Running through the rope
My conversation with Mayor Bynum, pt. 5
Mayor G.T. Bynum
“Two things,” I tell the mayor as I walk into his office on the 15th floor of One Technology Center. “I want to remind you of something and compliment you on something else.”
He smiles, as our conversations—and this is the fifth one— usually start in the middle.
“Before I do that, I promise to not bring up Donald Trump this time, nor the GOP, or even, now that I see it again, the Reagan sofa, which is looking a little raggedy—like your party. But if you bring up any of those topics, it’s game on.”
“You’re not going to goad me on this.”
“Wouldn’t think of it. Anyway, here’s the reminder: You owe me lunch.”
“We made a bet that Amazon would not build its HG2 headquarters in Tulsa, remember? You lost.”
“I remember,” he concedes.
“And here’s the compliment: You told me almost two years ago that if REI didn’t get the location at 71st and Riverside, it wasn’t going anywhere else in town. It was going to Oklahoma City. It didn’t, and that’s exactly where it went.”
“That’s the most back-handed compliment ever,” he says.
“By design. So what did you learn?”
“If I could go back and hop in the DeLorean, would I have chosen Helmerich Park to market to REI? Of course not. But that was the hand I inherited. Having said that, I still believe that project was legal. Now, are we marketing any part of RiverParks going forward? No.”
“That’s easy. It’s not going to be another REI because we have involved the community in every step of the process. When the deal fell through with the County, we thought, ‘Where is the most impactful place?’ And for us, that was at Evans-Fintube site. But we first pitched the idea to Counselor Vanessa Hall-Harper and community leaders and got their buy-in. This is not the mayor’s office and the developer making a deal and telling everybody else what it’s going to be.”
“I have no segue here, but I want to talk about guns,” I tell him.
This, I can tell, doesn’t surprise him.
“There was a petition for a state question which would have allowed Oklahomans to weigh in on HB 2597, allowing residents to carry a gun without a permit. Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt signed the petition, but you refused. Why?”
“It’s not a city issue, it’s a state issue, and I had spent zero time studying it,” he says. “It’s out of my purview. I have an ability to see both sides of an issue, which most of the time is a useful asset, but on that one it was challenging to come to a conclusion on complex different viewpoints you respect … in a day.
David tweeted out he had signed the petition. And as soon as he had, people said, ‘Well, David signed it. How about you, G.T.?’ I went back and forth all day, and I couldn’t reach the right conclusion in the time frame. I am working on a number of issues—racial disparity, gay rights—that are controversial, that I’m trying to pull people together on, and jumping into a petition on an issue I have no influence on, didn’t seem like the right thing to do.”
“You pissed off both sides—the left by not issuing a statement supporting the amendment, the right by not trumpeting the original bill—which worked to your advantage.”
“You think that was good politically?”
“I do. It kept you in the middle of the debate. But let’s talk about something more serious: The Human Rights Watch Report, which focused on policing, poverty and racial inequity in Tulsa, was released earlier this year:
‘Being poor or Black makes you much more likely to be a target of aggressive policing in Tulsa … Throughout Tulsa, Black residents are 2.3 times more likely to be arrested than white residents.’
That’s pretty damning. You then—and I criticized you for this in a recent column—reached out … to the police. Now, is there a point where the morale of TPD is less important than the morale of those in, say, North Tulsa, who feel, in some measure, targeted by TPD?”
“I would say we spent three years implementing change to make the department better.”
Which is what I expected him to say.
“No, wait,” he says. “A frustration for me is we rollout 77 different reforms and the reaction is, ‘Yeah, it’s yesterday’s news.’ I am mindful of morale in the department. I see a lot of people go to work in our department, and they don’t go because we pay the best, because we don’t—they don’t go into this line of work because it’s secure, now being a decade away from laying off 130 police officers. These are extraordinary people. And I hear a lot of broad statements about ‘The Police’ which paints those extraordinary people in with the behavior one or two individuals that are in no way excusable.”
“You have to say that about cops, but when do you go to people in North Tulsa and say, after a shooting of an unarmed black male, ‘This is going to stop,’ and not couch the discussion in the one-or-two bad seeds trope? When do you say, ‘I love the police, but if any more incidents like this happen, someone will get fired.’”
“I don’t think we spend enough time talking about the broad array of determinants that leads to those disparities,” he says. “The police are not the cause and repercussions of those social determinants. I don’t know anyone at the TPD who’s OK with inequitable treatment. So, your scenario, where I go and say, ‘If this happens again, someone at TPD is in trouble,’ well, that’s placing the blame on the police department when the real issues we see revolve around mental health, drug issues, economic disparity. The police department didn’t cause that.”
“So, even after becoming mayor and being privy to the inner workings of the police, you didn’t see a need for institutional changes in the department?”
“Improvements in the department—implicit bias training, body cameras—are now in place,” he says. “But was there a thing the department was doing that I found out about that was outrageous that I went to the chief and said this had to change? No. I know people want to make it about policing, but there are so many other factors.”
I remind him neither one of us is going to be pulled over for driving a sports car in a posh part of town—a reality for African American males—but I am also reminded this is the same mayor who said this after Betty Shelby was found not guilty of first-degree manslaughter in the death of Terence Crutcher:
I would remind Tulsans that our history shows us African Americans in Tulsa have not been the instigators of lawlessness and riots; they have been the victims of them. So, I would ask that we not keep assuming the worst from a part of our community that has been exposed to the worst in this city’s history. We recognize that this issue, the issue of racial disparity in Tulsa, is the great moral issue of our time in this community, and there is a desire in all parts of our city to play a role in addressing it. (Tulsa World)
This mayor is not going to storm into TPD headquarters and start upending furniture, but he is the guy who finally listened to the North Tulsa community advocates demanding answers about this history of violence.
Nearly 100 years after a deadly race massacre, Tulsa began searching for evidence that victims of one of the country’s worst episodes of racial violence were buried in mass graves. (Washington Post)
An aide just came in and told the mayor he’s got five minutes until his next meeting.
“It’s OK. We’ve got time,” he says, waving her off.
I thank him for the extension. “Let’s talk politics. You run for re-election in 2020. You win again. You leave office in 2024. Inhofe, who will be 147 in 2026, doesn’t run for another term, and that’s also the year Stitt will be finishing his second term and can’t run again because of term limits. Tell me you’re not thinking about it.”
“Of course I would think about it. But I want to run through the rope here,” he says.
“I love this job and I would do it forever, but I committed when I ran I was only going to do two terms. There are so many politicians who say they’re going to do things and go back when it’s convenient for them not to.”
“That sounds like you could theoretically be talking about a United States congressman from the second district who said he wouldn’t run for a third term, now a fourth, but did anyway.”
“Just as a theoretical,” he says, smiling.
“If the left leaves you alone, which it will, and the right leaves you alone, which it might, you win reelection easily.”
“Good luck with that. I’m not holding my breath.”
“Oh, the left will, guaranteed. The right—well, the hard right, anyway—didn’t want you looking for mass graves.”
“Or even passing a package to improve our streets.”
It really is time to go, but first he reaches across the table and shows me a photo of an old city council meeting—he always does stuff like this—and then walks me out and shows me a picture on a wall given to him by former Mayor Dewey Bartlett.
Bynum loves the history and continuity of the place.
“Thanks for the time. We’ll do it again.”
“Absolutely,” he says.
“Always a pleasure,” I say.
We shake hands.
“You still owe me lunch.”