The Riddle of Nowhere

by Holly Wall

02/20/2013

Conservative Oklahomans wear it as a badge of honor. Their state is the “reddest of the red,” a moniker earned after Barack Obama failed to win a single county in the 2008 presidential election. Though he ultimately lost the race, John McCain beat Obama by 31 percentage points in the Sooner State. The event set a political precedent, and the nickname stuck.

Last February, while campaigning in Oklahoma City during the Republican presidential primary (which he won in the state), Rick Santorum called Oklahoma “ground zero” for the conservative movement. “In Oklahoma you do it the right way,” he said. “You believe in liberty, you believe in private enterprise and free economy. You believe in limited government. You believe in a foundation of our society based on faith and family. You understand that without strong families, you can’t have a strong economy.”

Some in the national media—The New York Times,  The Daily Beast, and  The Washington Post, for example—chose Mitt Romney’s failure to clench the presidency on behalf of the Republican party—combined with Democratic gains in the U.S. Senate—as evidence of a weakening Republican party, the beginning of the end of the Tea Party, and a need for an overhaul of the whole party apparatus.

If, in fact, America did swing to the left, Oklahoma swung decidedly right.

Just last year, Republican Governor Mary Fallin signed an open-carry bill into law and rejected the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, refusing to expand Medicaid in the state or set up a health insurance exchange. Oklahoma City Senator Ralph Shortey received considerable national media attention for a introducing a bill that would ban the use of aborted fetuses in food, and lobbying hard for legislation that would give live fetuses “personhood” status. Both measures failed, but the state House of Representatives did pass a resolution—a non-binding statement of opinion, basically—affirming its belief that life begins at the point of conception. The legislature, following statements by President Barack Obama that he supports the rights of gay couples to wed,also passed a resolution reaffirming its opposition to gay marriage—which is already against Oklahoma law.

As the country was re-electing its liberal leader, a conservative U.S. congressmen, John Sullivan, serving Oklahoma’s 1st Congressional District, was being unseated by even more conservative Tea Party candidate Jim Bridenstine. Then plumber-turned-first-time-politician Markwayne Mullin took the seat in the 2nd Congressional District, turning the state’s entire Washington delegation red. Not a single county turned out for Obama, while both state houses increased their Republican numbers. The partyboasts about 898,000 registered voters, and 2012 was a landmark year in terms of new voter registration.

* * *

Brian Bingman is a tall, lean 59-year-old who keeps his gray hair cropped closely to his head and speaks with a soft tone, leaning back easily in his chair, letting its front two feet hover above the floor, while he talks about being called to politics. The state senator, serving District 12, started out in small-town politics.

Bingman was elected to the City Council of his hometown Sapulpa, 14 miles southwest of Tulsa, in 1992. What prompted him to even run were ongoing labor disputes with the city’s police and fire departments, which ultimately recalled the entire City Council and began filling it with their union cronies. “That’s when I thought it was time,” he said. “A lot of people talked about it; I thought it was time to do something about it.” He served as mayor from 1994 to 2004 and boasts a term free from arbitration with the unions. He credits most of it with the installment of a decent city manager, but certainly his cool temperament and tendency to play well with others helped.

In 2004, Bingman was elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives, one of a class of 39—the largest turnover in the chamber’s history. He was also one of 23 Republicans who helped swing the pendulum to their party’s favor for the first time. Not since 1920—a cycle anomaly—had the House been dominated by Republicans, who had a 13-member advantage over the Democrats. Fellow Republican freshman Steve Martin, from Bartlesville, told the Tulsa World: “I think it’s the beginning of a great new era for the state of Oklahoma.”

Representative Brian Bingman.

Bingman was the first Republican to represent his district, House District 30. Two years later, in 2006, he won his current Senate seat, and the chamber was tied—24 Republicans and 24 Democrats—for the first
time in history. Two years after that, Republicans took the majority of that house as well. Bingman got to work right away on worker’s compensation and tax reform; he helped author the bill that did away with the estate tax.

Republicans, enjoying their new power, passed major tort reform, education reform, and workers compensation bills, though the latter was thrown out in court and the subject remains high on Bingman’s priority list. The income tax has fallen from 7 percent to 5.5 percent, though the legislature failed to repeal it altogether last year, to the chagrin of Governor Fallin. House and Senate Republicans couldn’t agree on a tax plan, and Bingman, the Senate Pro Tempore, refused to hear proposed legislation that didn’t off er a means of neutralizing revenue. “We didn’t want to make a tax cut just to say we had a tax cut,” Bingman told members of the Tulsa Metro Chamber at a legislative breakfast. “We wanted tax reform, we wanted to do it the right way make sure it would benefit every citizen of the state of Oklahoma.”

