Political observers thought David Walters' political career was finished when he departed Oklahoma's Governor's Mansion in 1995 after a single term and an indictment on eight felony counts. It was a surprise in 2002 when he chose to challenge Sen. Jim Inhofe. It was shocking when Oklahoma Democrats gave him their nomination by a wide margin.
And when Walters was chosen one of three co-chairmen named by Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean to head up the rules committee for the party's 2008 national convention, it was positively stunning. After 13 years, Walters had reestablished himself as a significant figure in Democratic politics.
His certainly is one of the more remarkable rehab stories of the early century.
For those who came in late, Walters, a native of Canute who came back to Oklahoma after getting his MBA from Harvard, was an OU executive, a developer, and the head of the Oklahoma Human Services Commission before resigning to run for Governor in 1986, an open seat after George Nigh's two terms in office.
Walters edged out Attorney General Mike Turpen for the Democratic nomination then lost by a slim margin to Henry Bellmon, who had been Oklahoma's first Republican governor from 1963 to 1967.
The seat was open again in 1990. Walters barely finished second in the primary against Congressman Wes Watkins and State Rep. Steve Lewis, beat Watkins in a runoff, then won in a landslide over Republican nominee Bill Price.
In both his races, his Democratic primary opponents raised questions about the sources of his campaign funds. In 1988, a special prosecutor concluded that Walters violated ethics laws by borrowing $162,500 from contributors in his 1986 campaign, but no charges were filed because the law had constitutional flaws.
Accusations that Walters had promised state jobs in exchange for campaign contributions began early in his term as governor. In October 1993, Walters was indicted by a multicounty grand jury on six felony perjury counts, two felony conspiracy counts, and a misdemeanor count of accepting an excessive campaign contribution. Prosecutors dropped the felony charges in exchange for a guilty plea on the misdemeanor.
After toying with the idea of running for re-election, he stepped aside and went into the private sector, founding Walters Power International in 1996 to sell electrical power generating equipment around the world.
Walters also has become a major donor to Democratic campaigns, giving the maximum contribution to Hillary Clinton and supporting many other candidates, which is likely how he has managed to rise to co-chairmanship of the convention rules committee, alongside Sunita Leeds, Chairman of the DNC Indo-American Leadership Council Advisory Board, and former Ohio Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar.
Walters' role made him the most prominent Oklahoman at the Denver convention, the only one to address the assembled delegates, albeit briefly. Not even Brad Henry's impressive landslide re-election as governor in 2006, in a state where all 77 counties backed George W. Bush in 2004, earned him a turn at the podium.
(By contrast, an Oklahoman is speaking on each night of the Republican National Convention: Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, and U. S. Reps. Mary Fallin and Tom Cole.)
According to the DNC website, the rules committee "is responsible for proposing the Permanent Rules for the Convention, adopting the proposed Convention agenda and making recommendations for permanent Convention officers."
(The word "permanent" is a bit misleading -- these officers and rules are permanent only through the end of the convention.)
Beyond all the speeches, real business happens at these conventions, business that will affect the political process in future campaign seasons. While much of the rules committee's work is routine, they can also recommend changes to the rules of the ongoing national party organization.
This year, the committee Walters co-chaired recommended, and the convention approved, the creation of a "Democratic Change Commission," which will convene in early 2009 to "to examine and to recommend improvements to the 2012 presidential nominating process."
The commission will study three issues that were especially contentious this year: When primaries can be held (and what happens to states that break the rules and go early), how caucuses are held, and the role played by "Party Leader and Elected Official" delegates, aka superdelegates.
Both parties had set a February start date for primary season, but Florida and Michigan jumped the gun. Under Democratic rules, the two states lost the right to send any delegates to the convention.
Out of respect for national party rules, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama declined to campaign in those maverick primaries and wasn't even on the ballot in Michigan. That left the field to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who won both states overwhelmingly and immediately began to argue that the voters in those states should have their votes counted.
Once Clinton conceded the outcome of the nominating process to Obama, a settlement was reached allowing the two key swing states to send delegates to Denver.
The resolution from Walters' committee calls for no primaries or caucuses prior to the first Tuesday in March, except for the "pre-window" states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, and even those states are to wait until February.
The Democratic Change Commission will also try to find a way to avoid a large number of states holding primaries on the first allowed Tuesday, as happened this year on Feb. 5.
With the exception of first-in-the-nation Iowa, caucuses are traditionally low-key and low-stakes, as early primaries are usually enough to determine the nominee. Informality generally prevails.
But caucuses played a key role in this year's protracted campaign. Obama had some of his biggest wins in states where the presidential pick was made by party activists gathered precinct-by-precinct rather than by the general public at a primary election.
Local party officials weren't prepared for managing a full-scale political battle, and the result in many states was chaos. Walters' committee has proposed that the DNC's permanent rules committee will have to verify that procedures for state caucuses comply with national criteria, to ensure that caucuses are "adequately planned, organized, and staffed" and held at times to enable maximum participation.
A Salute to the Electoral College
Superdelegates were in the spotlight for the first time since party leaders and elected officials were given automatic seats at the convention in 1984. The idea behind superdelegates was to bring practical political experience to bear on the choice of a nominee and as a firewall against the nomination of a candidate with no chance of winning a general election.
For a time this year, it appeared that superdelegates might hand the nomination to Clinton, despite Obama's lead in pledged delegates. That possibility prompted the rules committee recommendation to reduce the number of unpledged superdelegates.
Whatever reforms are proposed by the Democratic Change Commission will have to be adopted by the Democratic National Committee, the party's permanent governing board. While Republicans can only change party rules at the quadrennial national convention, the DNC can amend its rules between times.
Once the DNC approves new rules, it will be up to state party organizations and state legislatures to make adjustments to fit the new primary calendar and caucus procedures. In Oklahoma, it will mean moving our primary later in the year, possibly back to the 2nd Tuesday in March, the primary's date from 1988 to 2000.
The DNC can only dictate Democratic policy, but any change to the primary schedule will affect the Republican process as well.
While Walters's resurgence comes as a surprise, his involvement in process reform picks up a thread that runs through his political life. Prior to running for governor, he was a co-chairman of Gov. George Nigh's government reform commission. He was also a supporter of term limits for legislators.
On his personal website, davidwalters.info, David Walters recalls his earliest childhood memory, still vivid half a century later:
"I am sleeping on the cool concrete front porch of our farm house outside of Canute, Oklahoma, on a hot summer day . . . I slowly awoke from my afternoon nap to a ruckus of the periodic 'harvesting' of chickens. The yard had several headless chickens reflexively running the life out of their bodies, awaiting a mini, makeshift assembly line to do the boiling, cleaning, plucking . . . "
That experience may be Walters's strongest credential for running a committee at a political convention.
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