Those eight, straight forward and apparently impactful words may have been the most important ever spoken by Robert V. Cullison during his 22 years of service in the Oklahoma Legislature.
At the time they were directed at a recalcitrant and scared senator from Eastern Oklahoma who feared a yes vote from him on passage of HB 1017 – the most important education reform and revenue bill in state history – might cost him his job and title.
It’s true some lawmakers did lose their perches, perks and privileges at the Capitol.
However, it was five seats out of the potentially 24 in play that year – 1990 – that did flip from R to D, including Senate District 16, the one I won and held for the following 16 years. There is no doubt my support for 1017 was the key ingredient in delivering a 20-point win in November 1990 against an incumbent and well-funded Republican.
My friend and leader Bob died Tuesday at the age of 84. He went out the same way he conducted himself in public service … quietly, confidently, knowing he had done his best, having fought his best fight.
In the glare of public scrutiny, Leader Cullison was unflappable; so low key some thought he may not have had a key at all; but like the former Marine he was, he always led from the front and by example. Didn’t just talk the talk but walked it as well. As pro tem of the Senate, a job guaranteed to create detractors and enemies, Bob proved to be so popular he set the record for longevity.
Review all the news clips and videos from his era and you’ll not find a personally derogatory word one about his policies, politics or priorities. People genuinely wanted to be around him, listen to him and then if they had a vote to give to him, gladly gave it.
Sen. Cullison saw problems clearly; acted efficiently to solve them; then got out of the way and gave credit to others for what he had accomplished. He appointed women and minorities to important posts when it “just wasn’t done” and watched them blossom into statewide persons of note: Vickie Miles-LeGrange, Bernice Shedrick, Maxine Horner, Penny Williams, Trish Weedn, to name just a few.
Compare that record to today – 31 years later – when only seven white men in the current Legislature wrote, presented and eventually saw signed into law next year’s $8.8 billion dollar budget. Yes it may be easier that way but, as Bob Cullison understood decades ago, it isn’t the right way.
Inclusion, not exclusion. Consensus, not exemption. Our way together on the highway. A knowing and sympathetic smile for friend and foe alike while sharing either the sting of a loss or the warmth of a win.
As a story-teller, there was none better. He came from a family that ran a small hardware/grocery store in Turley, just north of Tulsa, where spitting and whittling were considered full-time jobs for several; where commodities and products in gallon jugs often went on monthly ledgers to be paid when “the folks could;” where people were mostly poor regardless of the color of their skin and most likely would remain in that financial category for the rest of their lives and most knew it.
The Bob I admired didn’t pick a fight with anybody but if a fight occurred the winner was pre-ordained. Governors came and went; and so did many of their bad ideas, delivered to the ash heap of history on a silver platter courtesy of the velvet gloved hand of their friend and pro tempore “Bob.”
Cullison wasn’t a mathematical genius but he could always count to 25, the number needed to pass any bill in the state senate.
I remain amazed how many governors of great wisdom, elegance, speaking skills and charm had such trouble with basic math; where their calculations could arrive at 24 but somehow 25 eluded them.
In short, he never lost a bill in 22 years. Some lawmakers could lose 22 in one year.
He had class, smarts, personal values, integrity, honesty and the right priorities. Bob left the Legislature no better off financially than when he arrived but his legislative legacy gave hundreds of thousands of Oklahoma students the tools needed to succeed in life … smaller class sizes, better trained and paid teachers, support personnel who could survive on a salary cooking in the cafeteria or driving a bus, a college-ready curriculum and then the scholarship opportunities to maximize the high school preparation.
Rest now in peace Pro Tempore Cullison and tell so many of our mutual friends I said hello. Senators Stipe, Mickle, Dickerson, Leftwich, The Johnsons, Williams, Branch, Bell, Myers, Tibbs, Finis and Jerry Smith, Porter, Horner, Helton, Wilson, Garrisons, Nichols, Capps, Kerr, and a gaggle or two more.
Tell them all a joke, pat them on the back, and if they ask you for something, which they always did in the Senate, tell them you’ll meditate on it or to save both of you some time, just say no.
A few of them would have asked for something illegal anyway so why bother.