Taking on the burger king
Tim Gilpin’s quixotic quest to get to Washington
First, the very long disclaimer:
I have known Tim Gilpin, the Democratic candidate for U.S. representative in Oklahoma’s First District, for years. His congressional campaign consultant, Michael Whelan, is a friend of mine, as is the person actually running his campaign, Sarah Baker. I know Tim’s fiancé, Sarah Neal, as well, having worked with her here at Langdon Publishing.
As for Tim, specifically—while we’re not close, he once introduced me to John Waldron, who is running in the State House District 77 race. He also tried to get me to do yoga once, bought me a salad at Tally’s, and invited me to his house in early 2016, where we watched in horror the first GOP presidential debate—the one where our current president wanted to know precisely from what hole Megyn Kelly was bleeding—so we clearly have a relationship.
And we share the horror of the last two years.
Of course Gilpin should be the district’s next U.S. representative, but not because I know him or like him, or because he is that transcendent of a figure—he is not. Gilpin is a 57-year-old white guy and a soft-spoken attorney, but he is also on the correct (and sane) side of all the issues. More to the point, his opponent, Kevin Hern, is a Trump fanboy.
‘Did you know President Trump loves McDonald’s?’ Hern wrote in the email to supporters. ‘His go-to order was recently revealed: two Big Macs, two Fillet-O-Fish (sic) and a chocolate malted shake! As a McDonald’s franchisee, I couldn’t be more excited to see that our President is a huge fan of our delicious food.’
You could choke on both the diet and the bootlicking.
Bored, arrogant, and wealthy, Hern thinks of political office as a bauble, convinced government needs his skillset—as if opening successful McDonald’s franchises speaks to anyone other than those opening McDonald’s franchises.
Hern also doesn’t mind surrounding himself with white supremacists—or those just pretending to be. The cover photo of his campaign Facebook page (since removed) featured staff and volunteers—along with Raphael Cruz, Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s father, whom the president accused of being a co-conspirator in the assassination of JFK—as well as Katina Heath, a local GOP party activist. In the deleted photo, she stands with her left hand positioned so her thumb and index finger touch in a ring with the rest of her fingers resting on her arm. For some, this is the sign of “white power”; for others it’s a way to troll liberals; for still others, it holds its traditional meaning as “OK,” or “asshole.”
What is Heath is doing? Playing the ambiguity. “Maybe it’s racist; maybe it’s not,” her smile seems to be saying. “I’m so clever, aren’t I?” And that’s how a campaign says “F— you” to constituents about whom it doesn’t care, winking at white supremacists while giving itself plausible deniability. And there he is, Kevin Hern—beside Heath, also smiling, thumb up, pleasing daddy, looking like everyone else in the room: a well-trained seal.
The only people who joke about “white power” are people not joking about it.
Thing is, Gilpin, who is qualified and humbled by the office, is not going to win. As of August, he has been outspent—wait for it—20 to 1 by Hern, and there is not a national poll that has OK-1 even remotely in play. Northeast Oklahoma is where registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by about 90,000 and where former GOP Congressman John Sullivan wasn’t considered conservative enough. If Oklahoma is in the Bible Belt, then the First District is where the zinc, copper, aluminum, and magnesium are poured to make the buckle.
Gilpin knows all this, as does every other Democratic office holder, present and ex, who could have run and did not, including County Commissioner Karen Keith and former mayors Kathy Taylor and Susan Savage. So give Gilpin credit for running, though he is not doing this, he assures me, for moral victories.
Not that Democrats here couldn’t use one. In 2014 and 2016, no Democrat challenged Jim Bridenstine. In 2012, John Olsen, a veteran, and only the most attractive candidate in Oklahoma at the time, lost by 31 percentage points to the now-NASA chief.
You want a silver lining? The gubernatorial race between Democrat Drew Edmondson and Republican Kevin Stitt is about even. If Edmondson is doing well statewide, he is doing well in Tulsa County, the second largest county in Oklahoma. Gilpin and Edmondson drink from the same well, so if Edmondson is gaining ground, Gilpin probably is, too. Still, for a Democrat to capture this seat, the blue wave needs to be a tsunami.
