To Comfort The Afflicted
And Afflict The Comfortable

To Comfort The Afflicted And Afflict The Comfortable

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Observercast

Walters And Stitt: Tweedledee And Tweedledum[b]

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State Superintendent Ryan Walters is making noise on a fiddle while his agency burns.

More and more employees of the Oklahoma State Department of Education [OSDE] are jumping ship like rats in the know. This includes several key staff positions. The Oklahoman reported that since Walters took office, the OSDE has seen 130 staff members resign.

This exodus has accelerated in the past few months. The entire legal team, several department heads, and the director of appropriations, among many others have abruptly split. Walters’ own chief of staff, a vital position to the daily running of the department, has also seen himself out.

Walters fiddles on, out of tune, squawking and screeching.

But enough comparisons to Nero. Walters hardly has the stature of even a rotten Emperor of Rome. He is more like Tweedledee.

We’ll get to Tweedledum[b] a little later.

Tweedledee has rallied the State Board of Education in skirting the process of changing OSDE’s administrative rules. Legally, state agencies must create rules based on statutes passed by the legislature. The OSDE is not allowed to concoct rules without statutes directing them to. Attorney General Gentner Drummond emphasized this, singling out the OSDE, in a legal opinion a year ago.

The rubber stamp-happy state board members are political appointees of Gov. Kevin Stitt. As expected, they gave all 15 of Walters’ proposed administrative rules the green light, sending them to the Legislature with their blessing. A number of these rules aim to infect public education policy with Christian nationalism and other forms of bias. They do not belong in any state agency’s policies. Walters has been crowing loudly about them as he brazenly uses his office to promote himself as Oklahoma’s self-anointed culture warrior-in-chief.

Tweedledee triumphantly boasted of defeating “wokeness” [aka sensible thinking] when the sheep-like board passed the new rules. Despite his penchant for fiddling, he forgot that he is not an emperor. His word is not law. Not one of the 15 rules Walters put forth has yet been approved by the Legislature or governor.

Walters generates a lot of noise with his bombast. He arrogantly claims a mandate to do whatever he wants by virtue of being elected to his job. It is true that he received 56% of the votes to Jena Nelson’s 43%. Not a landslide, but a decisive win, courtesy of straight-party voting. At any rate, winning an election is not a mandate to run amok. Like it or not [he does not], he has to comply with the law.

Some legislators who take the law seriously, therefore, are saying “not so fast.”

OH, SNAP!

The first step of legislative oversight for agency rules took place earlier this month in the Senate Committee for Administrative Rules. It went nowhere.

It is the duty of this committee to scrutinize administrative rules before they can become part of a state agency’s policy. Democrats on the committee fulfilled this duty. They posed questions to an OSDE representative, government affairs associate Lindsey McSparrin. Typically, it would be an agency’s legal counsel sent to field lawmakers’ questions. But since the OSDE’s legal staff have all resigned, Tweedledee decided a lobbyist would do in a pinch.

Committee members asked McSparrin questions she couldn’t answer. The central issue concerning the senators was not the [troubling] substance of the proposed administrative rules – they didn’t get that far – but the process of how they came to be. Sens. Michael Brooks, D-OKC, and Mary Boren, D-Norman, referred to Oklahoma Attorney General Genter Drummond’s legal opinion, which has the force of law.

Drummond’s opinion clearly establishes that OSDE, and other state agencies, have authority to issue administrative rules only according to statutes that have been enacted, in order to implement those statutes. In other words, new legislation triggers new rules.

Walters has reversed that process. By pushing proposed rules to lawmakers unilaterally, he is in effect directing them to pass a new law to accommodate his rules instead of vice versa. As Brooks commented, “The Board of Education doesn’t have carte blanche … to make law.”

Drummond emphasized this point in a statement last year, singling out the OSDE. “Oklahoma law does not give the State Board of Education [SBE] the ability to make administrative rules without proper direction from the state Legislature,” the statement said. The opinion itself clearly states that “an agency may only exercise the powers expressly given by statute. An agency cannot expand those powers by its own authority.”

And – Oh, Snap! – the opinion also finds that any rule made by a different process “is invalid and may not be enforced.” This supports some committee members’ assertion that any OSDE administrative rules that were not requested by the Legislature are null and void.

At the Rules Committee hearing, senators asked McSparrin about the OSDE’s authority for proposing these 15 rules in light of the AG opinion. Instead of answering, she asked for more time in order to go back to the OSDE for further huddling. Some members expressed frustration at having had their time wasted. The committee meeting adjourned without having taken a vote.

In response to this fiasco, Tweedledee let his mini-me to do the talking.

TWEEDLEDEE’S MINI-ME

Walters’ mouthpiece is OSDE Press Secretary Dan Isett. Isett has ties to the right-wing Federalist Society, a home-school advocacy organization in Texas, and an outfit called the Parents Television Council which focuses on “indecency issues.” In working for Tweedledee, he has solidified his credentials as a hack for the far right.

It is hard to know whether Isett has adopted Walters’ style of hyperbolic, inflammatory rhetoric, or whether Walters has learned it from him. Either way, they echo each other in their slanderous rants.

In a previous column, Going Rogue, I reviewed some of Walters’ deplorable public remarks. His Mini-Me produced this vomitous gem after the Rules Committee hearing:

“Democrats want to promote DEI, porn, and indoctrination of our kids … Democrats took aim at the Oklahoma Constitution, well-established precedent, and the clear will of Oklahomans today. Democrats will stop at nothing to try to regain control of our kids’ education, and … our families in Oklahoma will never give in to their demands.”

