Questions of political legitimacy underscore a tight race for Oklahoma County court clerk between the office's longtime chief deputy, Tim Rhodes, and longtime state legislator Charles Key.
The two remained after five Republicans ran for the seat in a primary election in June. A winner will be determined in a runoff election Aug. 28.
The second largest of the county offices, the court clerk's office is responsible for maintaining court records and coordinating with the court system to collect criminal fines and fees owed.
Though Rhodes and Key both are running on the Republican platform, both have made a concerted effort to distance themselves from the other's politics.
Rhodes supporters have accused Key of far-right radicalism for suggesting the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995 was a government conspiracy. Key, on the other hand, says his opponent is a Republican in name only, and that his election will be a continuation of liberal office management.
“If we're going to elect a Republican let's elect somebody that reflects the views of the Republican party. I'm that person; Tim Rhodes is not,” Key said.
Key, 58, is a nine-term member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He is running on a platform of fiscal conservatism. He said he wants to use the court clerk's office to influence the county budget board to be more frugal with taxpayer dollars. He is endorsed by two of his former opponents in the court clerk race, Nathan Schlinke and Salome Vaughn.
“I would dig in and find out are they doing the job they're supposed to completely and fully, and are there ways we could save money of find ways to do it better,” he said. “My opponent, his answer to building a new jail was, ‘Well, I think we ought to have another study.' But he's going to support the current group of people … and they're for him because he will support what they want, and that's building a new jail.”
The county, working to come into compliance with several deficiencies outlined by the federal government in 2007, contracted with a Georgia company in March to prepare plans and designs for a new jail. County commissioners have estimated the facility could cost as much as $330 million.
Key said he adamantly opposes a new jail, and that's one example of how he will work to make sure taxpayer dollars aren't spent frivolously. He did not back away from his earlier suggestions that the federal government knew the Oklahoma City bombing was coming.
“People should go on the Internet and search everything they want to look up and look at a broad spectrum of reporting on that issue and make their minds up,” he said. “But I think it's wrong to use the Oklahoma City bombing to gain political office.”
Rhodes said that was an accusation voiced not by him but by one of his supporters, Bill Burkett, the former state Republican Party chairman and U.S. Attorney who oversaw as district judge the grand jury investigation of the bombing. In a campaign mailing, Burkett accused Key of spouting “nonsense” and of wasting half a million dollars in taxpayer money on the investigation. Rhodes, however, declined to say as much.
“He expressed those concerns, and I'm simply saying those are valid concerns for the people of Oklahoma County,” he said.
Rhodes, 55, has worked 15 years as chief deputy of the court clerk's office under retiring Oklahoma County Court Clerk Patricia Presley. He said he believes the office has been managed well during Presley's tenure and said he wants to continue that good work if elected.
He said his primary focus as court clerk will be on the court clerk's office and not on pushing any particular agenda on the county budget board. He said he will not make a decision on the new jail until the design study is complete.
“And I think it's worth noting that the court clerk's budget has been reduced, our two combined budgets, by more than 30 percent in the last five years, a total of more than $5 million,” he said. “The number of staff in the office has been reduced, too. We're down 30 to 35 employees from 15 years ago when we first took office.”
Rhodes is endorsed by Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, four of eight current Oklahoma County officers and 19 pas presidents of the Oklahoma County Bar Association.
Rhodes, who changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican Oct. 7, 2011, just one business day before the deadline for political candidates to register with a party, said he did it not for political maneuvering, but because the party truly reflects his personal beliefs.
Both he and Keys said they will support Mitt Romney for president.