Remember then-U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin mugging for the cameras on the U.S. Capitol balcony, waving the Tea Party's favorite "Don't Tread On Me" Gadsden flag?
Republicans were riding high then, joyously attaching themselves to the nascent voter backlash brigade that in 2010 helped restore the GOP to congressional power.
Fast forward to 2012.
Now governor of our fair land, Fallin has learned a painful truth that the snake on the Tea Party-embraced banner is anything but symbolic.
The uber-conservatives can strike lightening fast. And their bite can be excruciating.
In her second session as Oklahoma's CEO, Fallin's agenda ended up DOA, often courtesy of the very same malcontent movement that she sucked up to not so long ago.
Her signature cause -- cutting the state income tax -- vanished in a political mushroom cloud in the session's final hours when tea partiers concluded it benefited the rich and screwed most everyone else.
Her bold pre-session promise to eliminate business tax credits that weren't working or creating jobs went poof! in a special interest firestorm.
Her State of the State address pledge to "improve our schools?" Crash and burn. The state is now 49th in what it spends per pupil -- and sinking fast.
How much longer can we count on Mississippi to keep us from scraping the bottom of the barrel?
The governor and her well-heeled campaign benefactors, of course, figured to outsmart the three-dozen or so uber-conservative Republicans that helped build the GOP's absolute, iron-fisted numbers in the Legislature.
What they learned is the far rightwingers don't play by the traditional political rules -- and certainly don't abide by Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment against speaking ill of a fellow Republican.
The Tea Party crowd -- it's a handy term to describe an assorted band of misfits that includes birthers, Tenthers, theocrats, misogynists, xenophobes and Birchers, just to name a few -- often considers Fallin and the legislative leadership part of the enemy.
In fact, the uber-conservatives are giving some of the Legislature's leading Republicans real fits with serious challenges in the June 26 GOP primary -- think Senate Appropriations Chairman Clark Jolley of Edmond and Senate Health and Human Services Chairman Brian Crain of Tulsa.
A few votes in a few key precincts and ... Fallin, the State Chamber and the Republican establishment could end up stampeded by a new breed of elephants.
In the meantime, Fallin is scurrying about, working feverishly to rewrite history and proclaim the 2012 session a smashing success.
Department of Human Services overhaul -- bravo! Criminal justice reform -- spectacular! Transportation plans -- virtuoso!
Spin, spin, spin.
What really happened is this: The Legislature and the governor nibbled around the edges on most key issues, failing to produce real, long-term solutions that would lift Oklahoma's bottom-of-the-barrel status in far too many socioeconomic categories.
Yet the Legislature is nothing if not schizophrenic.
At the same time a majority of the Republican caucus was thumbing its nose at its own party's governor, it also was working to expand the governor's power -- another sign the GOP leadership doesn't understand that Okie DNA is especially suspicious of concentrated political power.
If you have any doubt, read the state's bazillion-page Constitution. It's a populist manifesto, aimed squarely at protecting the 99 percent from the richest powers-that-be -- in other words, the folks crafting and bankrolling Fallin's agenda.
Even so, the Legislature last year awarded the governor power to hire and fire the state Board of Education.
They also gave the governor control of a business recruiting account called the Quick Action Closing Fund, designed to give the governor a vehicle to shower financial incentives (read: taxpayers' money) to lure new business and jobs to Oklahoma.
No money was put into the fund last year, but as much as $7 million could slip into it based on this year's budget. Texas Gov. Rick Perry's control of a similar fund landed him in some hot political water. It's always disconcerting when one person -- even one as publicly scrutinized as the governor -- is given such authority.
There is real potential for slush fund-esque mischief.
This year, the Legislature voted to give the governor the authority -- with Senate approval -- to select the Department of Human Services director, so long as voters in November decide to eliminate the DHS governing board.
DHS is the state's largest single agency, meaning its director holds one of state government's most powerful positions. Elevating the governor to hirer-in-chief deserves especially close scrutiny, given DHS' impact on the lives of the least among us.
I want to be clear: I'm not arguing for or against expanding the governor's powers. The truth is, Oklahoma's CEO is among the nation's weakest. Maybe it will work to the state's advantage to have a stronger chief executive rather than a decentralized power structure.
Can you imagine, though, what Republican leaders will do when a Democrat is elected governor again?
The very ones who were responsible for expanding gubernatorial authority during Fallin's tenure probably will be the first ones squealing that it's bad for taxpayers -- dangerous, even -- for one person to have such power.
Of course, if the tea partiers pick up more seats in this year's elections, then you can expect that this experiment with expanding gubernatorial power will end -- and fast!
Either way, Fallin has her work cut out for her in the final two years of her first term.
She currently enjoys a 60-plus-percent approval rating in statewide polls, but voter discontent is such that political leaders can fall from the penthouse to the outhouse with breathtaking speed these days.
Whether she is willing to admit it or not, Fallin is the leader of a fractured party that -- at least when it comes to elected officials -- shows little inclination toward unity.
If she doesn't find ways to build bridges with the raucous extreme of her caucus, she'll find herself in a never-ending spiral of conflicts that won't set well with Oklahoma voters.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net
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