G.T. Bynum, mayoral ghosts, and the Reagan sofa
The continuing interview, part 3
Mayor G.T. Bynum at City Hall
“You need to sit on the white sofa,” Mayor Bynum says, as Michelle Brooks, his press secretary, ushers me into his giant corner office on the 14th floor at One Technology Center.
“Why is that?” I ask.
“Because this is Ronald Reagan’s 30-year-old sofa.”
“Why do you have it?”
“After Nancy Reagan died, there was an estate sale, and I bought it. I wanted something from Reagan but cheaper than Mathis Brothers.”
“I should have started recording in the elevator.”
“It was in really bad shape. Ronald Reagan’s 30-year-old couch looks like everyone else’s 30-year-old couch,” he says.
“Too soft. I’m sinking and I’m not going to have you lord over me. Let’s go to the conference table.”
This is the third time the mayor and I have met. There’s a familiarity now between us—or maybe he makes everyone feel that way.
“We keep this up, I’m going to be Robert Caro to your Lyndon Johnson, so I need you to run for governor and then president. Deal?”
“It’s pretty clear,” he says, “that Caro loathes Johnson.”
“But he kept writing anyway.”
Bynum previously told me after two terms as mayor, he’s out.
I still don’t believe him.
Brooks sits at one end of the conference table. She’s staying.
“You worried?” I ask her.
I don’t believe her, either.
“I saw my father, who’s 91, last night, and when I told him I was meeting you, he said, ‘Tell him to fix those goddamn highway lights!’”
“You don’t think I hear that every day?” Bynum asks.
“So, before I ask about Amazon, a joke,” I say. “The problem with Tulsa is that it’s in Oklahoma and too close to Kansas. The point is: Dysfunction in the state has to affect how you attract new business.”
“We actually had our mayor-council retreat this morning, and I brought that up.”
“This very issue,” he says. “It’s the great, unspoken goal we have, which is to thrive in a state that is not living up to its potential. So many of the challenges we face—and education is first and foremost among them—are things that the city has to take on and address because the people whose responsibilities it was to address it, historically, aren’t. There are leaders here who get the value of Tulsa and Oklahoma City and other larger cities, but there are still people who don’t and view it as a competition between rural and urban areas. We are now a majority urban state, and we’re not governing in a way that allows those areas to thrive.”
“So, when do you head down to OKC and start throwing things?”
“What we’re going to try to do,” he says, “is go to Oklahoma City and say, ‘If you guys aren’t going to address this, we will.’”
But, of course, we can’t. Tulsa can raise bonds to build infrastructure, but the city is prohibited by state law from using them to hire teachers.
“I saw you at Carver [Middle School],” I say. “Your son, my girlfriend’s son were shadowing. And there you were, the mayor, but also just another goofy dad at a small table spending too much time on his cell.”
“I was just a dad, just a dad,” he laughs.
“Not really, but it was good for people to see you. Those are optics, though. What can you do about education in Tulsa?”
“We can nip around the edges, but the economic disparity between what we pay teachers in Oklahoma and what neighboring states like Arkansas and Texas pay is glaring.”
“That’s part of the reason why we’re not getting Amazon,” I said. “Good, quixotic effort, but not going to happen.”
The mayor smiles.
“I did not go into this because I thought it would be good for us to compete against other cities, just for the exercise, any more than I ran against Dewey Bartlett thinking, ‘Well, I’ll run; I’ll lose, but I’ll get the experience.’ I really do think we are competitive here.”
When you look at what Amazon says it wants in a city for its HQ2, including 50,000 skilled workers and a mass transportation system, it’s tough to see how.
We bet lunch on it.
I bring up REI.
Back in September, the City of Tulsa asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to dismiss a motion brought by former Mayor Terry Young, who sought to stop the outdoor retailer from building at South 71st Street and Riverside Drive. The court unanimously rejected the motion and sent it back to district court.
Bynum thinks Young is playing the long game, hoping REI will just give up, go elsewhere.
Young doesn’t deny it.
“We have the right to go to court, and if we don’t win, we have the right to appeal.”
