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As Tulsa mayoral election nears, County Commissioner Karen Keith emerges as the frontrunner

District 2 County Commissioner Karen Keith, left. State Rep. Monroe Nichols, right.
Dylan Goforth
The Frontier
District 2 County Commissioner Karen Keith, left. State Rep. Monroe Nichols, right.

Keith enjoys a large fundraising lead and decades of name-recognition in the city of 400,000 people. Her chief opponent believes there’s still time to overcome those advantages.

Karen Keith has emerged from the latest campaign finance reporting period with a large fundraising lead in her attempt to become Tulsa’s next mayor, and polling conducted by Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police has her with a large lead over her opponents.

With less than four months to go before Tulsa selects its next mayor, Keith, a longtime television reporter in Tulsa and current District 2 County Commissioner, has emerged as the front-runner in the race to replace G.T. Bynum. But she says she’s determined not to act like it.

“My approach has always been that it, may look like I’m the leader, but that’s absolutely for the voters to decide,” Keith, a Democrat, told The Frontier this week. “I like to run like I’m behind.”

Keith, on name recognition alone, looked the part of leading candidate when she announced her candidacy last year. She’s been an elected official since 2008 and spent more than two decades on television at Tulsa’s KJRH channel 2 before that. The latest campaign finance reporting shows her with a commanding fundraising lead, with nearly $400,000 on hand as the race nears its final months.

Her chief competitors, Monroe Nichols, who currently serves in the state Legislature, and Jayme Fowler, a Tulsa City Councilor, ended the period far behind. Nichols, who has spent aggressively in recent months trying to catch Keith, has just $39,715 in his coffers, and Fowler, who loaned himself $69,500 in the last quarter, has $101,135 on hand.

Keith, in recent months, has continued to talk in broad strokes about issues she plans to tackle if she is elected mayor. She wouldn’t speak in specifics, but told The Frontier she wants to begin to address Tulsa’s homelessness by “making the city a lot friendlier” when it comes to permitting for affordable housing. She believes doing that would allow the city to look at housing developers “more as partners than someone we work against.”

She says she wants to work directly with the city’s growing Asian and Hispanic communities to highlight their contributions to the city, much in the way Tulsa’s Black Wall Street has become a focal point of the city’s downtown.

“I’d like to build those nodes up for tourism to match what we’re doing now in (the Greenwood District downtown),” Keith said. That district now includes Greenwood Rising, a museum dedicated to telling the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

“It’s not a pretty story sometimes, but telling Tulsa’s story is important and there’s a bit of a renaissance around that,” she said.

It’s not just a fundraising lead that Keith enjoys. Though none of the candidates have shared internal polling results with The Frontier, Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police Spokesman Jeff Downs said they had polled the city’s 5th District in recent months and found Keith supported by more than 50 percent of voters there.

“The 5th District is kind of a good representation of Tulsa as a whole,” Downs said, noting the polling was done before Casey Bradford, a local businessman, joined the race.

Nichols, who, like Keith, is a registered Democrat, said that despite Keith’s advantages, he feels good about where he’s at. His fundraising ran behind Keith in the last quarter, though he noted he was splitting his time between running for office while also participating in a contentious legislative session 100 miles away in Oklahoma City.

“I think most campaigns come down to the last 4-5 weeks,” Nichols told The Frontier. “I think a lot of people will make (their) decision from August 1 to August 26th.”

Nichols said he’s known Keith for “quite a while” and considers her a friend. If she were to win, he said he would support her and she would do well as mayor.

“But I think it’s clear I’m the best candidate,” he said. “And I think voters will agree.”

To avoid a runoff, someone will have to attain more than 50 percent of the vote on election day. Nichols said he thinks he’ll emerge victorious, but if a runoff would work in his favor as well.

“That just gives me more time to show people why I should be elected.”

He was somewhat critical of what he called Keith’s strategy, which he considers “playing it safe.”

Keith, he said, is well-liked and well-known in the community and she’s leveraged that, something Nichols admits she “has earned,” to her benefit.

“I love Tulsa and I’m a good person is not enough of a reason (to elect someone mayor,)” Nichols said. “I think this is showing in how she’s campaigning. There’s no real north star in why she’s doing it in my opinion.”

Nichols said there’s a challenge in chasing down someone like Keith. He’s spent aggressively, including the last quarter where he spent more than $20,000 more than he brought in, knowing she has a large warchest and could spend the final few months of the race buying television commercials that are out of his financial reach.

But he thinks there’s a challenge in being the frontrunner, too.

“There’s a challenge with being a frontrunner – you’ve got to perform,” Nichols said. “Tulsa needs a workhorse as mayor, and that’s me. I think we’re going to come down the stretch and Tulsans will pick the workhorse.”

The Frontier is a nonprofit newsroom that produces fearless journalism with impact in Oklahoma. Read more at www.readfrontier.org.
The Frontier is a nonprofit newsroom that produces fearless journalism with impact in Oklahoma. Read more at www.readfrontier.org.