Four years after losing control of the Tulsa City Council, the development lobby and related special interests regained a foothold on April Fools' Day, defeating two of the councilors they considered most troublesome.
The daily paper rejoiced to be rid of District 3 Councilor Roscoe Turner, the man Urban Tulsa Weekly readers twice named Tulsa's Most Believable City Councilor.
The daily, an avowed enemy of neighborhood empowerment, seemed just as happy about the defeat of District 4 incumbent Maria Barnes, whose mild and modest proposal for Neighborhood Conservation Districts panicked the "build anything I want anywhere I want" crowd.
Four years ago, the last non-mayoral general election, the daily paper's editorialists tut-tutted about a dismal turnout which allowed "a relatively few dedicated activists" to defeat one of their proxies on the Council (Art Justis in District 6, whom they called "a popular councilor") and come close to beating another.
District 6 turnout was down by 30 percent from four years ago. The overall turnout was only slightly higher this year, thanks mainly to two city-wide ballot issues which turned out the most dedicated voters in districts with no council race. (Happily, both charter amendments, including moving city elections to the fall of odd-numbered years, passed by wide margins.)
But there was no mention of a dismal turnout in their post-election recap this year: Instead, the daily's opinionistas celebrated "the will of the majority."
So what happened to Tulsa's Most Believable City Councilor? It appears that his electoral base became complacent.
The rules were changed for the seventh rematch between current Councilor Roscoe Turner and former Councilor David Patrick. Instead of yet another Democratic primary battle, Patrick filed as an independent, forcing a general election faceoff.
Because of that, it's hard to find a good parallel for comparing results. The nearest match may be the April 6, 2004, District 3 Democratic primary revote.
(The revote happened because officials in one polling place allowed Republicans to vote in the original February 3, 2004, primary. More invalid votes were cast than the margin of victory, so after a court battle the election was thrown out and a new election was held.)
Comparing that election to this one, it appears that Patrick got his voters to the polls, and Turner didn't. Turner's vote in his strongest precincts -- between U. S. 75, Mohawk Blvd and Peoria -- was off by 238, more than Patrick's margin of victory. District-wide, both men had lower totals than four years ago, but Turner's drop was 405 votes worse than Patrick's.
The one precinct where Turner's vote held up was the Layman Van Acres neighborhood in the southeast corner of the district. After years of neglect during Patrick's recumbent incumbency, the neighborhood, plagued by increasing airport noise, finally received the help they were seeking from Turner. Grateful neighborhood leaders campaigned hard to keep him in office.
In 2004, ongoing court action kept voting irregularities and a likely revote in the news for weeks. Turner's mail pieces called attention to the Patrick campaign's heavy financial dependence on wealthy Midtown and south Tulsa special interests. Voters were aware and motivated to go the polls.
This time, Turner opted to run a more positive campaign, in part to counteract the "naysayer" image connected with his stand on the Tulsa County river sales tax. Enough time had passed since Patrick had been in office that voters had forgotten how badly he had represented most of the district and how he had been a rubber stamp for the daily paper and the development lobby. There was less sense of "stop Patrick!" urgency to drive people to the polls.
It didn't help that next-door District 1 wasn't voting on April 1. Councilor Jack Henderson had already won re-election in the March 4 primary. Turner's best precincts, west of U. S. 75, have close commercial, social, and religious ties to the heart of Henderson's district, which wouldn't have had the usual degree of buzz about the election. Perhaps some voters assumed that because Henderson was already safely back in, Turner must be, too.
But the toughest setback for the Turner campaign was Turner's own health. He spent a couple of weeks out of commission with pneumonia, recovered and pushed himself too hard, relapsed, and was finally able to return to campaigning a little more than a week before the election.
Turner was 63 in his first race for Council in 1996. Today, he's 75, and the stresses of public office and the campaign trail are harder to overcome.
On election night, my son and I went over to the Turner home, hoping to find a victory party, but finding instead a room full of sad faces. In a divided city and a divided District 3, Turner has been a bridge builder between parties, between races, between sections of the city, something that was apparent just by looking around the room at his watch party. While he enraged the special interests that were accustomed to getting their way at City Hall, his activism on behalf of ordinary Tulsans won admirers and supporters in every part of the city.
