POSTED ON OCTOBER 28, 2009:
Race to the Finish
With less than two weeks before Election Day, mayoral candidates finally get down to the issues
Cooper Harrison, Michael Cooper, File Photo
Tom Adelson, Dewey Bartlett Jr., Lawrence Kirkpatrick and Mark Perkins all might think they want to be mayor of Tulsa. Come the night of Tuesday, Nov. 10--Election Day in the city--one of them will get his wish.
Well, a guy who's already held that job has an important piece of advice for the winner.
"Ask for a recount," former mayor Roger Randle spit out quickly before chuckling and admitting he was borrowing that line from a political cynic.
Randle--a former state Senate pro tem and now the director of the University of Oklahoma's Center for Studies in Democracy and Culture in Tulsa--certainly understands as well as anyone the compulsion to run for mayor, having done it twice successfully.
He served as Tulsa's chief executive from 1988 to 1992, overseeing a shift in the city's style of government from a commission form to the present-day strong-mayor form. But he's not being entirely facetious when he jokes about the job not always being a pleasure.
"One of my biggest surprises was, it was just physically exhausting sometimes, and I was a good deal younger then," he said. A good night as mayor, he said, was when he only had to attend one civic function, and that usually came after a full day of wrestling with the heavy issues that were under his domain.
"When it comes to the administration leadership part of it, the issues and questions come to you, and you've got to decide them," he said. "A lot of those issues are pretty darned important and can't be turned over to someone else."
But at the same time, Randle said, the public expects to see the mayor in a visible leadership role, which means attending a never-ending lineup of civic functions--during the day, at night and on weekends.
"These things we could call 'ceremonial' because you hear from different groups all the time, and it's important to see what those different groups are doing," he said. "Your presence at different events is a symbol of the inclusion of those groups in the city."
Randle said he often considered his attendance at events for smaller groups more important than his obligation to show up for functions thrown by bigger, better-known organizations. His rationale for that line of thinking was that most of those older, well-established civic groups in Tulsa already were secure in the knowledge that they would have a voice in how local issues are handled. Many newer, outside-the-mainstream organizations are still searching for that assurance, Randle said.
"A lot of them don't know if they're considered to be an inclusive part of the community or not," he said.
Randle's attendance at their functions often signaled to those groups that they were, and he relied on that goodwill for the support of those groups when the time came to pass a civic initiative, such as a bond issue.
"Often, your success was linked to how much those different groups felt they were part of the city," he said.
How well a mayor handles those kinds of demands can help determine the ultimate success or failure of his or her administration, Randle said, though not many people give that a lot of thought.
The four individuals seeking to become Tulsa's next mayor are focused on a number of high-profile issues--streets, public safety and the budget, for starters--and Randall acknowledges that many of the items on that list are the same things he contended with years ago. But he cautioned those involved in this campaign not to get wrapped up completely in those issues.
"It's important for the candidates to see beyond the immediate issues," he said. "Those things are of great practical importance, but it's also important to be focused on the development of neighborhoods and quality of life ...
"Each person's vision of Tulsa is something that works for them," he said. "Most people don't live in the city of Tulsa; they live in a neighborhood in the city of Tulsa, and Tulsa succeeds to the degree that their neighborhood succeeds. The key to this is how to make neighborhoods successful so we can do more to take Tulsa successful."
The four candidates involved in this campaign might understand that, but so far that message isn't getting a lot of attention. Bartlett, the Republican nominee, and Adelson, the Democrat, have taken turns throwing body punches at each other in an escalating series of negative TV ads. Perkins, a Republican running as an independent, is trying to crack the stranglehold on American politics the two major parties seem to have and is hoping enough voters are turned off by the aforementioned sniping to give him a chance. Meanwhile, Kirkpatrick doesn't seem to be mounting a campaign at all, with no Web site, advertising or public presence.
But there are some oddities to this campaign that make it noteworthy.