Bynum, who’s never been crazy about the deal, is convinced it’s legal and something Tulsa should not abrogate.
“We don’t go back on our word,” he says.
Statewide, Bynum is probably Oklahoma’s most popular politician. He doesn’t spend a lot of that capital, nor make a lot of enemies (Even Young said the REI deal isn’t personal and doesn’t blame Bynum), but there was one pitch the mayor could have taken in 2017 but didn’t.
The morning after Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby was acquitted of manslaughter charges in the death of Terence Crutcher, when some city officials were predicting riots and then congratulating themselves when they didn’t occur, Bynum said the following:
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.
You don’t hear Republican legislators—at least not these days and certainly not in Oklahoma—owning up to such history, apologizing for past transgressions (read: racism), or highlighting, as Bynum emphasized during the campaign, the differences in life expectancy between whites and blacks.
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.
He essentially told those who reflexively and predictably blame African Americans for such altercations, to knock it off.
“What people didn’t hear,” he says, “is when I talked about the difficulties of being a police officer, the uncertainty. It is a false choice that we’re either on one side or the other.”
We move on.
“All joking aside about the highway lights,” I say, “someone is going to die out there. It’s dangerous. Do you take that personally? In fact, how much of how the city runs do you take personally?”
“All of it,” he says, then alludes to the serious, the city’s murder rate, which is up, and the annoying, the condition of South Utica Avenue, between 11th and 15th Streets, which is awful, as well as a half-dozen other things.
“All of it,” he says again.
“My wife and I were in Paris recently, and I remember seeing the rats running around the streets, the potholes, and I said to her, ‘I’m so glad this is somebody else’s problem.’ Of course, when we landed in Atlanta, there were 350 emails—and that was just from the time we were on the plane from France.”
Bynum is a policy guy at heart, but mayors need what George H.W. Bush called “the vision thing.”
“When I was running for mayor, I would talk about how Tulsa was not in competition with Sand Springs or Broken Arrow or Owasso, but with Chicago, Dallas, and Denver. I remember a woman came up to me and said, ‘You’re adorable. There’s no way we can compete with those cities.’”
“She called you adorable?”
“Yeah,” he laughs. “And she wasn’t being mean. Patronizing, but not mean. But we are competing with them.”
He feels the weight of the office, of public service. And while he doesn’t talk partisan politics much, he is moored and motivated by his sense of a kinder, gentler, more functional Republican Party.
There’s Reagan, as you’d imagine. Mitch Daniels, former Indiana governor and U.S. Office of Management and Budget director under George W. Bush, comes up every time we talk. Mostly, though, there is his grandfather, Tulsa Mayor Robert LaFortune (1970-78), who is his Yoda.
The city’s historical schematics are always close by.
I ask him what grade he would give himself for the first year. He leans over and grabs a book off the center of the table—“Seat of Power,” by Douglas Miller and John Hamill. It’s about the history of Old City Hall at South 4th Street and Cincinnati Avenue and Tulsa’s past mayors. Back then, the place was known as “Magic City.” Bynum finds the page on Robert Maxwell, Tulsa’s 29th mayor, who was elected at age 31, making Bynum, who was elected at 39, Tulsa’s second-youngest mayor.
“I don’t know why this chokes me up, but he is my hero, and I will never be able to achieve what he has. Everything you like about Tulsa comes from him.”
It’s 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday. The mayor has small children at home, and we’re still talking. During his tenure as Tulsa’s 34th mayor, Bill LaFortune told me there was only one Christmas morning when someone wasn’t calling about city business. It
I should let LaFortune’s cousin go home.
An hour later, the mayor sends me a message. He was not happy about something.
“Following up on my emotional roller coaster of an answer to your question, I realize I didn’t concisely convey my point. For anyone going into their dream profession, I think they have heroes they hold up. Football players want to play like QBs like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Reporters want to reveal the truth like Woodward and Bernstein. Actors say no one can do “Streetcar” like Brando. For me, Maxwell and my grandfather are those standards. And I do not come anywhere close to measuring up. What they were able to accomplish in the eight years each of them had the job is absolutely breathtaking. It is a lot to live up to.”
I ask about the grade.