To Comfort The Afflicted
And Afflict The Comfortable

To Comfort The Afflicted And Afflict The Comfortable

Friday, July 19, 2024

Observercast

Move Over, Atilla

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The statehouse is on fire.

Not literally, of course. No hook-and-ladder trucks surrounding the Capitol with sirens blaring and lights flashing. No firefighters hauling hoses up the steps and into the marbled halls. No television news helicopters circling.

Metaphorically, however, Republican primary voters last week stoked embers of discontent into a bonfire that engulfed the Senate. It even singed the House where House Appropriations Chair Kevin Wallace was forced into an Aug. 27 runoff and Stillwater Rep. John Talley was ousted.

Three incumbent senators – including the incoming Senate president pro tem – were dethroned. Three more barely survived. With another, Sen. Roger Thompson, resigning abruptly, next year’s Senate will include at least 13 newbies – nearly one-third of the upper chamber’s 48 members.

And it could be more. Four incumbents still face either the runoff or a general election battle – or both.

Why should you care? Because last week’s winners [mostly] campaigned as uber-right ideologues who are [mostly] replacing legislators who [often] pursued the political middle where things actually get done.

Lest true political moderates and progressives guffaw at depicting any departing Republicans as “moderate,” allow me to emphasize “moderate” isn’t what it meant as recently as five years ago. Today’s legislative “moderate” is only slightly to the left of Attila the Hun.

The fact is, the Legislature’s GOP supermajority is engaged in a civil war between uncompromising zealots and those who live in a more reality-based universe that gets things done by building consensus through tweaking public policy proposals.

Last week’s results suggest the balance of Senate power has shifted: When the likes of Ada Sen. Greg McCortney – before Tuesday’s primary the pro tem-elect – and Duncan’s anti-transgender Sen. Jessica Garvin aren’t deemed conservative enough for primary voters, the direction is clear: Move over Atilla, there’s a new sheriff in town.

Making the hardline, take-no-prisoners approach even more disastrous potentially is that it often takes months for neophyte lawmakers to learn where the Capitol’s bathrooms are, much less what it takes to successfully steer meaningful public policy through the legislative labyrinth.

It’s also quite likely that surviving “moderates” might take their cues from the minority of primary voters who backed the likes of Garvin’s conqueror, McClain County Assessor Kendal Sacchieri, whose priorities reflect the national far-right echo-chamber: anti-abortion, pro-guns, “protect girls and preserve women’s sports,” and expanding “parental empowerment in education.”

None of which have anything to do with solving Oklahoma’s real problems: underfunded public schools, spotty health and mental health care, widespread poverty and childhood hunger, just to name a few.

The recently completed 59th regular session offered workaday Oklahomans little to cheer about. Yes, the state’s portion of the grocery tax was zeroed out, but lawmakers whiffed on a historic opportunity to invest billions in state savings and one-time federal dollars into programs that could help lift Oklahoma from the bottom of nearly every socioeconomic category.

Even so, there was a sense the system still could work as designed. Example: The Senate successfully resisted efforts by Gov. Kevin Stitt and House leadership to enact politically pleasing, but fiscally shortsighted income tax cuts.

Next year, given the expanded number of uber-right ideologues … who knows?

This much is certain: the exits of term-limited Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat and House Speaker Charles McCall will end an unprecedented era of consistent legislative leadership.

McCall is longest serving speaker in state history – four two-year sessions; Treat’s three two-year sessions trail only former Claremore Sen. Stratton Taylor’s record four.

Whether the dizzying pace of legislative turnover – from leadership to rank-and-file – is for better or worse remains to be seen. But given 30-plus years of term limits and an ever-widening political divide, it would be hard to bet against worse.

Editor’s Note: This is an abbreviated version of our coverage of June 18’s primaries. For a complete wrapup, check out The Observer’s July print edition which goes to press later this week.

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Arnold Hamilton, Editor
Arnold Hamilton, Editor
Arnold Hamilton became editor of The Observer in September 2006. Previously, he served nearly two decades as the Dallas Morning News’ Oklahoma Bureau chief. He also covered government and politics for the San Jose Mercury News, the Dallas Times Herald, the Tulsa Tribune and the Oklahoma Journal.