Saturday's Republican state convention was officially about selecting new party leaders for the next two years, but the meeting was dominated by talk of a state government scandal and the race for next year's GOP presidential nomination.
Gary Jones of Cache regained the chairmanship that he set aside last year to make a second run for State Auditor. Jones was helped by Saturday's headlines that former Democratic State Rep. (and former Democratic state chairman) Mike Mass had plead guilty to Federal mail fraud charges and is cooperating with the Feds in an investigation that involves convicted former State Sen. Gene Stipe and State Auditor Jeff McMahan, and which may reach further and higher.
In his election speech to the delegates, Jones pointed out that he and Oklahoma City State Rep. Mike Reynolds were the first to unravel how Stipe had been stealing from the taxpayers, working through straw campaign donors, rural development trusts, phony foundations, and economic development grants.
Jones argued that the scandal would be the topic of conversation for the next two years, and Republicans should have someone at the helm who can talk knowledgably about the issue.
Jones won a new two-year term by a slim margin over his successor, former State Auditor Tom Daxon. (A quarter of a century ago, Daxon had been a key figure in uncovering another widespread scandal involving county commissioners in nearly every county.)
Former Tulsa County Republican Chairman Jerry Buchanan was eliminated in the first round of voting. The southeast Oklahoma native was hurt by news that he had contributed to the campaigns of college friends who happened to be Democrats.
Unfortunately for Buchanan, one of those friends happened to be named John Carey. Many delegates had received an anonymous e-mail directing them a YouTube video in which Buchanan acknowledged giving a campaign contribution to Carey. The video didn't include Buchanan's explanation, and nowhere was Carey's name spelled out, leaving delegates with the impression that the candidate for Republican chairman had given to the 2004 Democratic nominee for president, Mass. Sen. John Kerry.
The focus on the presidential race was marked more by absence than presence. Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney had committed months ago to be the keynote speaker, but 10 days before the convention he backed out, citing a "schedule conflict." Instead, Romney spent Saturday making the rounds of several GOP county conventions in South Carolina.
Romney's cancellation came a day after the death of a bill that would have leapfrogged Oklahoma ahead of South Carolina, making the Sooner State primary the second in the nation, one week after New Hampshire.
The date change was killed at the insistence of Oklahoma's Republican National Committee members, who feared losing 50% of the state's convention seats as punishment for breaking a never-enforced rule that New Hampshire and South Carolina already violate.
Voting on the first Tuesday in February, Oklahoma will still be an early primary state. Despite that, no presidential campaign had an organized presence at the convention. A few scruffy young men from OU manned a table for Rudy Giuliani. Someone set out a few John McCain bumperstickers, and an energetic fan of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee put a four-page issues summary on every seat in the convention hall.
Many of the 900 conservative grassroots activists are still looking for a candidate in the Tom Coburn mold -- someone who is solidly conservative on social, economic, and foreign policy issues, someone who can articulate those positions clearly, forcefully, and unabashedly, without cowing before the demands of political correctness. A shout from the audience during Coburn's speech -- "Tom for President!" -- prompted the biggest cheers of the day.
Delegates looking for a Coburn type have focused in on actor and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who is rumored to be getting his ducks in a row to make a formal announcement in a few weeks. Thompson's straight-shooting radio commentaries -- he's been subbing for Tulsa native Paul Harvey -- are bringing back happy memories of Ronald Reagan's syndicated radio talks in the run-up to his 1980 victory.
Two GOP auxiliaries held straw polls at their booths in the lobby, and Thompson finished first in each, well ahead of another non-candidate in second place, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Announced candidates like Romney, Giuliani, and McCain were down in the single digits.
Oklahoma's grassroots Republicans don't seem to be in a hurry to attach themselves to a candidate. In the 2004 Senate race, when big money donors and elected officials made early commitments to Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, GOP foot-soldiers kept their powder dry, jumping on board with Tom Coburn as soon as he made his late entry into the race, just four months before the primary.
Waiting a little longer for the right presidential candidate to come along won't tax their patience a bit.
From Convention to Concert Hall
Not to turn this into a society column, but...
Congratulations are in order to the National Fiddler Hall of Fame (www.nfhof.org) for last Friday's successful inaugural gala at Cain's Ballroom. Bob Wills -- the man Merle Haggard called "the best damn fiddle player in the world" -- was inducted as the first member of the hall, and his daughter Rosetta was present to accept the honor on behalf of her late father in the place that served as his home base for many years.
The evening featured performances in several different genres of fiddle playing from bluegrass and blues to jazz and western swing, performed by fiddle legends like Jana Jae, Byron Berline, Curly Lewis, and Shelby Eicher.
One of the missions of the NFHOF is to expose a new generation to fiddle music and develop a new corps of fiddlers. The band Oklahoma Stomp is one of the ways they're accomplishing that aim. This group of boys from 12 to 15 bowled over the crowd with five energetic Bob Wills standards like San Antonio Rose and Roly Poly.
As I mentioned in my 1-7 March column("Yee, Haw! Happy Birthday, Bob!"), there are plans afoot for a National Fiddler Museum to house the hall of fame. The hope is to locate it somewhere in the Brady Arts District, not too far from the Cain's.
Finally, Tulsa would have a tourist attraction to connect visitors with the great Western Swing musical tradition that took root here some seventy years ago. For that, the National Fiddler Hall of Fame's board members deserve our city's thanks.
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