Isett’s deflection tactic – blame the Democrats – exemplifies Waters’ modus operandi. Demonize anyone who raises legitimate questions about whatever Walters endorses. Throw mud, play the blame game, distort the points being raised, dodge responsibility, politicize everything, and wrap it in the radical verbiage of a culture warrior. It is a familiar gambit.

Unsurprisingly, Isett’s statement on Walters’ behalf deliberately misses the point. As Sen. Brooks stated during the committee meeting, OSDE and the miscreants “are trying to … push the limits and really step over the line” of what state law allows.

Only the likes of Tweedledee or his Mini-Me would be brazen enough to play victim. Defying reason, they defiantly suggest that following the law would be “backing down” and “giving in” to diabolical Democrats. They fling this ultra-partisan red herring around whenever they can.

In similar demonizing style, Isett also deflected media inquiries about the eyebrow-raising exodus of SDE staff, as reported with hard numbers in The Oklahoman. Shooting the messenger, Mini-Me spat, “The Oklahoman is fake news!” What he lacks in originality, he makes up for in prickliness. His slander against The Oklahoman went on, “They continue to lie about OSDE and throw a fit that Superintendent Walters has brought accountability to a dumpster fire of an agency.”

It remains unclear whether Isett is Walters’ ventriloquist dummy or the other way around. But speaking of dummies …

TWEEDLEDUM[B]

Gov. Stitt is seldom accused of exhibiting a keen intellect. His buffoonery has been on display since he first ran for office. During the 2018 Republican primary campaign for governor, it came out that Stitt had not cast a vote for that office in any election since registering to vote. How can he ask Oklahomans to cast votes for him, reporters asked, when he himself has never bothered to vote in a gubernatorial election? To explain away this embarrassing lack of basic civic engagement, candidate Tweedledum[b] managed a forced laugh and awkwardly blurted, “I’m not a career politician!”

Oxymoron or just plain moron? Readers, you decide.

When recently asked about the plethora of resignations from OSDE, Stitt once again demonstrated his flair for being obtuse. He actually claimed – with typical clumsiness of spin – that the hemorrhaging of staff is a sign of success.

In his own poor impression of Nero, Tweedledum[b] put forth this awful tune: “You’re telling me we’ve lost 130 bureaucrats, and we’ve still got our education system rolling across the state? Sounds like a good thing to me.” He thus equated all state employees – the people running things – with wasteful fat that needs to be trimmed. [Stitt may be forgetting that he, too, is a state employee.]

Since Tweedledum[b] is such a fan of limited government, will he find inspiration in the OSDE’s vacant positions? Imagine the chaos of the Governor’s Office with no chief of staff and no in-house attorneys. If he thinks this “sounds like a good thing,” he advances from Tweedledum[b] to Tweedledumber.

TWEEDLEDEE AND TWEEDLEDUM[B]: THEY STAND AS A PAIR

Stitt and Walters arrived on the political scene side by side – like salt and pepper, toast and butter, or indeed, Twiddledee and Tweedledumb. Their friendship had started watching tennis matches together. Hitting it off courtside, they quickly became compadres. The rest, unfortunately, is recent history.

Walters rode in on Stitt’s coattails. Grossly underqualified, Tweedledumb fooled enough gullible voters to win the governorship. He then shoe-horned Walters into his cabinet, appointing him as his [also grossly underqualified] Secretary of Education. Tweedledee would then use this as a springboard to run for state superintendent when the impressively competent Joy Hofmeister was term limited.

There are occasional hints that Stitt and Walters’ political relationship has its ups and downs. Even so, as one lawmaker commented earlier this year, without Stitt, Walters would still be coaching tennis in McAlester.

It is assumed that both Tweedledee and -dumb daydream of higher office. Let them go for it. As they plunge down the rabbit hole chasing their misguided aspirations, they hopefully will vanish from the public sphere. The best scenario is they become lost in surreal adventures of misguided ambition. Their Mad Hatter wears a MAGA hat, but in Wonderland, he could trade that in for a bright-colored jumpsuit.

If not, our two Tweedles will hopefully fade away by other means. In a just world, they will not be rewarded for their gross incompetence with appointments or votes.

In the meantime, we are evidently stuck with these fools. One faint glimmer of hope where Walters is concerned is that Democratic lawmakers, for the second time, are calling for his impeachment. Given the Republican supermajority, it truly is a faint glimmer.

We must therefore persist, giving Tweedledee and Tweedledum[b] the scrutiny they require. We cannot shy away from calling BS when that’s what they give us.

And give it they will. That’s what they do.

Kevin Acers
Kevin Acers
Kevin Acers is a social worker, educator, and poet living in Oklahoma City. He is a former board member of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and the ACLU of Oklahoma.
Mark Krawczyk
Mark Krawczyk
March 9, 2023
Exceptional reporting about goings on in my home state as well as informative opinion pieces that makes people think about issues of the day...........get a SUBSCRIPTION FOLKS!!!!!!!
Brette Pruitt
Brette Pruitt
September 5, 2022
The Observer carries on the "give 'em hell" tradition of its founder, the late Frosty Troy. I read it from cover to cover. A progressive wouldn't be able to live in a red state without it.