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Commission candidates say third candidate can't run; election panel disagrees

From left, Tulsa County District 2 commissioner candidates Sarah Gray and Maria Barnes sit across from candidate James Rea and attorney Laurie Phillips during a hearing on Tuesday, April 16, 2024, at the county election commission building.
Max Bryan
/
KWGS News
From left, Tulsa County District 2 commissioner candidates Sarah Gray and Maria Barnes sit across from candidate James Rea and attorney Laurie Phillips during a hearing on Tuesday, April 16, 2024, at the county election commission building.

The Tulsa County Election Board ruled Tuesday that a county commissioner candidate can run for office after his two primary challengers argued he legally couldn’t.

Democratic District 2 commissioner candidate James Rea moved into the district right at the Oct. 2, 2023 residential deadline. State law says a candidate must permanently live in the district where they file to run for office.

Fellow Democratic candidate Maria Barnes filed a petition with the help of candidate Sarah Gray that argued a homestead tax exemption Rea filed in 2020 indicates he still considers District 3 home. Records show the exemption — which requires the recipient to live in the listed property — renewed in February 2024.

Tulsa County Assistant District Attorney Doug Pewitt determined Barnes’ argument was irrelevant to whether Rea met the required deadlines and criteria to run for the commissioner seat.

Election commissioners didn’t question if Rea owned the house at the residential deadline. Rather, they questioned if it was his primary residence, and questioned his intention to live in it.

Rea told the election commission under oath that he met deadlines to change his residence as soon as he could, such as applying for a new driver's license.

“That’s all that’s required,” Rea's attorney Laurie Phillips argued. “It doesn’t matter if he’s lived there for 20 years, or it doesn’t matter if he’s lived there for one day.”

“I believe we’ve got the merits are on our side,” Rea said after the hearing. “If they want to appeal, I feel confident that we’d prevail again.”

Gray said she would support Barnes' decision to appeal if she decided to do so. Gray argued in their closing remarks that Rea ostensibly not telling the county assessor about his address change in connection with the tax exemption “solidifies” their position.

“When there’s such serious questions regarding his actual residency and his actual intent to reside, we think that’s something worth exploring,” she said, arguing that having legal representation could help her and Barnes’ case if they choose to appeal.

Gray said the petition has "nothing" to do with the number of candidates in the Democratic primary.

"It has everything to do with the fact that there are candidates, including Ms. Barnes and myself, who have been residents of this district, and we meet all the requirements. And we just want to make sure we're running against folks who had to meet the same requirements that we had to," she said.

Rea is the District 2 deputy commissioner for current commissioner Karen Keith, who is stepping down to run for mayor of Tulsa.

Max Bryan is a news anchor and reporter for KWGS. A Tulsa native, Bryan worked at newspapers throughout Arkansas and in Norman before coming home to "the most underrated city in America." Several of Bryan's news stories have either led to or been cited in changes both in the public and private sectors.