Every political candidate needs allies, and Jim Bridenstine has found support from a seemingly unlikely source. His most recent federal campaign finance report lists 66 donors who are optometrists, including Dr. Robert Zoellner, whose brother, Erik, serves as Bridenstine's campaign manager.
Bridenstine's opponent in the 1st District Republican primary race is incumbent John Sullivan, who has drawn the ire of Zoellner and other optometrists by introducing "federal legislation to govern what optometrists can do in Oklahoma," said Zoellner, denouncing a bill titled the "Healthcare Truth and Transparency Act of 2011."
It's a wedge issue that, rest assured, was not the focus of any audience-submitted questions when Sullivan and Bridenstine met June 12 at a forum hosted by the Republican Women's Club of Tulsa County.
Most of the optometrists wrote three-figure checks. But in the world of politics, such financial support can provide a vital boost to a political newcomer like Bridenstine.
He touts his experience as a pilot for the Navy. Now a pilot in the Navy Reserves, he said that, if elected, he would shift roles and not miss votes. Bridenstine also served for less than two years as executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium before leaving the post in 2010 to focus on his pilot duties.
Name recognition can work two ways, at least according to Bridenstine.
"I think more than anything, the name recognition of my opponent is very high, and this election is a referendum on him," Bridenstine said in an interview.
Sullivan did not respond by deadline to requests for an interview. At the forum, he described himself as an experienced legislator, listing accomplishments such as voting "35 times to cut $20 trillion dollars in spending in this session alone." He also spoke about his recent opposition to a proposed casino in Broken Arrow that has been halted by a federal judge.
"This election is also about my vision for the future, and I'm going to keep hammering away until Washington does what Oklahomans do every day, and that's balance the budget," Sullivan told the crowd.
Another remark that drew applause from Sullivan was his call to audit the Federal Reserve, the branch of government that loaned money out during the recent financial crisis.
Like Sullivan, Bridenstine also listed the national debt as a top priority, describing it in the forum as a threat to national security.
While Sullivan has been a member of Congress since 2002, that experience isn't necessarily going to translate into voter support, said Bridenstine-supporter Ken Crow, co-founder of the Restoring America Project, a super political action committee, Crow cut his political teeth as a tea party organizer in Iowa, helping birth the Tea Party of America.
Bridenstine said he had never heard of Crow's latest group until he got a phone call from the group. Then, he decided to fill out a form online to be considered for an endorsement.
Crow said he's impressed by Bridenstine.
"I know what it takes to get through flight school and become a naval aviator," said Crow, himself a Navy veteran who worked on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.
Bridenstine now gets labeled a Tea Party-backed candidate. That's fine with him.
"I have no problem being called the Tea Party-endorsed candidate at all," Bridenstine said. "They're looking for constitutional conservatism, they're looking for limited government, they're looking for lower taxes, less regulation. And those are all ideals I adhere to."
Sullivan has the backing of the National Rifle Association, and he also touts on his website a glowing score from The American Conservative Union.
And he seemingly has more people putting their money where their mouth is. Sullivan raised nearly $800,000 through March, compared to less than $140,000 raised by Bridenstine in the same time period.
Crow said running for Congress as an unknown "is harder ... because of the level of expense of running a campaign." He added: "It makes it much more difficult for someone with no name recognition to raise the amount of funds needed."
As far as the boost from optometrists, those contributions totaled just a little more than $30,000, including $5,000 from the American Optometric Association.
Zoellner described in passionate terms his opposition to the Sullivan bill -- also introduced by Congressman David Scott, a Democrat from Georgia -- even though the bill didn't mention optometry by name. It sought to prohibit "health care professionals" from misrepresenting themselves in either statements or acts.
The bill also stated that "any person who is advertising health care services provided by such person, shall disclose in such advertisement the applicable license under which such person is authorized to provide such services."
It may not sound alarming, but it highlighted the divide between optometrists, who are eye doctors without a medical degree, and ophthalmologists, who are eye specialists with a medical degree. The American Optometric Association declared the bill "nefarious legislation" spawned by "organized medicine's lobbying machine," and took note that Sullivan had introduced similar legislation in the past.
An ophthalmology professional group has spent $10,000 to support Sullivan directly, and this month reported spending $39,000 independently on radio ads for Sullivan.
After criticizing Sullivan and "his medical cronies," Zoellner said he supports Bridenstine beyond just opposition to this one particular issue, calling him "honorable" and a "good man."
Bridenstine said "that particular issue, that's not why I got in this race," adding, "it wasn't even on my radar screen."
His opposition to Sullivan's bill is an extension of his political beliefs, he said.
"We don't need a congressman going to Washington, D.C. and trying to create more big government regulations. The state of Oklahoma is perfectly capable of regulating doctors and licensing."
He added: "My overall philosophy, which is very consistent with this, is that government governs best that governs closest to the individual."
The primary vote is June 26, and a strong turnout may be possible based on the approximately 250 people who packed the room for the candidate forum, making it standing room only for media covering the event. Only time will tell if Sullivan's name recognition will be an asset or a liability in this race.
Send all comments and feedback regarding City to
Share this article: