G.T. Bynum settles in
The continuing interview, part four
Mayor G.T. Bynum
Courtesy City of Tulsa
Mayor G.T. Bynum, sitting at the conference table inside his office, looks as ebullient and relaxed as ever, if slightly thinner. He offers me a seat on the “Reagan” sofa because he knows it will make me laugh, and then asks me not to do to him in this interview what I “did” to State Representative Carol Bush because he knows it’ll make me laugh even harder. This is part of our act. Michelle Brooks, his press secretary, once again joins us, but she doesn’t seem as worried this time.
It’s the day after the 2018 election—which saw, nationally, a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives; statewide, a newly-elected Republican governor; and, locally, the election of four new Tulsa city councilors. The mayor wants to talk about the councilors and the renewed interest in public service.
I don’t ask him about any of that.
“So,” I say. “Vice President Pence comes to Tulsa—”
Bynum starts laughing. “I knew you were going to do this.”
“No, no. Mayors always go to the airport when vice presidents fly in—you get a pass from me. It’s something Dewey Bartlett didn’t do when Biden came to town—remember?”
And this is when G.T. Bynum is at his best.
“I thought it was embarrassing for the state that President Obama came here a couple of years ago, and none of our statewide elected officials showed up to greet him at the airport. He toured El Reno, and no statewide officials accompanied him? The President of the United States spent an entire day here, and no one acknowledged that. Mick Cornett was the most senior elected official in the state, and he was the only one who showed up. So even though I wasn’t going to the rally afterwards, I did want to be at the airport when the vice president landed to welcome him to Tulsa.”
“You mean the one at ORU with Pence, Stitt, and Lankford? You didn’t go on purpose?”
“Correct. I told gubernatorial candidates for the last year that I wasn’t getting involved in the governor’s race, and I wasn’t going to ORU for the rally.”
“This is your problem,” I tell him. “There’s no place in the Republican Party, as presently
constituted, for moderation for G.T. Bynum.”
“I’m not as moderate as you think.”
“Nevertheless, you’re smart about not advertising that fact when those conservative views have nothing to do with running Tulsa, which they rarely do.”
The mayor hates answering questions about his political future, which is why I ask every time we get together.
“Do you think about how you’d traverse such terrain if you ever did run for governor or
“I think about it, sure, but not in terms of ladder climbing … We in Tulsa have an opportunity to lead on things that everybody should agree on. Whether that’s making Tulsa a place where all people have an opportunity, regardless of race, gender, or country they were born in. That’s the notion that caused America to thrive in its first 200 years. And I don’t feel we do enough talking about it right now.”
“Has the GOP done enough to articulate what you just said—that we are a welcoming nation?”
“No. But I think in any party you have leaders who can show a better path forward. Bill Clinton showed a more moderate path for Democrats; Ronald Reagan showed a more sunny, optimistic view of what we can be as a country. Granted, those were both presidential candidates, but if we in Tulsa can demonstrate that you can care about helping your fellow man and make your city safer and more economically vibrant, then people will come around to those ideas. Look, I reject the notion that you can’t be a conservative and also care about immigrants and racial disparity. And maybe conservatives are not doing a good job—”
“They’re doing a terrible job,” I interrupt.
“I think of myself as a conservative, but I’m a conservative who cares about those things.”
“All right, let’s have it your way,” I say. “Who’s making that case nationally for the GOP?”
“Well, your friend [1170KFAQ Morning Host] Pat Campbell is going to love this one: [Nebraska Senator] Ben Sasse.”
“My ‘friend’?’ I repeat. “Nice. You’ve listened to those shows?”
“Ben Sasse, really?” I ask.
“His new book on the breakdown of civil discourse in America is the most important book I’ve read this year.”
This is the second interview in which the mayor has brought up Sasse—and, for that matter, former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels—the two most overrated GOP “moderates” this side of Jeff Flake and Susan Collins. (I scribble myself a note to pursue this topic next time.)
“So what’s your problem with Campbell?”
“After the election, he said he’d give me a fair shake but then knifed me in the back two weeks later when he found out I hired Kathy Taylor.”
“This had to do with Kathy Taylor?”
“Yes. That I would hire Kathy Taylor chief of economic development—that was the original sin.”
I called my “friend” Pat Campbell—as regular readers here know, I have done his show a number of times—and he didn’t disagree.
“That’s water under the bridge,” Campbell told me. “G.T. has the one thing Taylor couldn’t buy: likability.” He adds, “Had my listeners known Bynum would bring Kathy Taylor back into city government, they never would have voted for him.”
Campbell insists Bynum needs these listeners to win re-election—but he doesn’t. Bynum beat Bartlett by 18 percent in the 2016 GOP primary, and it wasn’t the hard right that put him over the top. Bynum will be re-elected by cobbling together the same coalition of GOP moderates, independents, and Democrats. And it’s the smart move if you belong to those groups, because—in a state with Kevin Hern and Markwayne Mullin, not to mention Jim Inhofe, James Lankford, and now Kevin Stitt—G.T. Bynum is the least of your problems.
“Speaking of,” I ask. “Say you run for governor, and your opponent in the primary asks you about abortion, about school prayer? What do you do?”
“I will get into those issues. And I’m more conservative than you think I am, but I always think locally first. All four that won yesterday,” he says, talking of new city council members Crista Patrick, Kara Joy McKee, Cass Fahler, and Lori Decter Wright. “I’m excited to work with them. That’s what had me tap dancing yesterday.”
“Tap dancing? That’s the image you want people to picture?”
“Maybe leave that out.”
“No way. So, what’s your take about Gathering Place, generally, and the issue of guns at the park, specifically?”
“The land is public land operated by a private operator—that’s my understanding.”
“So why do you think the issue of guns resonated at this park when people are free to open carry at any other park? Why the fuss here?”
“Because it’s the greatest park gift in the history of the country and is a huge focal point.”
“Do you just wish the issue would go away?”
“I guess the thing I thought was a shame about it is that the purpose of Gathering Place was to draw people together,” the mayor says. “So we get away from the things that divide us, so we can have this shared experience together, first and foremost as
Tulsans and people. And this was an example of politics and divisiveness intruding on that, especially right out of the gate.”
“The fringe always gets air time, drives the debate, right? This is good identity politics. Which side are you on?”
“Maybe I’ll just get my clock cleaned in two years, and find out I’m wrong,” he says, looking ahead to his re-election effort in 2020. “But I don’t agree with the labels. Before they’re Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, people are people. I’ll give you a good example. When I announced we were going to reconvene a search for mass graves from the 1921 massacre, there were those on my staff [who] were concerned about this huge blowback from people, and it’s safe to say previous mayors were afraid of that, too. I put a post up on Facebook, explaining my rationale, talking about what it would be like to find out one of your relatives disappeared, [and you] don’t know what happened to him or her, and we have a responsibility to help people with that. I had 500 responses—and only five were negative. Ninety-nine percent were positive. And this social media, which is a bug light for negativity.”
“And they were all callers from Campbell’s show,” I say.
He laughs. “The problem is not enough elected officials do a good job of showing the human element of the things they’re talking about.”
“So what of the political divide, both nationally and locally? What fuels it? And where are you in all that?” I ask.
“I think maybe there are folks who prefer a candidate or elected official who helps to voice anger, but for me, that’s not how I’m wired. I’m not angry all the time.”