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The state we’re in, part VI

2018 midterm election edition



In the early 70s, there was a nationwide Volvo commercial featuring a man in his driveway, standing alongside a car that was not a Volvo.

“Yes, sir,” he says to the camera, tapping the top of the car, proudly. “I’ve had 11 of these babies in the last 17 years.” He then stops, purses his lips, winces slightly, and says: “If the cars weren’t so good, why would I keep buying them?”

Which brings us to the results of the 2018 election in Oklahoma.

First, though, some thoughts from a president of the United States unafraid of the rain and a free press, Barack Obama.

[Democracies] are like ocean liners: You turn the wheel slowly, and the big ship pivots. Sometimes your job is just to make stuff work. Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvements or to try to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south so that, 10 years from now, suddenly we’re in a very different place than we were. At the moment, people may feel like we need a 50-degree turn; we don’t need a two-degree turn. And you say, ‘Well, if I turn 50 degrees, the whole ship turns over.’

For awhile, Oklahoma was that ocean liner, moving slowly, but seemingly inexorably, towards a saner future. Prompted by a raucous and courageous teacher strike last April, a strike that closed down schools for weeks—combined, perhaps, with their own guilt from years of neglecting education—legislators cobbled together, and the governor signed, a bill that funded a teacher raise, among other things. To pay for it, taxes were increased.

Read that last part again. In a state that requires revenue bills to be passed with a 75-percent majority in both houses, taxes were raised. The gross production tax went from two to five percent, cigarette taxes went up a buck, and there was a three-cent increase in the gasoline tax and six-cent increase on diesel fuel. Later in the session, an internet sales tax was passed. Instead of arguing the same old tropes about big versus small government, legislators here began grappling with trying to figure out just how much government we needed. Additionally, Democrats here were winning special elections, and Republican extremists were being ousted in primaries by Republican moderates. In June, voters passed Oklahoma State Question 788, which legalized the license, cultivation, use, and possession of marijuana for medicinal purposes, one of the most liberal medical marijuana bills in the country.

This was all happening in Oklahoma.

The ocean liner, unmoored, was bellowing and belching and throwing off years of rust, and the great oddity of it all was that it was being done under (and often with the approval and encouragement of) the state’s GOP leadership. The “revolution,” if you can even call it that, was helped along by the very people who necessitated the need for such upheaval.

It would be a mistake, though, to think it was a Kumbaya moment, as good friend of the column OK Policy Executive Director David Blatt explains.

Republicans didn’t just suddenly wake up and decide they cared more about teachers and parents than about Tom Coburn and the OIPA [Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association]. What we saw was the result of years of hard work by grassroots groups, unions, and advocacy organizations to highlight the crisis caused by underfunding of our state services and to demand something be done about it.

It is a salient point. State Republicans, in agreeing to those tax increases, were admitting on some level they had failed at leadership, failed at education, failed at balancing the budget, failed, mostly, at governing. To satiate a boisterous state electorate—and certainly those teachers who had walked the Turner Turnpike from Tulsa to Oklahoma City and were now screaming outside their offices—they decided to play ball.

Republican legislators heard from parents whose children were going to school four days a week in overcrowded classrooms; they heard from school-support personnel and state employees who hadn’t received raises in years; and they heard from constituents who were tired of being first in the nation in all the bad things (prisons, lack of healthcare) and last in the nation in all the good ones (education, responsive government).

Republicans weren’t humiliated by their failures—they had and have too much power and hubris for that—but they were humbled, and when people and parties are humbled, they look for compromise.

As it turned out, teachers didn’t get close to what they deserved and were mocked for what they wanted. Governor Fallin compared them to spoiled kids who want a better car, but she signed a bill (something our governor-elect said he would not have done) giving them a raise and schools more funding. These teachers infused the state with energy, passion, and dare I say, optimism. Activism worked. Democrats ran candidates in places that weren’t used to seeing them. The question, then, that hovered over our enormous sky all summer and fall was this: Would Oklahoma voters make the GOP pay for its disastrous handling of the state over the past eight years? Would there be a blue wave?

On Nov. 6, we got the answer.

Nah.

The GOP actually gained seats overall, giving it a 39-9 advantage in the Senate and a 75-26 lead in the House. All told, there are 11 new state senators and 46 new House members—103 of Oklahoma’s 149 legislators have four years of experience, or fewer.