I expect that Turner will remain engaged in city issues, but younger leadership needs to step forward in north-central and northeast Tulsa, to learn from Turner -- both his successes and his mistakes -- and, two years hence, to once again give us a District 3 councilor who will be a strong and independent advocate for that district and the best interests of the city at large.
The result just to the south in District 4 was a surprise, given where the two candidates' finances stood as of the last ethics report. Incumbent Maria Barnes had raised more than $20,000, while challenger Eric Gomez was reporting slightly under $3,000 raised as of two weeks before the election.
If I hadn't seen the reports myself, I would have thought the fundraising advantage belonged to Gomez. Barnes put out a couple of two-color postcards; Gomez mailed expensive glossy four-color brochures. Gomez bombarded voters with robocalls; Barnes had a single automated call, voiced by Mayor Kathy Taylor.
Gomez seemed to have a yard sign in the right-of-way at every major intersection; Barnes had none in the right-of-way. On some major midtown streets, a voter could easily come away with the impression that Barnes wasn't actively campaigning.
I'm told that Barnes made a conscious decision to take a grassroots approach to her bid for re-election. She didn't hire a professional to run her campaign, vetoed the placement of her signs in the right-of-way, and only reluctantly authorized her one robocall.
Gomez's hired help was the development lobby's favorite operative, Jim Burdge. The angry, attacking tone of Gomez's op-ed in the March 27 UTW, calling Barnes "manically obsessed" and referring to proponents of Neighborhood Conservation Districts as a "screaming tyrannical minority," bore a strong resemblance to the nasty Burdge-penned attacks mailed out during the 2005 recall campaign against then-Councilors Jim Mautino and Chris Medlock.
Burdge may have repeated a trick he pulled two years ago. Robert C. Bartlett, no relation to the famous political family, won the 2006 Republican primary in District 4 despite the fact that he had stopped campaigning, probably because of his famous name. As of two weeks before the general election, he had only raised about a thousand dollars, most of which had been spent on photocopied flyers.
Then, suddenly, Bartlett was sending out glossy full-color mailers, was sending out robocalls (including one voiced by Eric Gomez), and had two-color yard signs popping up all over midtown. Clearly the money came in after the final pre-election reporting deadline, so that the source of the money -- probably the development lobby -- couldn't be used as an issue in the campaign.
Post-election reports, including all money raised and spent during the two weeks immediately before the election, are due on May 12. We'll be watching closely to see that the reports are filed and will be very interested in what they reveal.
In an interview with KTUL NewsChannel 8, Gomez attributed his victory to his opposition to Neighborhood Conservation Districts. But a review of the results shows that Barnes did better in neighborhoods like Florence Park and Lewiston Gardens, considered prime candidates for NCD zoning because of significant infill activity. Outside of his home precinct, Gomez did best in areas that are unlikely to see significant infill in the near future.
Barnes, who made attending neighborhood meetings a priority, also won nearly every precinct with an active neighborhood organization; Gomez's home neighborhood, in precinct 51, was a notable exception.
There's another angle to Barnes' defeat: For the second time in half a year -- the first time was the Tulsa County river sales tax last October -- Mayor Kathy Taylor has staked her political capital in a local election and lost. Taylor hosted a fundraiser for Barnes and recorded a phone call on her behalf. Taylor didn't do that for any other City Council candidate.
In 2006, Taylor won every precinct in District 4, which supported her over LaFortune by a 60-40 margin, her strongest district outside of Democrat-dominated north Tulsa. That Taylor's endorsement would carry such little weight just two years later suggests that she may be vulnerable when she faces the voters again next fall. It's telling that other political forces didn't feel compelled to fall into line behind Taylor in support of Barnes.
Far from being the decisive dynamo that voters were led to expect, her record reveals an aversion to tough decisions. The most recent example is the renewal of the jail contract between the City of Tulsa and Tulsa County.
Nearly a month after the County's initial proposal, the Mayor's office has yet to respond with a counterproposal, seemingly paralyzed by the fear of provoking a confrontation with the County on the one hand, or acquiescing in a deal that puts the City at a disadvantage on the other hand.
Watch this fall to see if Democratic candidates seek or shun Taylor's support.
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