COVID restrictions and policing debate trigger conservative push | Government

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — By all accounts, the college town of Norman, Oklahoma, is a progressive stronghold in a state whose Republicans here boast of being the reddest of reds.

Norman’s population is bolstered by a young and diverse student body at the state’s flagship university, Oklahoma. All but one of the city’s representatives in the GOP-dominated state Legislature are Democrats. And the city of 122,000, located just 20 miles south of Oklahoma City, is home to more than 50 licensed marijuana dispensaries.

But when its left-leaning mayor and city council imposed restrictions such as mask mandates and business closures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and reallocated some of the city’s police budget during the movement Black Lives Matter in 2020, they sparked a conservative uprising. which led to the formation of Unite Norman. The group, which has recruited candidates for local offices and made once mundane council meetings louder, is now trying to galvanize Tory voters and oust the incumbent mayor.

It’s not the only traditionally blue city where politically unpopular decisions by local leaders have sparked a backlash from conservatives. In neighboring Texas, similar fights over the past two years have led to the creation of a GOP-backed political action committee called Save Austin Now, led by a Republican strategist. Although the Austin group was unsuccessful in increasing police funding, it did help reinstate a camping ban the city had repealed to decriminalize homelessness.

And in Seattle, the scathing anti-police rhetoric of a Democratic city attorney candidate ultimately helped voters in that deep-blue city elect a Republican to the nonpartisan position.

“We woke up this town and gave people a voice,” said Dr. Nicole Kish, 50, an optometrist Norman candidate for mayor and a staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump who helped found Unite Norman. “I’m very proud of it.”

The group launched a signature campaign in 2020 in an unsuccessful attempt to oust the mayor and some city council members. But he will get another chance to flex his political muscle next week when residents go to the polls for the mayoral election, the city’s first since the pandemic began.

Kish said she was partly motivated to run for mayor following the backlash she received for attending Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6 in Washington, D.C. Kish said she n had ever walked on Capitol Hill and described the event as “just a field trip.” “

She said that upon her return activists published her address online, called her an insurgent and attempted to shut down her optometry practice and have her medical license suspended.

“I never want to see another conservative company go through what I did again,” Kish said.

In an unusual twist, Oklahoma’s first-term Republican Governor Kevin Stitt weighed in on the nonpartisan race, endorsing Kish for the job despite not living in the city.

Among those challenging incumbent Mayor Breea Clark, 38, who runs a leadership program at OU’s College of Business, are Kish; Larry Heikkila, a retired Navy veteran; Bob Thompson, owner of a small grocery store and sandwich shop; and Alice Stephenson-Leuck, a retired farmer. If neither candidate gets more than 50% of the vote in next Tuesday’s election, the top two voters will face each other in a runoff.

For some residents of Oklahoma’s third-largest city, the rise of Unite Norman and the testy mayoral race have further exacerbated existing political divisions in the city, said Nicolaus Vannostran, 27, a waiter at a restaurant in local sushi.

“It’s definitely been divisive. That’s clear,” Vannostran said, as he lunched outside a cafe in a town center dotted with colorful murals, weed shops, bars. and restaurants. “And there’s a lot of misinformation that puts people at odds with each other.”

Vannostran’s friend Trinity Slough, 26, recalled being confronted inside a grocery store by someone angry that she was wearing a mask.

“I was so uncomfortable,” Slough said. “I was just trying to run errands.”

For her part, Mayor Clark does not apologize for imposing restrictions that she says would help slow the spread of COVID-19 or for supporting the reallocation of part of the annual budget increase. from the police department to fund community programs and mental health resources. However, she acknowledges that these decisions have upset some members of the community.

“While people have gone out of their way to share negative feelings, just like a lot of people have gone out of their way to share positive feelings, and that’s what I cling to,” Clark said.

Retired stockbroker Wesley Jack, 57, said he believed the Unite Norman movement started with good intentions, but moved further to the right than the ideological center of the city .

“They started with a good goal, which was to better focus the city council,” Jack said as he sipped iced tea over lunch with his girlfriend. “They’ve done that a bit, but they’re getting a bit more right wing than people thought.”

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