The Oklahoma voter is a curious species.
He (or she) clearly doesn't trust the elected class: 67 percent voting in 1990 to limit legislative service to 12 years and 69 percent in 2010 to establish a two-term limit for statewide elected officials.
She (or he) also clearly does trust the elected class: When was the last time a member of the state's congressional delegation was defeated for re-election? How many of the state Legislature's 149 senators and representatives typically fail to win re-election?
Answers: U.S. Rep. Mickey Edwards in 1992 (because of the House banking scandal) and very few.
The Oklahoma electorate's bi-polar, love-hate relationship with its elected officials probably helps explain why Democratic Rep. Danny Morgan's efforts to give voters the power to recall elected state officials isn't generating much enthusiasm among state lawmakers.
You have to remember that today's Republican majority was the Republican minority when Oklahoma became the first state to enact term limits 22 years ago. Term limits created a slew of open seats that helped Republicans build their veto-proof majorities in both houses.
The Republicans know that Oklahoma voters -- given the chance -- would relish the power to recall elected state officials with whom they became disenchanted.
Why wait for the next election? Off with their heads -- now.
The GOP leadership wasn't about to take that chance, even at the risk of exposing its cravenness. Yes, craven -- it is Republicans, after all, who are forever bleating about "trusting the voters." Except, apparently, when they don't.
Which makes the state GOP chairman's decision to publicly tweak Democrats over the recall proposal all the more curious. Since when is it smart politics to shine a spotlight on your own hypocrisy?
"When the voters speak, you should listen," sniffed state Republican Chairman Matt Pinnell. "Democratic losses at the ballot box are not a sign that we need an endless series of 'do-overs' in Oklahoma; it's a sign that the Democratic Party's message is not resonating with citizens.
"Allowing a small group to demand recall elections disrespects the will of Oklahoma voters while wasting limited taxpayer dollars."
Why, yes, we championed term limits. We trusted the voters to do the right thing. Why, yes, we oppose giving voters the opportunity to recall. Inconsistent? There is no inconsistency because we say there's no inconsistency.
Just because the powers-that-be at NE 23rd and Lincoln in Oklahoma City aren't enthralled by the idea doesn't mean recall is undeserving of thoughtful conversation and serious consideration.
In fact, the elected class's resistance might be all the proof some suspicious (cynical?) Oklahomans need to be convinced it's a very good idea.
I'm not here to argue in favor of Oklahoma adding recall to its political quiver. As a political journalist and commentator, it certainly offers the potential for riveting theater. As a citizen who cares deeply about his home state, however, it is frightening to consider the potential abuses or unintended consequences.
It was little more than two decades ago that a vast majority of Oklahomans -- me, included -- thought term limits was a grand idea. The theory: Change is good. Fresh faces. Innovative ideas. Special interest strangleholds shattered.
Fresh faces? Check. Innovative ideas? That's debatable. Special interest strangleholds shattered? Failure. Complete and utter failure.
In fact, special interests wield more power than ever. Legislators come and go, but the lineup of special interests never changes. Look at the sea of lobbyists congregating daily in the Capitol's fourth floor rotunda. Many have been there much longer than the longest-serving legislator.
While many lawmakers are still searching for the nearest washroom, lobbyists are thrusting legislative proposals into their hands, buying their lunches and dinners, taking them to Thunder NBA games or the golf course.
The lobbyists know how the system works far better than the vast majority of legislators. Consciously or subconsciously, lawmakers all-too-often end up deferring to their new best friends. Consciously or subconsciously, lawmakers also know this: lobbyists (and the special interests they represent) are a ready source of vital campaign funding. Do you want to be re-elected or not?
Yes, term limits knocked out some ignorant and shady characters. But -- and you may have a hard time believing this, but it's true -- it knocked out more that were excellent public servants, skilled in the intricacies of legislative sausage-making and educated on the issues.
Experience is important, no matter the field. The institutional memory lost because of automatic term limits leaves a less-experienced class of lawmakers, more vulnerable than ever to special interests. Lobbyists now are the ones with the institutional memory.
So, what of the power to recall? Most of us probably would love the idea that we wouldn't have to wait for the next election to dump our bad choices -- in theory.
"We are elected by our constituents to represent their interests, not our own, and allowing a recall procedure will remind elected officials who forget where their allegiance lies: with the people," said Morgan, the Prague Democrat who introduced the proposal.
"Our citizens should not have to wait two to four years to remove from office an elected official who fails to work in their interests. Having in place a recall procedure incentivizes direct democracy and is a means to encourage more responsive representation."
Here's how it would work: If you're unhappy with your legislator, you could circulate a recall petition. If you could gather signatures equal to 15 percent of the votes cast in the last election of the targeted lawmaker, a special recall election would be scheduled.
To reduce costs, Morgan proposed that a choice for replacement be included in the recall election -- a ballot-box two-fer.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states -- including two of our neighbors, Kansas and Colorado -- currently permit the recall of state elected officials. At least 29 states also permit recall in local jurisdictions.
Interestingly, recall has been employed sparingly. Since the first recall powers were established in the early 20th Century, only 32 state legislators have faced recall -- and about half of them lost their seats.
Republicans were delighted to take advantage of recall in 2003 when California dumped Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger. They aren't so pleased now that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is facing recall or that recall suddenly appeared on Oklahoma's political radar.
I can understand why some Oklahomans consider recall a valuable weapon. If I were king, there are more than a few sitting legislators that I'd dump -- not because I'm liberal and they're conservative, but because they are buffoons. It's the old line: If their IQs were any lower, we'd have to take them out twice a day to water them.
But if we ever conclude that recall is a power worth having, then we have to consider this possibility: It may not be the weapon of rank-and-file Oklahomans alone. It easily could become the hammer that deep-pocketed special interests employ to tighten their grip on state power.
It's not difficult to imagine elected officials caving to the demands of a well-financed cabal in order to avoid facing a costly, uncertain recall election.
Rather than tinker with the system, how about we agree to do things the old-fashioned way: Skip a few episodes of American Idol and Desperate Housewives in order to educate ourselves on key issues, study the candidates and their qualifications, and vote.
We might just discover we already have the power to make government work for the many, not just the few.
--Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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