TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Candidates for a Tulsa-area congressional seat clashed Thursday over whether the city's Air and Space Museum was properly managed under tea party-backed challenger Jim Bridenstine, who insists the losses the museum took on under his leadership were justified because he was trying to attract a retired NASA space shuttle for the facility.
U.S. Rep. John Sullivan said his Republican primary challenger, Navy pilot Jim Bridenstine, actually put the operation "in jeopardy" when he served as executive director from December 2008 to August 2010.
A review by The Associated Press of Internal Revenue Service forms the museum filed to get tax-exempt status showed that the museum operated at a loss of $382,695 in 2009 and 2010, when Bridenstine was in the post. The museum receives no public money and relies heavily on donations from citizens and foundations to make ends meet.
Bridenstine attributed those efforts largely to the museum's marketing efforts to lure one of four retired NASA space shuttles to Tulsa. They ultimately went elsewhere, but the candidate insists the effort was worth the money.
"We were making intentional investments of cash reserves for the purpose of branding the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and making it a nationally-recognized institution," Bridenstine explained. "This (operating loss) wasn't an accident; it was intentional."
Sullivan's campaign manager, John Tidwell, disagreed, saying Bridenstine's tenure put the museum's future in jeopardy and adding that it was no surprise he left the operation when he did.
"Jim Bridenstine did exactly what the Democrats do in Washington: he spent more money than he had and left someone else to clean up the mess," Tidwell said.
Bridenstine's time at the museum came up during a radio debate last week, after Sullivan questioned whether Bridenstine felt he had been a success in the job.
On Thursday, Bridenstine said he resigned the museum job in 2010 to fly counter-drug missions in the Navy Reserve and accused his political opponents of "cherry-picking" numbers on the museum's tax forms.
"They are intentionally changing the conversation about what the direction of our country should be because they don't want to have that conversation," Bridenstine said.
But Tidwell, Sullivan's campaign manager, called on Bridenstine to come clean with voters about his time at the museum.
Museum executives credited Bridenstine with increasing attendance and visibility while he was there, but did not comment further. They instead referenced a statement issued earlier by Barbara Smallwood, chair of the board of directors at TASM, who wrote that Bridenstine's efforts while there to land a NASA shuttle and develop an air and rocket racing show helped garner "tremendous visibility" for the museum. Smallwood also wrote that Bridenstine resigned from the museum in 2010 because he was following orders in the Navy Reserve, not because he was terminated.
Bridenstine said there was no bad blood between himself and the museum and would rejoin the facility "in a heartbeat" if he had the opportunity.
The candidates have been battling on the campaign trail for months. After a radio debate last week that descended at times into a shouting match, Bridenstine accused his opponent of ducking several opportunities to debate him because he lacked the courage. Sullivan responded that the congressional voting schedule left no room in his schedule.
Bridenstine has also lashed out at Sullivan for missing hundreds of votes in the 10-plus years he's been in Congress. Sullivan has stated that he missed votes due to a death in his family and treatment at the Betty Ford Center for alcoholism in 2009.
At a political forum this week, Bridenstine told an audience that he was running against "a career politician." Sullivan said he stood by his record and told the audience he was "the most conservative" member of Oklahoma's congressional delegation.
Sullivan is among three of Oklahoma's four Republican congressmen who are facing challenges within their own party on June 26. Only Rep. James Lankford has no primary opponent.
Democrat John Olson, the owner of a small business, and Independent Craig Allen, an airline pilot, will also be on the 1st District ballot in November.