'Tis less than a fortnight before Christmas,
And all through the statehouse,
Tranquility was doused.
Peace on earth and all that jazz?
Not when it comes to Oklahoma Republicans.
Long-smoldering discontent over House Speaker Kris Steele's regime ignited last week, when the GOP's pre-legislative session retreat wrapped up not with chorus of Kumbaya, but with a you-know-what-storm of invective.
I'm not big on saying "I told you so..." but it wasn't too many columns ago we discussed the possibility that Steele's last year as speaker and as a legislator -- he's term-limited -- could be bumpy.
The pre-holiday maelstrom stems in part from unhappiness over Steele's decision this fall to jettison Broken Arrow Rep. John Trebilcock as chair of the Energy and Utility Regulatory Committee.
More than a few House Republicans, including Trebilcock, believe it was because he deigned to support Rep. T.W. Shannon, rather than Steele's choice, Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Hickman -- as the speaker-designate for the 2013 session.
Shannon won the intra-caucus contest, an outcome that -- given the ensuing bad blood -- suggests Steele and Co. may be even lamer ducks heading into 2012 than they otherwise would have been.
It's not uncommon for speakers presiding over a veto-proof majority to take friendly fire from unhappy troops. Democrats turned the sniping into high art during their dominant days -- remember the coup that toppled Speaker Jim Barker?
This is a strange new world, however, for Republicans who for decades abided by Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.
The disharmony could have profound implications for the 2012 session -- depending on whether Steele and his loyalists can prevent the bonfire from morphing into a prairie fire.
It's one thing for Trebilcock to use his Facebook page to lambast the speaker over his removal as committee chairman or for bombastic Rep. Mike Reynolds of Oklahoma City to yet again excoriate Steele publicly. It's quite another for Panhandle Rep. Gus Blackwell to send his colleagues a vitriolic e-mail accusing the speaker of abusing his power.
Blackwell is himself a former Speaker Pro Tem -- the House's No. 2 post -- and was poised to become speaker in 2008 before he and other members, including then-Speaker Lance Cargill, were tarred publicly over their failure to pay taxes on time.
Since then, Blackwell finished out his term as pro tem and as rules committee chair and settled into a front-row seat in the House chamber where he occasionally serves as curmudgeon-in-chief, asking impertinent questions or pointing out the hypocrisies others politely overlook.
But mostly he's seemed to be just another loyal Republican soldier -- not a flamethrower like Reynolds or other vociferous members of the ultra-right's so-called Liberty Caucus. So when he speaks out, it's worth noting -- and taking seriously.
Blackwell's sharply-worded e-mail to his House colleagues -- he declined to refer to them as "caucus" members because it is apparent our dysfunctional group is anything but a meeting of members of a political party tasked to decide policy -- was leaked first to former GOP consultant-turned radio host-turned blogger Mike McCarville (wwwtmrcom.blogspot.com).
It was all-but-ignored by Oklahoma's mainstream media. Too inside baseball? Perhaps.
Except it could affect Steele's ability to lead the House in an upcoming session that will wrestle with a laundry list of vital and thorny issues: Will lawmakers move in earnest to eliminate the state income tax -- 40 percent of the state's revenues? Will Steele be able to persuade a majority of lawmakers in a tough-on-crime state to become smart-on-crime instead and reduce Oklahoma's prison population? Will legislators do the right thing and restore the $5,000 National Board Certified teacher bonus -- killed this year by Superintendent Janet Barresi?
Blackwell complained in his e-mail, for example, that he was not afforded the courtesy of being able to fully discuss the speaker's decision to oust Trebilcock -- adding that Steele's explanations (including that Trebilcock was too-often absent) doesn't pass the "smell test."
According to insider reports, the GOP caucus meeting in Steele's hometown of Shawnee abruptly ended when Blackwell raised questions about Trebilcock's ouster and the firing of a veteran House staffer who, according to Blackwell's e-mail, was within two days of 25 years of service, yet was "escorted out, like a criminal. No longevity check in her stocking this year."
"After just 10 minutes, while I had the floor and was responding to the speaker, a motion was entertained to adjourn and quickly half-voted on," Blackwell wrote.
"As a senior member, who has been acting speaker, Speaker Pro-Tempore, chair of three different committees, and who has served on every Republican leadership team except the present one, I would think I would be allowed to have more than two responses to speak on a topic I requested be discussed and which strikes to the very core of how we operate as a majority. However, I wasn't, neither was Rep. Trebilcock or any other members of the caucus.
"With power comes responsibility and accountability. While the speaker may have the power to fire people at the House, he is still accountable to the caucus for his actions. On Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011, his response to the caucus was simply to cut-off the meeting and go home."
Steele has declined to address the specifics of Blackwell's complaint, but indicated he was satisfied with what the caucus retreat accomplished.
The irony of all this, of course, is that Steele is one of the nicest, most collegial members of the Legislature. Maybe we give him the benefit of the doubt too often, but his heart often seems to be in the right place -- at least when he's not forced to carry water, as all speakers are, for the State Chamber.
It's cliché, but true: All-too-often in politics, nice guys finish last. In this case, maybe a better question is, will Steele finish the session...as speaker?
It's hard for me to believe he won't. It doesn't feel like Barker II -- yet. But it could easily devolve into Oklahoma's one-party equivalent of Washington's hopelessly divided politics: g-r-i-d-l-o-c-k.
The fact is, the more this spat intensifies, the harder it will be to successfully steer anything -- good public policy or bad -- through the legislative muck.
Get your hip-waders handy. It could be a long year.
--Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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