NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — By all accounts, the college city of Norman, Oklahoma, is a progressive stronghold in a state that Republicans here boast is the reddest of red.
Norman’s population is bolstered by a young and diverse student body at the state’s flagship University of 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 a portion of the city’s police budget during the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, they sparked a conservative uprising that led to the formation of Unite Norman.
The group, which has recruited candidates for local offices and made once mundane council meetings more boisterous, is now trying to galvanize conservative 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 last couple of years led to the creation of a GOP-backed political action committee called Save Austin Now, headed by a Republican strategist.
Although the Austin group was unsuccessful in its attempt to increase police funding, they did help restore a camping ban that the city had repealed to decriminalize homelessness.
And in Seattle, a Democratic city attorney candidate’s blistering anti-police rhetoric ultimately helped lead voters in that deep-blue city to elect a Republican to the nonpartisan post.
“We woke this city up and we gave people a voice,” said Dr. Nicole Kish, 50, a Norman optometrist mayoral candidate and loyal supporter of former President Donald Trump who helped found Unite Norman. “I’m very proud of that.”
The group launched a signature drive in 2020 in an unsuccessful attempt to oust the mayor and some members of the city council. But it will have another shot at flexing its political muscle next week when residents head 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 Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C. Kish said she never marched on the Capitol and described the event as a “simple field trip.”
She said that when she returned, activists posted her address online, called her an insurrectionist, and tried to shut down her optometry practice and get her medical license suspended.
“I don’t ever want to see another conservative business go through what I did,” Kish said.
In an unusual twist, Oklahoma’s first-term Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt weighed in on the nonpartisan race, endorsing Kish for the post despite not living in the city.
Those challenging incumbent Mayor Breea Clark, 38, who heads a leadership program at OU’s College of Business, include Kish; Larry Heikkila, a retired Navy veteran; Bob Thompson, the owner of a small grocery and sandwich shop; and Alice Stephenson-Leuck, a retired farmer. If none of the candidates receive more than 50% of the vote in next Tuesday’s election, the top two voter-getters will square off in a runoff election.
For some residents of Oklahoma’s third-largest city, the rise of Unite Norman and the testy mayoral race has further exacerbated existing political divides in the city, said 27-year-old Nicolaus Vannostran, a waiter at a local sushi restaurant.
“It’s definitely been divisive. That’s clear,” Vannostran said, while eating lunch outside a coffee shop in a downtown dotted with colorful murals, weed shops, bars and restaurants. “And there’s a lot of disinformation putting people at odds with one another.”
Vannostran’s friend, 26-year-old Trinity Slough, 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 shop for groceries.”
For her part, Mayor Clark doesn’t apologize for imposing restrictions that she believed would help slow the spread of COVID-19 or for supporting reallocating a portion of the police department’s annual budget increase to fund community programs and mental health resources. However, she acknowledges that those decisions have upset some community members.
“While people have gone out of their way to share negative feelings, just as many people have gone out of their way to share positive feelings, and that’s what I hold on to,” Clark said.
Retired stockbroker Wesley Jack, 57, said he believes the Unite Norman movement started out with good intentions but has shifted further right than the city’s ideological center.
“They started out with a good goal, which was to get the city council more centered,” Jack said as he sipped iced tea at lunch with his girlfriend. “They did that somewhat, but they’re getting a little more right wing than people thought.”