Ten years ago, when she first ran for the state House District 23 seat in east Tulsa, Sue Tibbs says she never envisioned she'd someday be facing the prospect of having to give up the seat because of term limits.
"I don't even think I thought about that," the Republican lawmaker said, recalling her first campaign in the fall of 2000. "You're amazed you get the opportunity to serve, that you get chosen to be one of the 101 (representatives). You hope to do good things for Oklahoma."
But having won the seat five times already, that's exactly the situation Tibbs will find herself in if she wins re-election to her District 23 seat on Nov. 2, leading to her sixth and final term in office. Hoping to retire Tibbs one term early is her Democratic challenger, Mark Manley, the former Tulsa coordinator for MoveOn.org, a family of progressive, grassroots nonprofit organizations.
This is not Manley's first foray into politics. In 2008, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives 1st District seat, losing to Georgianna Oliver. More recently, he helped coordinate a MoveOn rally a little more than a year ago in downtown Tulsa expressing support for President Obama's health-care reform bill.
Now working in the intensive care unit at St. Francis Hospital, Manley said his top priority for Oklahoma is promoting education. He expressed strong support for State Question 744 -- a measure that, if approved by voters, would require the Legislature to fund common schools at a per-pupil amount that is at least equal to the average per-pupil amount spent by the states surrounding Oklahoma.
"We've got to get the funding to fix our schools and put Oklahoma education on par with the rest of the nation," he said. "We've tried to fix it before, but those laws allowed that money to go in the general fund, and it wasn't spent on education. This mandates by law that the Legislature spend money on schools. It changes the Constitution."
Tibbs takes the opposite view of the proposal.
"I have not been asked to take a stand on it, but I'm definitely against it," she said. "It has no mechanism for raising money, so where are they going to get that? By my calculations, taxes would need to be raised about 32 percent, and where are we going to get that? The other option is to cut the budgets of other agencies 20 percent, and I don't think we can allow that."
But Manley said over the last 25 years, state revenue has increased an average of 5.2 percent per year, a figure he said would cover much of the cost of the increased education spending called for in SQ 744.
"The people behind State Question 744 have explained pretty well how we can do that," he said.
Manley said he also supports safer streets and the creation of clean energy jobs, both of which he believes are directly related to an improved education system.
Both candidates are longtime residents of the district, which largely lies east of the intersection of Interstate 44 and the Broken Arrow Expressway, extending to 177th East Avenue. Manley recalled that before several flood-mitigation projects were constructed 20 years ago, the area flooded with regularity, a factor that hindered its development for many years.
Tibbs said she still recalls when the area began growing and many Tulsa residents believed it would become the new center of town. That hasn't happened over the ensuing years, but the district has become much more diverse in recent years because of an increasing minority population. Even so, she said, voter registration in the district has remained almost even split between Republicans and Democrats.
The hallmark of Tibbs' tenure at the Capitol has been her effort to get a voter-identification bill passed, something she finally succeeded in doing last May after numerous attempts. State voters also will decide the fate of State Question 746 -- which would require voters to produce a government-issued ID card with a photograph or a voter registration card in order to cast a ballot -- on Nov. 2.
"We approached it a different way this time, starting the bill in the Senate, then going through the House," Tibbs said of her legislative strategy on behalf of the voter ID measure. "I'm very proud of that."
Manley isn't as enthusiastic about the measure as his opponent.
"I'm not particularly fond of it," he said. "It's liable to keep a few people from voting, and I don't think there's a big problem with voter fraud."
Tibbs said another focus of hers has been getting a bill passed aimed at placing restrictions on the ability of motorists to send text messages while driving.
"We did not get everything we wanted in the cell phone bill, but we did accomplish something," she said. The version of the bill that ultimately was approved by lawmakers applies only to younger drivers, providing for a $1,000 fine for each violation.
"We're trying to save young people's lives," she said of the measure. "We will go back next year and come back with a more stringent cell phone bill."
The veteran lawmaker also said she was proud of her support for programs that help women getting out of prison be reintegrated into society. If she is re-elected, she said she will turn her attention next session to encouraging lawmakers of both parties to support an overhaul of the state's criminal code.
"We need to redo the criminal code in the state of Oklahoma," she said. "Kansas redid theirs, and their prison population is between 9,000 and 10,000, and they have about the same population as us. Our prison population is about 26,000. We need to set some priorities and be smart about crime. But I also realize there are people in prison who should never be out, and I'm all for that."
Because of his experience at MoveOn, Manley said one of his major concerns is the outsized influence he believes certain elements of society have on the legislative process.
"My main thing is to get rid of lobbyists altogether -- that and campaign finance reform," he said. "We need to have more transparency in campaign spending. We need to know where every dollar comes from and where it's spent."
Manley cited statistics indicating that there are four lobbyists registered for every legislator in Oklahoma City and 20 lobbyists registered for every member of Congress in Washington. Those figures indicate the size of the problem, he said, particularly if you examine who many of those lobbyists are employed be.
"Corporate influence on government is something that has been a problem for many, many years," he said.
In his experience at MoveOn, Manley said he concentrated on national issues, spending much of his time working for improvements to the nation's health care system. Though he helped stage a rally in support of the president's proposed health-care overhaul last year, Manley sounded disappointed at what ultimately emerged from that process.
"We didn't get what we hoped to get," he said.
Still, he counted his experience at the organization as time well spent, indicating he learned many valuable lessons -- including one big one, he said.
"That you can work for change -- it's not that complicated," he said. "Working for political change is not that difficult. Most people sit at home and think they can't make a difference. But it's not that complicated."
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