After fits and starts in the '90s and some uncertain advances in our still-new century, women are cruising in the stratosphere of American politics.
If you look at politico storyboards for the 2016 presidential election, former senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton is, unsurprisingly, at the top of every contender list. But here's the wonderment: there is a clutch of other female Democratic contenders who might emerge if she doesn't run. And maybe even if she does.
One of those is the fascinating Elizabeth Warren, the new senator from Massachusetts and a former Oklahoma kid. Warren, for more than 15 years a Harvard Law Professor, is a based banking and financial systems legal whiz and arguably the most powerful advocate in America for redressing the disastrous asymmetries between the power of banks and financial services and ordinary consumers. Her 2003 Democracy Journal piece "Unsafe at Any Rate" -- a prescient essay on the dangers of "new product innovations" in home mortgage markets, led to her concept for the Consumer Finance Services Bureau -- the linchpin of the Dodd-Frank financial services reform legislation.
On the Republican side, emerging far-right stars like Sen. Rand Paul of Tennessee and Texas firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz are high on the 2016 prospect roster. But if you listen closely, you'll hear lots about the GOP's existential impulse to disrupt the Democrats huge advantage among women. Part of the buzz is about Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state, Bush-era national security chief, and football fan. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, an extremely ambitious newbie and on Mitt Romney's vice presidential short list, is counted as a real contender by some: she is a conservative's dream -- a very bright gun advocate, pro-lifer, anti-tax maven, and former prosecutor.
And in Oklahoma, we may have a fierce, even fiery 2014 face-off between incumbent Gov. Mary Fallin and former Oklahoma secretary of state and Tulsa mayor Susan Savage. And while Savage hasn't announced (and would have to do some stout positioning to secure the Democratic nomination), she would be a viable candidate from day one should she choose to go all in. We would have an amazing spectacle: book-ended contests -- Fallin defeated Jari Askins in 2010 -- for the Oklahoma gubernatorial post where both principal candidates are women: something that would've been unimaginable even a dozen years ago.
The far more interesting event is happening here and is at hand: Tulsa's contest for mayor, happening in less than a week. There are three major contenders: former city councilor Bill Christiansen, incumbent Mayor Dewey Bartlett, and former mayor Kathy Taylor. One of these people is going to secure election in a few days if they secured 50 percent of the vote plus one. Otherwise, a runoff will ensue. And yeah, maybe I dropped my "women seize the reins" theme. I know there's only one woman, former Mayor Kathy Taylor, who is actually in the mayor's race, but there's also a highly animated lawyer / community activist / policy junkie -- Victoria Bartlett, wife of Mayor Dewey Bartlett. She has been a huge player in town these last three years and is a giant in the current campaign.
Interestingly, the wives of several recent Tulsa mayors have also been exceptional folks -- one of them, Judy Randle, was a senior executive and book editor at the Tulsa World while another, Dr. Kathy LaFortune is a wild combo of engineer, lawyer and psychologist.
Until recently, Victoria Bartlett was a longtime senior staff aid to a federal judge in Tulsa. Previously, she had a private legal career and spent time as a young adult at Tulsa City Hall in the 1970s working for what was then called the Community Relations Commission. I was at City Hall in the planning and community-development operation during this time.
Bartlett has brought zeal to city "tribal" and racial reconciliation work. She has, with her husband, made a formidable effort to connect Tulsans: with energetic, almost weekly forays to dozens of North Tulsa churches, community organizations and other civic operations. And she has been an aggressive, accessible proponent for dramatically better T-Town food policy, urban gardens, and raising up nutrition and fitness issues in north and west Tulsa.
Taylor was arguably one of the most dynamic elected chief executives in Tulsa's entire twenty-year experience with the strong mayor form. Taylor is a hyperkinetic, charged figure who resisted the impulse to engage in autopilot management at City Hall. Close observers will tell you that the place is a giant ship that responds to instructions (and persuasion) only after prodigious energy goes into turning the captain's wheel. It's why Taylor, in an intensive interview session, said she wanted to remake the human resources department into a "keyhole" outfit that needs to be rethought, even re-imagined at Tulsa City Hall. During her tenure as big chief, Tulsa's downtown underwent a striking transformation that produced over $700 million in new investments fueled, in no small measure, by her successful resolve to complete Tulsa's world-class Bank of Oklahoma arena facility and the smaller, but big-yielding, downtown ballpark project. Some of Taylor's other contributions are almost as consequential, including putting in place a bunch of soft machinery for pushing up Tulsa's business start up rate, mentoring efforts with SpiritBank and other players that offered small firms a novel expansion path, a variety of other incubator and entrepreneurial support initiatives, and a bevy of kid mentoring and anti-gang efforts. And her posting as Governor Brad Henry's education advisor gives her priceless practical insight into the import of superior public schools and what an imaginative, breakout City Hall / public schools nexus might look like.
And like Victoria Bartlett, Taylor has rolled up her sleeves and experienced the world of people with few resources. She has, for example, directly experienced Tulsa's bus system -- a cardinal piece of any strategy to counter rising inequality in T-Town -- with a bevy of regular bus trips over the course of the last year. And she matched her bus forays with a personal study of "the bus" spawned by her post-mayoral Harvard Fellow experience. Selected via a competitive process designed to identify exceptional midlife professionals in politics, business, and the nonprofit world, fellows come to Harvard to teach in the public policy school, in executive training offerings, and in other spots at the university. The fellows effort is, according to the folks who run it, designed to get people who've done difficult leadership work to supply Harvard students with hard-earned insight into what to do and how to do it. But the fellowship experience is also an energizing one for fellows -- they get access to the peerless intellectual, scientific and innovation offerings at Harvard's public-policy schools, at the MIT-Harvard Joint Center for Urban Studies, at the storied business school, and at a dizzying array of other first-class operations.
Resiliency, first-rate problem solving skills, real coalition-building experience, personal energy, and communications savvy are absolutely essential, we could argue, for a first-rate mayor -- especially in a city that is undergoing fateful, even revolutionary change.
What we have, dear readers, are two excellent women who can provide the agile leadership that Tulsa needs to quicken its evolution, build a superior competitive strategy, craft a new path to city services, and counterpunch rising local inequality.
And hey, you can actually vote for one of them.
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