Bingman was elected Senate pro tem—technically the second-highest office of the state senate (the lieutenant governor is the ex officio president of the senate but only votes in the case of a tie, leaving the Pro Tem to wield most of the managerial and political power in the chamber)—for the 2011 legislative season and has led what he calls a remarkably united Republican caucus for two years. He prides himself on building relationships with Republicans and Democrats alike, and communicating well with members of his party and his chamber. His proudest moment as pro tem, he said, was using that unity to stop “irresponsible” tax legislation. “The unity of the caucus was the thing that stopped momentum for some really irresponsible triggers,” he said. “There were bombs being thrown around Capitol, in the House, but that wasn’tngoing to budge the Senate caucus at all.

“My caucus is a reflection on me, so I’m only as good as the performance of the Senate republicans and the overall Senate.”

His priorities for 2013 include workers compensation—Bingman says Oklahoma is one of the most expensive states for workers comp and that cost keeps out potential businesses—pension funding, Capitol improvements, tax reform, and education funding.

“Brian certainly has the temperament to work across party lines,” said former Democratic Senator Tom Adelson of Tulsa. “It’s just that since Democratic numbers are so bad, he doesn’t have to. So, I suspect that Democratic Senate leader [Sean Burrage] will be able to get a fair amount of non-controversial Democrat bills advanced in the state Senate. On the larger issues—appropriate funding for education and health in particular—Senate Democrats really only have the power of the bully pulpit. That can be significant, and the pro tem respects the right of the party out of power to use the bully pulpit.”

Adelson called Bingman’s leadership a “marked improvement from the previous pro tem [Glen Coffee], who was prone to dyspeptic temper tantrums and retaliatory overkill when state senate Democrats stood up for party values.

“So, Senator Brian Bingman has restored the Senate comity that the previous pro tem badly damaged,” Adelson said. “That’s potentially an important improvement. Democratic leader Sean Burrage is among the brightest minds in the Senate, and there are a number of other Democratic senators with subject matter expertise and value to add. Senator Bingman enjoys a close relationship with Senator Burrage and will benefit from the quiet advice from his counsel and that of the Democratic caucus as needed.

“A far greater challenge for Senator Bingman will be managing intraparty conflict, between the more extreme elements within his own party. He’s actually disadvantaged by a weakened Democratic party. With greater numbers, state Senate Democrats would have been in a position to help maintain some sort of balance.”

* * *

Incoming Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, doesn’t much mind conflict. As he looks to take the helm of what was last year a notoriously squabbling House of Representatives, he looks at “healthy discussions” and “debate” as proof the legislative process is working. And he thinks it’s a sign of a good Republican.

“We don’t do the group think thing very well,” he said. “We tend to challenge the status quo, and to challenge whatever new idea might be out there. I think Republicans should be proud of having discussions about what’s right for the people of Oklahoma.”

At 34, Shannon will be the youngest Speaker to serve in the House; he’s also the first black Speaker in Oklahoma history, though he’s not as quick to claim the latter.

Incoming Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, T.W. Shannon.

“I’m honored that the caucus chose me, but I absolutely know it’s not because of race, and not in spite of race, but because they got to know me and know I have a skill set to help lead the state forward,” he said. But he added, “I don’t think either party has done the best job of outreach to minorities. We have to be willing to step out of our comfort zone sometimes and talk to different groups and continue to grow the party.

“What we don’t want—I don’t think either party wants—is to be the party of old white men.”

Republicans, enjoying their new power, passed major tort reform, education reform, and workers compensation bills, though the latter was thrown out in court and the subject remains high on Bingman’s priority list. 

Shannon began his political career by working for his heroes—Congressman Tom Cole, Governor Bill Anoatubby of the Chickasaw Nation, and former U.S. Representative J.C. Watts.

As a field rep for Watts, Shannon saw the power possible through political service. He picked Watts up from the airport, and out of the Congressman’s folder fell a note from Rosa Parks. It was 2002, and Watts wasn’t sure whether he would run for re-election. Parks praised the lawmaker for his support of historically black colleges and universities and implored: “I didn’t give up my seat; please don’t give up yours.”

“I remember thinking, ‘OK, this is a moment in history that I’m never going to forget.’ When you’ve got Rosa Parks, the mother of the Civil Rights Movement, writing to one of the great national leaders out of Oklahoma—I remember thinking the significance of what he does on the federal level transcends just making public policy.”

