OKLAHOMA CITY – Two Republican candidates for the state Senate seat formerly occupied by Stephanie Bice exchanged verbal punches for three and a half hours Wednesday, each vying to knock the other off the ballot.
They succeeded in committing political fratricide.
The list of candidates vying for the open Senate District 22 seat was reduced by one-third after the State Election Board struck two of the Republican contenders from the ballot. The board voted to remove Darrick Ross Matthews, 39, and Robert D. Johnson, 46, both of Edmond.
Johnson, who formerly represented District 22 in the Oklahoma Senate, challenged Matthews’ candidacy, and Matthews, in turn, challenged Johnson’s. Both won at the expense of the other.
Board Chairman Tom Montgomery of Muskogee and member Heather Cline of Oklahoma City voted to disqualify both candidates. Vice Chairman Dr. Tim Mauldin of Norman, the Election Board vice chairman, was absent. So was State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax, who had a family medical issue.
Matthews was represented by Oklahoma City attorney Anthony J. Ferate, who is general counsel for the Oklahoma Republican Party. Johnson was represented by Oklahoma City attorney Robert McCampbell.
Four candidates are still contenders to succeed Ms. Bice in SD 22. They include Republicans Jake Merrick, 39, of Yukon, and Keri Shipley, 48, of Edmond; and Democrats Molly Ooten, 31, and Dylan Billings, 31, both of Edmond.
The winner will complete the two years remaining on Bice’s four-year Senate term. Bice, R-Edmond, ousted 5th District U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Oklahoma City, in last month’s general election.
The special primary election in SD 22 is set for February 9, 2021, and the special general election is scheduled for April 6, 2021.
Johnson v. Matthews
Johnson pointed out that Oklahoma County Election Board records show Matthews was not a resident of SD 22 for 10 days, between November 4 and November 14.
Matthews registered to vote at a residence on Highlander Ridge Drive in Edmond on August 31, 2018; changed to an address on Autumn Creek Drive in Edmond on November 4, 2020; then switched back to the Highlander Ridge Drive address on November 14, 2020.
He claimed it was an unintentional error that occurred while he was using his mobile ‘phone to show his grandmother how to change her voter registration record. Matthews said his grandmother is 89, lives alone in Crescent, and might move in with his parents.
Matthews also said his grandmother wanted to change her voter registration because she thought the results from the November 3 presidential election would be nullified and she wanted to be able to vote for Donald Trump. Yet no one asked why she thought she had to change her address in order to do that.
“There’s simply no way” Matthews could have made the address change to his own voter registration record inadvertently, McCampbell argued, because the computer program requires a voter to input specific data for security purposes.
McCampbell said “the weight of the evidence shows” that Matthews switched his voter registration address so he could file for the state House District 39 seat if incumbent state Rep. Ryan Martinez opted to run for Bice’s open Senate seat. When it became obvious that Martinez would instead remain in the House of Representatives, Matthews switched his voter registration back to his original address, McCampbell said.
Matthews v. Johnson
Matthews maintained that Johnson does not live in SD 22.
On his declaration of candidacy, Johnson listed his home as an address on Villagio Drive in Edmond, but Oklahoma County Assessor records show that residence is owned by someone else. Also, Johnson claims a homestead exemption on a house 10 miles away on NW 149th Terrace, Assessor records show. That residence is in state Senate District 47.
Johnson’s wife is registered to vote at the NW 149th Terrace address, in SD 47; Johnson used that address when he registered with the State Ethics Commission as a lobbyist; the Oklahoma Bar Association lists that address as the location of Johnson’s law practice; and the parish directory of the Catholic Church the Johnsons attend lists that as the family’s home address.
But Matthews’ voter registration lists a house on Fenwick Boulevard in Edmond that he sold two years ago, County Assessor records show, and that address appears on the voter ID card he showed when he voted in the statewide general election last month.
Johnson testified that he has been registered to vote in SD 22 for almost three decades, since 1992. He said his dog groomer is in SD 22, he buys his groceries in SD 22 and frequents a restaurant in the district, his CPA’s office is in that district and so is his dry-cleaner’s business.
Johnson said he has a “sentimental, emotional attachment” to Senate District 22, largely because his father, Mike Johnson, held the SD 22 seat for 12 years before he “termed out” in 2010. Rob Johnson, who served two terms in the Oklahoma House of Representatives (2005-08), then ran for the post and won, but stepped down after one four-year term (2011-14) to “spend more time focusing on my family and my law practice.” Bice replaced Johnson in SD 22 in 2015.
McCampbell said residency is “a lenient standard” when considering a candidate’s qualifications for a public office, and argued that Matthews’ challenge of Johnson’s candidacy shouldn’t even be considered after he was knocked off the ballot.
The Election Board, though, ruled that Matthews was a viable candidate when he filed his challenge. And Cline noted that it wouldn’t have been fair to knock one of the candidates off the ballot just because of the order in which the two challenges were taken up for consideration by the Election Board.