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The White House Crisis and the Congressional Elections

August 24, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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REPORTER: A week from now it’ll either be over or sort of the next step in this congressional race. How do you feel right now about it?

BILL ANOATUBBY: I feel pretty good. Our grassroots effort has just been growing every day.

KWAME HOLMAN: Last Wednesday, Bill Anoatubby attended a small ceremony in the town of Ardmore, holding a check for $5,000. But unlike most candidates strapped for cash at the end of a political campaign, Anoatubby wasn’t accepting a contribution; he was making one.

SPOKESMAN: A check in the amount of $5,000.

KWAME HOLMAN: Bill Anoatubby is governor of the Chickasaw Indian Nation. Most of its 35,000 members live within Oklahoma’s borders. Anoatubby collected the $5,000 from Chickasaw businesses and around Ardmore, so the town could purchase a dog trained to sniff out illegal drugs. It’s part of a program to revitalize a rundown section of Ardmore that literally is on the other side of the tracks. Anoatubby said drugs, crime, and community are the kinds of issues people care most about. He says they’re not concerned about President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

BILL ANOATUBBY, Democratic Congressional Candidate: The people outside of the Washington beltway, we have lives too. Those things that occur up there may not affect us as much in our day-to-day lives as more of a-like that’s a stage and we’re watching it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Anoatubby is one of the four Democratic candidates hoping to win tomorrow in Oklahoma’s Third congressional district. And he says neither his image nor those of his opponents should be tarnished by the President’s recent admission.

BILL ANOATUBBY: This is an embarrassment for the president, more so than anybody. Wouldn’t you think? I mean, if-because I’m a Democrat, that doesn’t mean that all Democrats do these things. And so I can’t take his responsibility on myself.

KWAME HOLMAN: The district Anoatubby hopes to present in Congress consumes fully one quarter of the state, bordered by Arkansas to the East and Texas to the South. It’s a part of Oklahoma traditionally referred to as “Little Dixie.” The region is predominantly rural. Twenty-one counties were pulled together to achieve the 600,000 or so population necessary to create the district. The people who live on the farms and in the many small towns mostly are conservative. They read the Bible frequently and go to church more often than most. Politically, however, the district is solidly Democratic. Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one. It’s the district of former House Speaker Carl Albert.

SPOKESMAN: Rep. Wes Watkins. (applause)

KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, only Democrats represented this district until Wes Watkins was elected two years ago, and Watkins was a Democrat for his 14 years in Congress before becoming an independent and then a Republican.

REP. WES WATKINS, (R) Oklahoma: What’s been my mission in Congress-economic growth. What’s the objective-build jobs.

KWAME HOLMAN: For a short time this spring Democrats were confident they would reclaim the seat held by Watkins, an important step toward regaining control of the House. In late April, Watkins announced his retirement from Congress, following surgery for a painful back condition. But in June, claiming he had recovered more quickly than expected, and at the urging of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Watkins reversed himself and said he would run again.

REP. WES WATKINS: I do take this as a commitment-my job seriously-and I try to utilize my time and try to be effective up there for you.

KWAME HOLMAN: But voters in this district also like Bill Clinton. He carried the district twice and Watkins insists he, for one, won’t try to take advantage of the president’s troubles in his bid for re-election.

REP. WES WATKINS (R-OK): There are individuals who are very partisan. There are individuals who have probably tried to use the president’s problems in political advantage, but I think on the Democratic side it’s very difficult for them to discuss it, just like it is for a lot of us that don’t particularly want to discuss that.

GENE STIPE, Oklahoma State Senator: There’s always a temptation to jump on somebody on somebody that’s down.

KWAME HOLMAN: Sitting in the office of his successful law practice in McAllister, Oklahoma, Democrat Gene Stipe reflected on the rough and tumble world of politics, of which he’s uniquely qualified to do. Stipe, an Oklahoma state senator, has served 50 years in the legislature, longer than any other state legislator in America. Considered one of the last of the old political deal makers, Stipe is also as much a legend in Oklahoma as Carl Albert, himself. When we asked him about President Clinton’s trouble, Stipe blamed it on the tabloid-minded media.

GENE STIPE: It’s no different than it’s always been, except that the exploitation of the media of problems that used to be ignored because they were private, that no longer exists. No one has any privacy.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Stipe said President Clinton shouldn’t be counted out yet.

GENE STIPE: The first year I was elected I rode the train with Harry Truman-if you thought of the national press, he didn’t have a chance-we were all wasting our time riding around with him because he had no future-but he won the presidency and became one of the greatest presidents in a long time in my opinion. I still think there’s hope for Bill Clinton.

KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, none of the four Democratic candidates running in Oklahoma’s Third Congressional District said he was ready to abandon the president. We caught up with the remaining three on Thursday in the town of Toto near the Arkansas border. The event was a candidate’s speak-out, hosted by the LaFlore County Democratic Women’s Caucus. Despite the sultry early evening temperatures, enthusiasm in front of the courthouse was high. Candidates for governor, state legislature, county commissioner, and district attorney all got the opportunity to do some last-minute retail politicking among some 200 potential voters, so did Tony Litherland, a political science professor at Oklahoma’s Baptist University and one of the four Democratic candidates for Congress.

TONY LITHERLAND: I am the candidate on the bicycle. I have been riding in all 21 counties.

MAN: Is that right?

TONY LITHERLAND: For 943 miles.

MAN: 943 miles.

TONY LITHERLAND: Most of it in 100-degree heat.

MAN: Oh, boy, I know what you’re talking about.

KWAME HOLMAN: State Senator Darryl Roberts narrowly lost the congressional election to Wes Watkins two years ago. The former Marine is making another attempt. Walt Roberts, no relation to Darryl, is a former state representative and auctioneer and on Thursday teamed with gubernatorial candidate James Hager to show he’s an accomplished fiddle player as well. (music in background)

When we talked with the candidates Thursday evening, all were aware of the actions President Clinton had taken earlier in the day ordering military strikes against suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and Sudan. Each weighed the president’s public accomplishments against his personal problems.

WALT ROBERTS, Democratic Congressional Candidate: let me just tell you that I’ve traveled this district, the third congressional district of Oklahoma, since February, and of course, that’s been pretty much the topic of conversation for quite some time in the coffee shops, as well as other places, and I think people are really sick and tired of Ken Starr, they’re tired of the investigation into a civil matter, a very personal matter. Not that they condone the activity, not that they approve of it, and I think there are so many pressing problems that it’s really got people confused and a little bit cynical about what’s going on with the-what we feel like is a political witch hunt.

DARRYL ROBERTS, Democratic Congressional Candidate: It’s a distraction, and I believe from the important issues of the nation, which the president must involve himself in, that I have-I have been in all 21 counties in Southeastern Oklahoma and traveled seven/eight hundred miles a day on long days, and I haven’t detected anyone who thinks those problems deal with what we’re doing here in the third district.

KWAME HOLMAN: Only candidate Tony Litherland expressed concern the president’s acknowledgement of an affair with Monica Lewinsky could impact his campaign.

TONY LITHERLAND, Democratic Congressional Candidate: I would argue that it has a negative effect, because a lot of voters are cynical and apathetic already, and this just adds to their fuel that they’re thinking about, that all politicians are that way. So I think that problem rubs off on how I run my race, how I’m perceived, or the other politicians in all the other races as well. You know, it’s a negative.

KWAME HOLMAN: Now it’s up to these voters to decide tomorrow which Democrat will challenge the Republican incumbent. But soon it will be up to all the voters in Oklahoma’s third district to determine whether the president’s problems will be a deciding issue in the fall campaign.