Shannon said he wanted to make a difference, too, and thought public policy at the state level would be a good place to start. Last year, he authored a pair of bills that increased funding to the state’s infrastructure and will, in eight years, push Oklahoma form the top of the list of states with defi cit bridges to the bottom. He said he hopes to continue working to improve infrastructure, and he also said education, pension liabilities, and tax reform are high priorities. He’ll be wrangling 72 Republicans and 29 Democrats and their priorities as well, and he told The Oklahoman, though he welcomes disagreements, his focus will be on finding solutions to those. He also told the paper that the Republican supermajority in the legislature is an indicator that voters are craving limited government and economic prosperity.

* * *

If there’s anyone who’s proud of the growth of the Republican Party in Oklahoma, it’s State Republican Party Chairman Matt Pinnell. Young, blond, and dimpled, Pinnell’s background in and affinity for public relations have served him well as GOP leader. He worked on campaigns for Scott Pruitt, Steve Largent, and Tom Coburn before lobbying on behalf of the orthopedic and automotive industries in D.C. When he was elected state party chairman in 2010, at 31, he was the youngest GOP state chairman in the country.

In 2010, he oversaw the party’s most successful election cycle in state’s history—Republicans swept all eight statewide races and increased their majorities in the House and Senate significantly. Last year, he helped register almost 50,000 new Republican voters. He’s commanded campaigns aimed at young voters and low-dollar donors, cues he’s taken from the Democratic Party. He raises money, registers voters, and promotes the party platform—all with the knowledge that, if he doesn’t, the pendulum could swing back the other direction.

“This is not a sexy job,” he said from the party’s Oklahoma City headquarters, visible from the state Capitol. A lifesized cutout of Ronald Reagan, a straw cowboy hat perched atop his head, peered over Pinnell’s shoulder as he leaned forward on his desk, his hands clasped, his weight resting on his elbows. “It’s a thankless job a lot of times, but I love it.”

Democrats, as we know them now, may never regain the foothold they once had in the state–and certainly not in the rural areas. 

In middle and high school, Pinnell dabbled in student council politics and discovered he was a people person who liked the potential of shaking hands and kissing babies. He majored for a year in theater at Oral Roberts University—“I do think there’s some theatrics to politics,” he said—before switching over to PR and advertising.

Pinnell is a leader in the RNC of state chairmen—the Chair of the State Chairs—and organizes regional meetings of the minds where they exchange ideas for furthering their party’s growth. For the sake of furthering the GOP, he works with Republicans whether he likes them or not, helping them “sharpen their skills” and doing his best to “get them across the finish line in first place.” He’s also in the business of “putting out fires,” like the kind started by folks like Senator Ralph Shortey and Representative Sally Kern.

“We have over 898,000 Republicans in Oklahoma, and I can’t control what any one of them does,” Pinnell said. “Day in and day out, we just try to beat the Democratic Party in every facet of the game, and I believe we are doing that most days. That’s all I can ask from my staff .”

The chairman’s low point came during the Oklahoma Republican Convention last year, when Ron Paul and Mitt Romney supporters brawled—some with their fists—after the delegation’s votes went against Ron Paul. Before the chaos erupted, there were issues with registration—a new system, errors in credentialing, and check-in errors made by volunteers. Pinnell admits he lost control and said he’s been reaching out to those who might have been left “with a bad taste in their mouths” ever since.

His high point was seeing the 2010 election of Scott Pruitt to the post of state attorney general. He’d worked for Pruitt on two failed legislative campaigns, and he said to “be able to stand up and introduce Scott Pruitt as the next attorney general of the state,” after his election—“that was probably my high point of the last three years.”

Pruitt said Pinnell’s strengths are in his ability to combine “a commitment to ideology” with the ability to fundraise and recruit. “Ideas matter to Matt, but he’s also able to raise money and do the important work of moving the party apparatus ahead.”

Though Pinnell himself said he despises the word “grassroots,” which he says has been abused to the status of cliché, Pruitt hailed his aptitude for “good, oldfashioned grassroots politics.”

“One of the things my wife and I joked about when Matt worked on our campaigns was that he was able to find more Christmas parades inside of Oklahoma than you can imagine,” Pruitt said.

If Mitt Romney had won the presidency, Pinnell would probably already be in Washington, working on his staff . Now, he’s exploring his options, and he’s not likely to run for chair re-election this year. “It’s not very often you get a chance to go out on top, so I may be pulling a Seinfeld and leave when people still want me to stay,” he said.

Pruitt said that if he can do at the national level what he did in Oklahoma for the Republican Party, he could “make a tremendous difference for races in the future.”

