It's my tradition, in the weeks leading up to an election, to tell you for whom I plan to vote and why. In the federal races, my endorsement is unlikely to sway many of you. If you're reading a column on local politics, you're already the sort who stays informed, and you've already picked your candidates based on how well each one matches your political philosophy.
So I'm going to pass over the races at the top of the ballot to tell you about a candidate who deserves your vote, whatever your ideological bent. In experience, character, and temperament, Dana Murphy is simply the most qualified candidate to seek the office of Corporation Commissioner in decades.
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC) has a low profile but a huge impact on the everyday life of Oklahoma residents. The commission regulates the public utilities that we depend upon to provide phone service and to light and heat our homes.
The OCC oversees drilling and production of oil and natural gas, and it also ensures that we get what we pay for when we fill up at the gas pumps.
There are three corporation commissioners -- each serves a six-year term. Typically, we elect one corporation commissioner every two years, but this year due to Denise Bode's resignation, we have a special election in addition to the usual six-year rotation. The winner of the short-term race will finish Bode's term and go before voters again in 2010.
It's an unusual election in that the challenger has more on-the-job experience than the incumbent.
Dana Murphy served more than five years as an administrative law judge for the OCC, presiding over more than 5,000 cases, weighing evidence and testimony and making judgments, and acting as a gatekeeper and making recommendations on issues coming before the three commissioners.
Murphy earned her undergraduate degree in geology, and worked as a petroleum geologist in the oil patch for 10 years while putting herself through law school. She left the OCC to run for Corporation Commissioner in 2002, finishing first in the primary but falling short in the runoff. Since then, she's been working as an oil and gas attorney, staying current in the issues that take up most of the OCC's time.
By contrast, incumbent Jim Roth has been in the job for little more than a year, elevated by Gov. Brad Henry to his current post from the Oklahoma County Commission, which has nothing in common with the Oklahoma Corporation Commission beyond its initials. Prior to serving as a county commissioner, Roth was an assistant to the county clerk and a previous county commissioner. He has no expertise in the oil and gas industry.
What Roth does have is a disturbingly cozy relationship with Aubrey McClendon, the CEO and chairman of Chesapeake Energy, one of the companies regulated by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission as the largest producer of natural gas in Oklahoma. The Roth-McClendon connection has been extensively documented by muckraking Oklahoma City journalist Mike McCarville on his website at www.tmrcom.blogspot.com.
In 2005, as a county commissioner, Roth pushed for road and bridge improvements for a lightly traveled dead-end road leading to property owned by McClendon. McClendon gave the maximum contribution to Roth's 2006 re-election campaign.
Meanwhile, McClendon was running into some trouble with his basketball team, the Seattle Supersonics. According to a May 27, 2008, Seattle Times story by Jim Brunner, McClendon's 2004 donations to an anti-gay-marriage organization "didn't sit well in the Democrat-controlled Washington Legislature, which was then considering whether to fund the Sonics' Renton arena proposal."
In an e-mail to McClendon, which emerged in a lawsuit by the City of Seattle against McClendon and his fellow Sonics owners, Roth "offered to contact Seattle media to defend McClendon against accusations of being anti-gay."
Roth's letter appeared in the March 4, 2007, Seattle Times. It read in part:
"When I was elected in 2002, I became Oklahoma's first openly gay elected official. From the beginning, Clay [Bennett] and Aubrey [McClendon] initiated a genuine kindness and friendship toward my partner and me. They have publicly and consistently supported me, even pushing back when right-wing attacks have occurred. Their support is unconditional and has helped improve the overall climate for expanding tolerance here at home."
Setting aside the social issues involved in the story, it points to a friendship between Roth and McClendon sufficiently close that Roth should recuse himself when McClendon's interests are before the Commission. Instead, in a key decision, Roth sided with McClendon and against anyone who pays an electric bill in Oklahoma.
When Corporation Commissioner Denise Bode stepped down in 2007 to take a job with the McClendon-founded and funded American Clean Skies Foundation, Jim Roth was appointed to take her place, with the support of McClendon and former state Democratic Party chairman Pat Hall, now a Chesapeake lobbyist.
One of Roth's first decisions involved a pre-application by AEP-PSO and OG+E, the two largest electric utilities in Oklahoma, to build a new coal-fired power plant at Red Rock. OCC administrative law judge Maribeth Snapp recommended approval, writing that the high-tech plant would save ratepayers over a billion dollars in utility bills over the life of the plant over a comparable natural gas plant.
McClendon's Chesapeake ran a high-profile campaign against coal plants here and in surrounding states, including TV ads proclaiming that "coal is filthy."
Given Roth's close friendship with McClendon, he should have recused himself from the vote. Instead, taking his cue from McClendon, Roth voted against the Red Rock pre-approval, killing the plant. The move makes Oklahoma's electricity consumers more dependent for upon natural gas from Chesapeake and other suppliers.
And guess who's co-chairing Roth's 2008 campaign? Aubrey McClendon. According to the daily paper, McClendon's employees and executives at Chesapeake have contributed over $100,000 to Roth's campaign. McClendon is said to have raised over a half-million dollars for Roth.
In years past, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission has been plagued by favoritism and outright corruption. In 1994, former Commissioner Bob Hopkins, a Democrat, was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison for bribery.
The OCC began to change for the better when Bob Anthony, a Republican, was elected in 1988. When regulated entities offered bribes to Anthony, he wore a wire to gather evidence for the Feds.
Oklahoma voters need commissioners who, like Anthony, aren't entangled with regulated corporations, commissioners who will put the interests of all Oklahomans ahead of the machinations of special interests. Oklahoma needs Dana Murphy.
I've known Dana since 2002 and have seen firsthand the energy she puts into any job she undertakes and the grace with which she handles pressure and political attacks. In a political world filled with self-promoters, Dana Murphy is a rare example of humility and Christian servanthood. Add her character to her years of service with the OCC and her thorough grounding in oil and gas exploration, and you have the ideal qualities of a corporation commissioner wrapped up in one candidate.
Whether you're a liberal who worries about corporate influence over regulators or a conservative who wants a corporation commissioner who shares your values and will be fair to business, (all businesses, not just special friends) or just an Oklahoman who wants someone with knowledge, experience, and character ruling on utility rates and oil and gas matters, the clear choice is Dana Murphy.
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