In Gilpin’s stump speeches—I’ve seen two—he hits all the right notes, even if the music seems slightly off. He is cerebral, self-conscious to a significant degree, but he thinks women should have control of their own bodies; teachers should be paid a living wage; healthcare is a right, not a privilege; the minimum wage should be raised to 15 bucks an hour; there should be sensible gun control; little children should not be separated from their parents and dumped in detention camps; and the President of the United States is a loudmouth lout. I don’t need to have a beer with Gilpin. I need him to make sure Planned Parenthood stays funded, the EPA does its job, and someone at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue reads the Constitution once in awhile.
We meet for lunch.
To talk to Gilpin is to hear him lapse into campaign mode from time to time, but he believes the obviousness of his campaign slogan, “Something’s gotta change.”
“So, how do you plan on winning this thing?” I ask.
“Politics are simpler than we think,” he says. “Feel it, see it, touch it. ”
He is counting on people going to the polls because of how sensory the political dynamic presently is.
“You energize the base that is energized by the dysfunction, chaos, and rudeness coming out of Washington. It’s all those folks in the middle who usually might vote R looking at this election and saying, ‘There has to be a better way,’” Gilpin says, again echoing another campaign slogan. “Because now their government, the ones they’ve been voting for for decades—candidates who have been saying, ‘I hate government. I hate how it’s being run’—well, now the government they hate, their government, is acting like a horse’s ass. And not solving problems.”
Gilpin sees the potential of government, its power for good, and recognizes the common ground.
“Here’s what I need to win: energized Republicans, energized Democrats, energized Independents, and the wide swath of Republicans in the middle—”
“Tim, please,” I interrupt. “There are 11 such Republicans, and there’s no wide swath. I haven’t met one yet who said, ‘If only I could meet a liberal in the middle and together we could find common ground on issues like guns or abortion.’ They have no desire to compromise. They won.”
“Barry, stop being so cynical.”
“It’s crazy that we continue to elect congressmen who are going to say the same thing and go to Washington to be an ideologue or a showboat and expect things to change,” Gilpin says. “My whole idea is—you go to Washington to do the work. You read, you make relationships, you study. I’m going to try to make things work. I’m not going to be an ideologue. We are living in an age of corruption and cruelty and where politicians are callously open to serving the special interests that elected them. We saw that in education, we saw that in taxes, we saw that in earthquake policy. How long did it take us to recognize Oklahoma was the earthquake capital of the country?”
Thinking of Hern and Stitt, I ask: “Does the successful businessman model still work?”
“Government is not a business. It’s not for profit. It doesn’t answer to a small board of directors or shareholders. It answers to everyone. You want it to run efficiently, but you don’t want it making money on prisons and schools and defense.
“People are worried,” he continues. “They’re worried about education and roads and healthcare, and that worry drives people to the polls.”
There is no talking politics anywhere, maybe especially in Oklahoma, without the pall of Donald Trump.
“He was the impetus,” Gilpin says of his motivations for entering the race.
“So, what’s the first thing you do if lightning strikes and you’re elected?”
“When . . .”
“If,” I repeat.
He tells me there are people he would keep from Bridenstine’s staff, good people who do an excellent job of constituent service. “Once the local and DC offices are staffed, the key thing is finding those education dollars that are there for Oklahoma. There are programs and grants for technology in the classroom, teacher training, and nutrition. We first need to identify it and then bring those dollars home.”
“One of your strengths is you’re a wonk,” I tell him. “You’re not warm and fuzzy, which is fine, but you’re putting up the promise of increased education funding over GOP ideology? That’s a tough sell.”
“What do you mean I’m not warm and fuzzy?” he asks, laughing.
“People may want to have a beer with you, but you’re not warm and fuzzy—trust me. Does your message work without Trump?”
“If Washington were this dysfunctional, yes. But I don’t think it’s ever been this dysfunctional.”
“Are you saying, ‘Vote for me. It will be a vote against Trump,’ or ‘Vote for me. It will be a vote for schools and bridges and healthcare’?”
“How about ‘Vote for me. I’m not crazy like the people in Washington.’ Look, we live in very vicarious times. Successful political leaders do not work on the far ends. We’re impressed by the extremes because they’re loud, but it’s all the people in the middle who are now rethinking things. They work for solutions that will help the most people. I know that’s not sexy, but it’s true.”
“Is this election, 2018, the last chance to save the republic? Otherwise we turn into Turkey?”
“I’m an optimist,” he says. “There is always another election. If they write on my tombstone that I was a good congressman,
I’d be happy.”