NORMAN, Okla. — By all accounts, the college town of Norman, Oklahoma, is a progressive stronghold in a state whose Republicans 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 Although the Austin group failed to raise police funding, it did help reinstate a camping ban the city had repealed to decriminalize homelessness.
And in Seattle, searing anti-police rhetoric from a Democratic city attorney candidate ultimately helped voters in that deep-blue city elect a Republican to the nonpartisan position.
Kish said she was partly motivated to run for mayor following the backlash she received for attending Trump’s January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C. Kish said that she had never walked on the Capitol and described the event as “just a field trip.” “
She said that upon her return activists posted her address online, called her 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.
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 was definitely divisive. It’s clear,” Vannostran said, as he lunched outside a cafe in a downtown area dotted with colorful murals, weed shops, bars and restaurants. “And there has 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 make the city council more centered,” Jack said as he sipped iced tea over lunch with his girlfriend. “They’ve done it a bit, but they’re getting a bit more right wing than people thought.”
This story has been corrected to show that the race in Seattle was for the city attorney, not the mayor.