“He’s committed to the core idea of what makes us Republicans,” Pruitt said. And his impact isn’t lost on Democrats.

“He is definitely a more dynamic, palatable face for the Republicans, but with that, I think there is real missed opportunity,” said Michael Whelan, vice chair of the Tulsa County Democratic Party. “I think his voice would be compelling in a call for civility, reasonableness, and moderation. Unfortunately, the Republican Party has moved to the extreme right under his leadership, but that may be a function of the chickens ruling the henhouse. To give credit where credit is due, I have noticed that their communications are cleaner under his leadership and that the GOP seems more organized and technologically savvy than they have been in the past.”

* * *

Tulsa City Councilor G.T. Bynum, District 9, was following in his grandfather’s footsteps when he took up politics. Robert LaFortune was mayor when Bynum, his first grandchild, was born in 1977, and the Tulsa Tribune, in announcing his birth, also speculated he’d run for mayor someday.

And someday, he will. But he won’t ever run for state or federal office.

“I like the city because it’s concrete,” he said. “You can have a direct impact on people’s lives and see the result of it in a very tangible way.” Plus, he watched his grandfather—his hero—devote himself to the city of Tulsa. As his greatgreat- grandfather Bynum did when he was mayor.

An unapologetic Republican, Bynum hasn’t minded walking outside of party lines. In 2010, he and then Democratic councilor from District 4 Maria Barnes worked to add a provision to the city’s HR policy that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. He got an earful from conservative constituents for it.

Tulsa City Councilor G.T. Bynum.

“I think history will show that was an important thing to do,” Bynum said. “It is wrong to fire someone or to demote them because they’re gay. And it is wrong to give someone a promotion or raise because they’re gay. That is their business, and it has nothing to do with their job performance. That was something both my wife and I have talked about for a decade now; it just blows our mind the way gays and lesbians can be treated in America. And to me, that is the civil rights issue of our era. Having read enough history, I know I want to be on the right side of the argument, and not be doing something just because it’s of immediate political opportunism.”

The same night the city council voted on the provision, Bynum sided with fellow Republican Jim Mautino on an immigration ordinance that would require public employers to use the federal E-verify system to check the residency status of all potential employees. The provision failed, and Bynum said he regrets the way it was handled.

“[The amendment] basically said Tulsa should follow state law,” Bynum said, “and I voted with him because, yeah, Tulsa should follow the state law. But the way we went about it, I think, alienated a good part of our Hispanic community in Tulsa, and I regret that, because that’s such a growing and important part of the city. I don’t think I would have changed my vote, but I still think about that.”

More recently, Bynum opposed Proposition 1 of the city’s Vision 2 tax proposal, which failed when put to a vote. It would have designated sales tax funds to improve airport facilities in an effort to keep American Airlines in business in Tulsa.

Bynum said he spoke to Senator Tom Coburn, whom he worked for in Washington before moving back to Tulsa, and got some advice that’s been invaluable to him as a politician: “He said, now that you’re elected, you have a choice to make and you’ll have to make it pretty quickly. And that is, are you going to hold onto your job as hard as you can—and if you do, you’ll get re-elected. Probably. But you won’t do a good job because you’ll be thinking about yourself all the time. Or you can go in and not worry about getting re-elected and just focus on doing a good job for the people who elected you and for your city, and because they’ll respect you for doing that, they’ll probably re-elect you anyway.

“I really took that to heart.”

Bynum is a history buff (he just finished writing a biography of his grandfather LaFortune’s life and career) who believes it’s no accident that Oklahoma has remained a conservative state—and is getting redder all the time.

“I think that is attributable to the fact that Oklahoma was really one of the last frontiers in our country,” he said. “The people who came here were self-starters—self-sufficient, people who were working toward pursuing freedom and opportunity, and they settled the state.

“The fact that we’re a red state is because those are the values that were attracted here. People did not come here with the impression that government was going to prop them up. They were coming to a frontier on their own, with their own skin in the game, and their success was what they would make of it.”

Democrats still technically dominate the state, with 962,072 registered voters. But the tradition of registering Democrat and voting Republican seems to be coming to a close, as the Republican Party regularly dominates local and state elections. Democrats, as we know them now, may never regain the foothold they once had in the state—and certainly not in the rural areas. Even Democratic Vice Chair Whelan can concede to that. “But I am confident that more urban areas like Tulsa and Oklahoma City will see Democratic growth,” he said. “The moderate Republicans in larger cities are beginning to feel pushed out of their own party.”

In the rest of the state, though, conservatives rule, and Oklahomans can only hope they use their power for good.


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 3. Feb. 1, 2013.