or to hear yesterday's discussion with gubernatorial candidate Bob Sullivan, visit our website at and stay tuned to KGOU over the next week for more special coverage in advance of next Tuesday's primary election. Tomorrow we'll feature a profile of a raki-born physician and Republican candidate Johnny Roy, who's running for Congress in the 5th Congressional District. Our regular political commentator Keith Gaddy will join us again this Friday for some
final analysis before voters head to the polls. And Sunday at 11, we'll broadcast a debate between Sullivan Isstuk and the other Republican candidates for Governor, Jim Evenoff and James Williamson. I'm KGOU News Director Scott Gurion.
OK In-Depth
Ernest Istook Interview
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Scott Gurian interviews Ernest Istook about his political campaign for governor.
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Interviewee: Istook, Ernest
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Chicago: “OK In-Depth; Ernest Istook Interview,” 2006-07-19, KGOU, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 26, 2024,
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