POSTED ON FEBRUARY 6, 2008:
New Man of the House
Benge to replace Cargill after an onslaught of bad press forced his resignation
Tulsa's own Rep. Chris Benge is the new leader of the state House of Representatives, having been elected the new Speaker of the House on the opening day of the 2008 session.
It reportedly took two ballots to elect him during the morning GOP caucus meeting, but he was later elected by acclamation by the full House a few hours after Gov. Brad Henry's annual State of the State address.
Among others, Henry proposed a budget increase of $160,000 for the state Ethics Commission, echoing recommendations by some lawmakers in the aftermath of the events leading to the power vacuum filled by the new Speaker (for more details, see "In Need of a Few Good Men" in the January 3-9, 2008, issue of UTW at www.urbantulsa.com).
Benge was the latest among five contenders for the seat after former Speaker Lance Cargill, R-Harrah, resigned from the post amid records coming to light that he'd been late two years in a row filing state and federal personal income taxes, and had failed to pay property taxes on his law office for six consecutive years.
Cargill said he was stepping down as House Speaker because his and fellow Republicans' policy ideas were being obscured behind media coverage of his personal issues.
"I want nothing more than to have good ideas to move forward without the burden of being weighed down by personal stories about me," he said in a prepared statement at the time of his resignation about a week and a half ago.
"For several weeks, our policies heading into the session have been buried in the newspapers, while personal stories have remained on the front pages. I take full responsibility for that, and hope that a new speaker can shift the focus back to the future of this great state," he continued.
Cargill was among a handful of lawmakers to be put on notice by the Oklahoma Tax Commission in mid-January for overdue taxes.
The others were Sen. Constance Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, and Reps. Don Armes, R-Faxon, and Ryan McMullen, D-Burns Flat.
Cargill's troubles didn't begin with the revelation of his tax delinquency, though. He's also been under scrutiny in recent months for allegedly transferring money in 2004 from the state Republican Party's political action committee to the Oklahoma County party's account, where it was spent on House races outside the county.
He denied the allegations.
Cargill also recently acknowledged having attended, along with six other state Republicans, a fundraiser for presidential candidate Mike Huckabee at the Dallas home of businessman Gene Phillips in December.
For those unfamiliar, Phillips' notoriety comes from allegedly having bribed former Insurance Commissioner Carroll Fisher.
Fisher resigned in 2004 after the House voted to impeach him, and is currently serving time for embezzlement.
He's due to stand trial in May for allegedly accepting bribes from Phillips.
Cargill denied that he was aware of the ties between Fisher and Phillips when he accepted the invitation to the fundraiser.
Also, along with his predecessor, former House Speaker Todd Hiett, R-Kellyville, Cargill has been under suspicion for alleged "pay to play" activities--favoring or blocking legislation on the basis of how much lobbyists and interest groups give or don't give in campaign contributions.
Again, both denied the allegations.
After Cargill's resignation, the heir apparent to the post was Speaker Pro Tempore Gus Blackwell, R-Goodwell, who was next in authority to the Speaker.
However, upon learning that he's been late on his own property taxes for the past 13 years, he removed himself from the running, stating (not in so many words) that he wants the next House Speaker to be "baggage free."
Other contenders for the post were Reps. John Wright, R-Broken Arrow; Susan Winchester, R-Chickasha, and Dale DeWitt, R-Braman.
Wright is chairman of the Republican Caucus and previously bid for the Speaker's seat in October when House GOP members reaffirmed Cargill.
Benge, who already filled an influential position as chairman of the Budget and Appropriations Committee, submitted his bid for the Speaker's post on Friday, just hours before the 3pm deadline.
Each of the four stated that they would be able to unify the House Republicans after the party has been fractured over the past few months amid the allegations of ethical violations.
"There's talk that some of the Republicans are so disgruntled with the leadership that they might peel of and join the Democrats (in voting for a Speaker)," said a source close to the House of Representatives who didn't want to be named, prior to Monday's vote.
Apparently, they settled their disgruntlement by Monday afternoon when the full House elected Benge by acclamation.
"Today is a new day in the House of Representatives. We have much to do, and today marks a return to policy debates and discussion here at the Capitol, instead of throwing stones and pointing fingers. We must move past the partisan bickering that often takes hold here at the Capitol," said Benge.
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