2009 was a year of political change in Oklahoma as candidates prepare for 2010 electionsBy Tim Talley, AP
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
2009 was year of political change in state
OKLAHOMA CITY — Republicans controlled the Oklahoma Legislature for the first time in history in 2009, but the biggest political story of the year had more to do with the turnover that is shaping up in many statewide offices in the 2010 elections.
Officeholders who are term-limited or announced in 2009 they are retiring or running for higher office will not seek re-election for governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, superintendent of schools and attorney general next year as a growing list of candidates vies for more open statewide seats than at any time in the past decade.
All of the statewide officials who are leaving are Democrats, a fact that Republicans view as an opportunity to possibly run the table and elect GOP candidates to each of the open seats.
“That’s a very real possibility,” said state Republican Party Chairman Gary Jones.
Jones said the GOP’s success in taking control of the Legislature over the past five years has encouraged the party to aggressively pursue next year’s statewide races. Republicans took control of the state House in 2004 for the first time in 80 years and seized control of the Senate for the first time ever in 2008.
“We’re seeing very high quality candidates,” Jones said. “I don’t think there’s a race that we shouldn’t be targeting.”
Oklahoma Democratic Party Chairman Todd Goodman said he sees opportunities for his own party because of the way the Republican-controlled Legislature has managed a revenue shortfall of more than $729 million in the budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30. The shortfall has led to budget cuts at state agencies and the curtailment of some services to Oklahomans.
“The Republican leadership has put us on the brink of disaster,” Goodman said. “We’ve been spending 2009 continuing to press the issues that are most important to us.”
Goodman said he is hopeful Democrats can maintain control of the statewide seats they held in 2009 and gain seats in the House and Senate.
“We certainly face an uphill battle. But I think the strength in our candidates and the strength in our message will help us prevail in 2010,” he said.
Gov. Brad Henry is term-limited in 2010 and cannot seek re-election. Other statewide officeholders who announced in 2009 they will not seek re-election are:
—Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, who is stepping down after one four-year term to run for governor.
—Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who is leaving office after four terms to run for governor.
—Superintendent of Schools Sandy Garrett, who is retiring after five terms.
—Treasurer Scott Meacham, who is retiring after one full term.
Three other Democratic statewide officeholders — Commissioner of Insurance Kim Holland, Auditor and Inspector Steve Burrage and Commissioner of Labor Lloyd Fields — are all expected to run for their posts next year.
U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin’s decision in 2009 to seek the Republican nomination for governor touched off a free-for-all to succeed her as eight candidates — seven Republicans and an independent — cranked up congressional election campaigns. No Democrats have announced for the office. Fallin, a former lieutenant governor, served two two-year terms in Congress.
Former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts announced he would not run for governor next year after making several trips to the state to talk to political associates about a possible gubernatorial bid.
Watts, a former University of Oklahoma football star, has a consulting and lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., and said he had too many business and contractual obligations to conduct a gubernatorial campaign.
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., announced in 2009 he will seek a second and final six-year term in 2010. So far, no one has stepped up to challenge him.
Conservatives expressed frustration over government spending during 2009 at a series of Tea Party demonstrations across the state where they criticized the $787 billion federal economic stimulus package approved by Congress. Organizers encouraged protesters to boycott companies that received government bailout money.
Republicans experienced some political successes in the Legislature in 2009, the GOP’s first year to control both chambers.
After years of unsuccessful efforts as the minority party, the House and Senate finally approved GOP-backed changes to Oklahoma’s civil justice system that supporters said will block frivolous lawsuits and reduce malpractice and liability insurance costs for doctors and businesses.
A priority of GOP Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee of Oklahoma City, the measure redefines what constitutes a frivolous lawsuit and strengthens summary judgment rules to make it easier for a judge to dismiss a lawsuit that has no merit before it goes to trial.
The measure also caps non-economic damages, also known as pain and suffering, at $400,000 but allows a judge or jury to waive the cap in cases of gross negligence or catastrophic injury.
Other Republican-supported legislation fell victim to Henry’s vetoes, forcing GOP leaders to pass the issues on to voters in statewide referendums in the 2010 election.
They include proposals to require Senate confirmation of gubernatorial appointments to the Workers’ Compensation Court and requiring voters to present photo identification or other ID at the polls.
Coffee, the first Republican Senate president pro tem in state history, came under scrutiny in 2009 after The Associated Press obtained documents indicating a federal tax lien had been filed against him by the Internal Revenue Service in 2008 seeking $28,822 in federal taxes owed for almost two years.
The documents indicated Coffee paid off his overdue tax bill within one month after the lien was issued by the government. But the disclosure prompted some Democratic members of the Senate to question Coffee’s leadership and call for his resignation.
Coffee hung on to his leadership post after apologizing in a closed-door meeting with his Republican colleagues. He said at the time that no one in the GOP caucus had asked him to step down.
One of the biggest political corruption scandals of the past decade wrapped up in 2009. Former State Auditor and Inspector Jeff McMahan was sentenced in January to eight years and one month for accepting bribes from a southeastern Oklahoma businessman. His wife, Lori McMahan, was sentenced to six years and six months on related charges.
Jeff McMahan, a Democrat, was accused of showing favoritism in his official actions as state auditor to businessman Steve Phipps in exchange for cash, jewelry, campaign contributions, fishing trips and trips to places like New Orleans and Boston.
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