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Stark Contrasts On Same-Sex Marriage, Marijuana As Senate Candidates Debate

State Sen. Connie Johnson (D-Oklahoma City) and U.S. Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla. 5) during Tuesday night's U.S. Senate canddiate debate.
OStateTV
State Sen. Connie Johnson (D-Oklahoma City) and U.S. Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla. 5) during Tuesday night's U.S. Senate canddiate debate.

The two nominees for Oklahoma’s open U.S. Senate seat squared off Tuesday night in a debate at Oklahoma State University ahead of the November 4 elections. Republian nominee and U.S. Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla. 5) and his Democratic challenger state Sen. Connie Johnson (D-Oklahoma City) are seeking to complete the final two years of retiring U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn’s term in office.

In a respectful debate in Stillwater that focused on the issues rather than personal attacks, Lankford and Johnson revealed stark policy differences on the Affordable Care Act, same-sex marriage, and marijuana legalization.

Both candidates asserted that health care in the United States is both a right and a privilege, but Lankford criticized the law while Johnson defended its goals.

“Our system is set up for individuals to be able to engage and take personal responsibility,” Lankford said. “The wrong way to do that is to federalize it.”

Lankford said that community health clinics were a “better way” to address rising costs and provide access to health care.

Johnson defended President Obama’s 2010 healthcare reform law.

“We have a health care proposal for the first time in 50 years that is actually making a difference in the lives of people,” Johnson said. “The Affordable Care Act means that people who were not insured before, millions are now insured.”

The candidates disagreed about the federal government’s role in same-sex marriage issues after the Supreme Court’s decision Monday to not hear any cases on gay marriage this term.  This decision caused several appellate courts to lift stays on rulings overturning state same-sex marriage bans, including in Oklahoma.

Johnson emphasized the personal issues involved in same-sex marriage cases.

“I understand there are challenges,” Johnson explained.  “I understand them as humans, though, first and foremost.”

Lankford objected to federal interference in marriage issues saying that each state should set its own standards.

“This is a state issue,” Lankford said.  “States alone can make the decision about marriage and how to define marriage.”

Johnson reiterated her support for easing Oklahoma’s restrictions on marijuana.  The state senator pointed out the potential economic benefits of legalization of the drug.

“Oklahoma is a state where cannabis is an indigenous plant,” she said.  “Our agricultural community could benefit and make products.”

Johnson authored Senate Bill 2116 in the 2014 legislative session that would have regulated and taxed marijuana like alcohol.

Lankford challenged President Obama’s Justice Department’s decision not to interfere with legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington.

“This is one of many areas where President Obama has spoken to the Justice Department ‘saying don’t enforce federal law’,” Lankford said.

The congressman cited Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper calling Colorado’s marijuana legalization “reckless” as evidence that caution is key when it comes to easing policy restrictions on cannabis.

Hickenlooper has backtracked in recent days saying that marijuana legalization was “risky” rather than “reckless,” according to a story by David Sirota in the International Business Times.

“Context is everything," Hickenlooper said in a statement released by his office. "I was asked if I thought it was reckless to legalize marijuana in Colorado -- perhaps risky is a better word. While I believe it was risky for Colorado to be the first state to step away from a failed federal policy given all of the unanswered legal questions and implications, the adoption of Amendment 64 by Colorado voters sent a clear message to the federal government that marijuana should be legal and regulated."

The forum, moderated by OSU political scientist Brandon Lenoir, was sponsored by OSU and the League of Women Voters.

Independent candidate Mark Beard will join Lankford and Johnson on the November 4 ballot, but did not participate in the debate in Stillwater.

KGOU will replay the debate Monday morning at 11 a.m. on Oklahoma Voices.

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