The Oklahoma congressional races for the House of Representatives went as expected, with the very big exception of OK-5, where Democratic candidate Kendra Horn defeated one-term Republican incumbent Steve
Russell.

(I also want to give a shoutout to Tim Gilpin, here in OK-1—even though he lost—for running a serious campaign and reminding us on a daily basis that the GOP, whatever its form here in Oklahoma, is rotting from the top. A worthwhile service that.)

However, while the state’s liberals and progressives, previously left for dead, are now breathing on their own, and the new legislative DNA in Oklahoma City appears to be more pragmatic than partisan, the takeaway from Nov. 6, 2018 is not good.

Here’s why:

Kevin Stitt beat Drew Edmondson by 12 percentage points.

Even people who liked Stitt can’t tell you why.

Here is what the editors of The Tulsa World wrote about him:

Stitt would be working in a foreign environment. He’s never crafted a piece of compromise legislation; indeed, until he was a candidate, there is no evidence he ever voted in a governor’s race until his name was on the ballot.

    Here’s what they wrote about Edmondson:

Edmondson served 16 years as Oklahoma’s attorney general. His work led to the establishment of the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, more than $1 billion to underwrite Oklahoma health projects.

Their conclusion:

The choice won’t be easy for Oklahoma voters, and we can make arguments either way; but on balance, we give the nod to Tulsan Kevin Stitt.

For the love of selective amnesia, they just explained why it was an easy call. This wasn’t an editorial as much as it was a lazy, ingratiating sop to right-wing readers who threaten to cancel their
World subscription every week-and-a-half.

How embarrassing was Stitt’s 12-percent victory for Democrats? In 2014, Gov. Mary Fallin, at the height of her popularity—she was on the shortlist to be Trump’s vice presidential running mate, as frightening a thought as that is—beat State Representative Joe Dorman by only two percentage points more. Joe Dorman was no Drew Edmondson, but GOP supporters in state-wide races will vote for a bag of ball-peen hammers over any Democratic opponent.

By the summer of 2018, though, Mary Fallin was the most unpopular governor in the nation, coming in at 17 percent favorability. (She had come a long way from her post-election victory dance of sitting in a tank and crushing a late-model Toyota to celebrate the first gun range in Oklahoma with an open bar). No GOP candidates running to succeed her wanted to be seen with her.

This was, or should have been, a horrendous time for Republicans in Oklahoma. There were scandals, mismanagement, arrogance, botched executions, and tone-deaf legislators and legislation. Still, Kevin Stitt—an inexperienced,  pro-Betsy DeVos, Trump-channeling anti-vaxxer who would allow state-run faith-based adoption agencies to discriminate based on religious and lifestyle preferences—won by 12 percent.

I got nothing.

During his acceptance speech, Stitt thanked his Heavenly Father, who apparently is uniquely engaged in Oklahoma politics, for “putting me in this position,” which was the second-most preposterous thing about what he said, surpassed only by his fatherly pride when discussing how his 18-year-old daughter cast her first vote for governor this past election—which, coincidentally, was also her father’s first.

Republican businessman Kevin Stitt, who has pitched his gubernatorial campaign on his outsider status, has voted in just eight elections since 2000, according to Oklahoma voter history records. None of those elections included the race for governor.

It gets worse. Stitt recently announced that Marc Nuttle will lead his transition team. Who’s Marc Nuttle? He’s the chairman of the board of something called The Oak Initiative, a collection of paranoid, fringe-peddling God botherers who believe Trump was given to America as a celestial gift to cure our ills. Its mission is to “Unite, Mobilize, Equip, and Activate Christians to be the salt and light they are called to be by engaging in the great issues of our time from a sound biblical worldview” and to find “the wisdom of Daniel who as a captive servant in the realm of a foreign king was able to transform a nation through devotion to his King.”

Lovely.

Oklahoma voters walked into fire houses and churches and other polling places on Nov. 6, stared at their ballots—having lived through a decade in which the GOP presided over budget disasters, gutted public education and social services, refused federal funds to expand healthcare to insure our own people, kowtowed to the rich and the elite, curtailed women’s rights, erected absurd religious monuments, and humiliated Oklahoma nationally two, three times a week—yet still decided to give Republicans the keys to state government … again.

If they weren’t so good, why would we keep electing them?

 
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