Although the filing period for Tulsa's City Council elections is still more than three weeks away, speculation is heating up about how the current political atmosphere will affect the outcome of those races.
The filing period for all nine council seats is July 11-13, with the primary election set for Sept. 13 and general election scheduled for Nov. 8. That means several months of campaigning lie ahead.
But many local observers already are wondering what kind of impact the council's well-chronicled battles with Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. will have on the various campaigns. One theory making the rounds is that it's a difficult time to be an incumbent councilor right now because voters are fed up with the fighting between the mayor and the council. And since the mayor isn't up for re-election during this campaign, voters will likely exhibit their dissatisfaction with the situation by voting the incumbent councilors out of office.
That scenario drew a range of responses from a handful of local politicos and political observers.
"I think there's general truth in it," said Anna Falling, a one-time city councilor who mounted an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for mayor in 2009. "It could be a clean sweep ... There could be some bad blood."
Less convinced are local political blogger Michael Bates (batesline.com) and Chris Medlock, another one-time councilor who also unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for mayor in 2009. Both compared the local situation to circumstances that regularly occur in congressional races.
"I think specific members of the City Council might need to go," Medlock said. "But one of the things about incumbent congress people that you see is, 'Get rid of the bums, but I like mine.' "
Bates pointed out that while public opinion polls often reflect widespread voter discontent with Congress as an institution, incumbents nevertheless tend to be re-elected by a wide margin.
"They may hold the institution in low esteem, but they tend to believe the problem is not in their district, but in every other district," he said. "It could be the same situation here."
Bob Sober, the former chairman of the city's Preservation Commission and chairman of the PLANiTULSA citizens advisory committee, believes there are other factors that could make this a comparatively bad year to be an incumbent.
"The Tulsa Metro Chamber has kind of put out a hit list on everybody, but it's a tough year, no doubt about it," he said. "This has been played up as the last time voters will have the chance to change our entire City Council. But I think the City Council has done a pretty good job, even though they've had a difficult time."
Mark Perkins, a Tulsa lawyer who earned 18 percent of the vote while running as an independent for mayor in the 2009 election, said he believes there will be some turnover on the council during this election cycle, although he doubts there will be an entirely new slate of councilors.
Out with the Old?
"Tulsans are frustrated with the council and the mayor," he said. "I do think everybody who has a challenger should probably take the race very seriously because Tulsans are frustrated with government in general. I think the frustration's been building for awhile now, and everybody has an opinion on whether it's the council or the mayor or both. But there's a general frustration percolating."
Elizabeth Wright, a former member of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission who often has been cited as a potential candidate for incumbent Maria Barnes' District 4 seat on the council, believes voters are displeased with what she characterized as the disrespect many councilors have shown toward their office by the way they've handled their interaction with the mayor.
"That respect and honor for the positions they're in has deteriorated," she said.
But Wright -- who said she has decided against mounting a campaign for the City Council this year -- believes Bartlett and politicians at all levels of government are just as guilty.
"We've shifted," she said, describing the overall political atmosphere in America. "It's national, state and local. At all levels, the level of respect for the office has gone down, and people are fairly offended at what they see."
Bates acknowledges that voters are dissatisfied, but he doubts that will have much of an impact on this election cycle.
"There's a lot of amateur opinionating about throwing all the bums out, but I suggest that a lot of that comes from people who would not ordinarily vote in a City Council election," he said. "They're unhappy, but that still may not motivate them to show up (at the polls) unless there's some alternative that really excites them.
"Often, disillusionment with government leads to disengagement from the process," he said, explaining that many citizens may have adopted the attitude that it doesn't matter who they vote for "because you're replacing one set of bums with another."
Sober's conversations with other citizens have led him to believe most voters side with Bartlett in his dispute with the council. He said the incumbent councilors need to seize the initiative and change that impression.
"I think if the council doesn't do something to stay in front of the public over the last six months (before the election) to create a positive impression, there may be a lot of turnover, fair or unfair," he said. "I think at this point, they're bearing the brunt of the blame for the contentiousness."
Medlock agrees that a majority of citizens have sided with Bartlett against the council, though neither he nor Sober agree with that stance.
"My point is, if you're angry at somebody, be angry at the mayor," he said. "I've talked to a lot of the councilors, and I know they've all tried to work with (Bartlett). But slowly but surely, he's alienated every one of them. When you've done that as an executive, you've failed."
Sober characterized the mayor's actions as kicking sand in the faces of councilors.
"And I don't understand why," he said.
To a large degree, the tendency of Tulsans to blame the council for the problems between the mayor and council is a product of two things, Medlock said.
"That's the narrative the media wants you to believe, especially the Tulsa World," he said. "And Dewey's supporters have been pretty aggressive, too."
Falling sees the citizenry divided on the question of who to blame, an assessment she shares.
"I think they're split down the middle," she said. "They're blaming everybody. I don't think anybody's innocent."
Regardless of how they come down on the issue, Wright said there's a disconnect between the way many citizens perceive the situation and what's actually taking place.
"A lot of people take their opinions from what they read in the newspaper, not from watching the council proceedings," she said. "So they're not well informed."
Perkins said a variety of special-interest groups, including the Tulsa Metro Chamber, could have a profound influence on the outcome of individual races, especially with three incumbent councilors -- District 8's Bill Christiansen, District 7's John Eagleton and District 2's Rick Westcott -- already having announced they won't seek re-election.
"Not only is there an atmosphere that makes everyone's seat up for grabs, there's going to be more challengers for more opportunities that you don't have otherwise and more money spent in these council races," he said. "Despite the economy, it's probably easier to raise money for the upcoming council races because of the frustration of the general public."
With three councilors voluntarily stepping aside, at least one third of the council seats are guaranteed to turn over in the months ahead. Medlock doesn't believe that's an unnaturally high number, given the demands of the office.
"It flat wears you out, and you anger too many people with your votes," he said. "So that's sort of a natural term limit. There's also the strain it puts on your ability to make a living."
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