Adelson and Bartlett have faced each other before, with Adelson narrowly defeating Bartlett in 2004 in a race for the District 33 state Senate seat Adelson now holds. And both candidates seemingly have embraced ideas that traditionally are associated with the other party--much of Adelson's advertising paints him as a fiscal conservative, a strong opponent of a tax hike to fix Tulsa's chronically bad roads. Bartlett has praised much of the work done by Mayor Kathy Taylor, the Democrat he and Adelson seek to replace, and even called recently for the use of alternative energy to help lower the city's bills, despite his status as a lifelong oilman.
Meanwhile, Perkins is trying to stir up an outright rejection of party politics among voters, at least as far as the city goes, by making nonpartisan elections one of the main themes of his campaign.
No matter which approach proves to be the successful one, the winner of the Nov. 10 election will inherit a city seemingly at a crossroads, which is one of the few things Perkins, Bartlett and Adelson all agree on. Randle encouraged the eventual winner to put the campaign aside as quickly as possible and swallow a dose of humility.
"My real advice is to remember that being mayor of Tulsa is not about you, it's about the citizens of the community of Tulsa," he said. "Don't presume you know what they think. Your job is to get out to meet them and listen to them. Use the job you hold and the resources available to you to achieve the things that are the real priorities of this community.
"Thomas Jefferson once said, 'The people do not always know what is in their best interest, but who better than the people to know what is in their best interest?'" he continued.
Randle sighed and let another laugh escape.
"It's much easier to pontificate about being mayor than it is to be mayor," he said.
View From the Top
Standing on one of the top floors of the recently reopened Mayo Hotel and Luxury Apartments in late September, Tom Adelson looked to the west and came to a sharp realization about Tulsa's past, present and future.
"You can see the poor planning right there," he said, citing the decision many years ago to place the Inner Dispersal Loop on the east bank of the Arkansas River instead of the west, a move he classified as nothing short of a disaster. Over the years, he believes, the IDL has cut downtown off from the rest of the city both literally and figuratively.
"It is an anvil that has kept us from rehabilitating downtown into something more than an office park, which is where we are today," he said.
But Adelson envisions something else when he looks to the west from the top of the Mayo--a huge park that connects downtown to the river. Right now, it's only a dream, and he admits quite a few buildings would have to come down. But it's a dream Adelson believes would reconnect downtown to the rest of the city, helping it achieve a new status as a creative and cultural center that attracts people instead of repelling them.
"We're going to realize downtown Tulsa is either a center of decay that emanates outward or the center of a far-reaching urban renewal that ripples outward to benefit all of Tulsa," he said.
At first blush, such grandiose plans might seem out of place coming from Adelson, a lawyer, two-term state senator and former state secretary of health who freely acknowledges his policy wonk tendencies. But they aren't. In many ways, Adelson wants to reinvent Tulsa, and that effort begins downtown.
"Great cities don't happen, they're planned," he said, repeating an assertion found in the introduction to the PLANiTULSA vision plan, which Adelson said he's read twice. "That is hard for some people to buy into, but it's true. I really like creating and imagining visions like that."
But Adelson knows nothing of that magnitude is accomplished without a certain degree of shouting, and that's what he anticipates happening as PLANiTULSA and the comprehensive plan update process move toward a conclusion early next year. Tulsa's 50-year march outward has created development expectations in some quarters that are likely to be seriously challenged.
"I don't think it's really been absorbed what the plan is demanding, and that's discipline," Adelson said. "It's not just saying yes, it's saying no ... I don't know that everyone fully realizes the discipline that new comprehensive plan is insisting upon."
Adelson was adamant, for example, in expressing his opposition to a possible south Tulsa bridge across the Arkansas River.
"I am not going to be part of a south Tulsa leapfrog development that destroys the integrity of neighborhoods and sends our sales tax to Jenks and Bixby," he said. "Tulsa has to come first in some of this public infrastructure investment."
As for the oft-discussed possibility of Tulsa building an extensive light-rail system, Adelson was circumspect.
"You need a sufficient concentration of people to make that happen," he said, describing such an investment as a long-range goal. "For now, it should be in the phasing stage."
What Adelson envisions as an immediate alternative is a more modest trolley system that runs along 6th Street from the University of Tulsa to Elgin Street downtown, connecting college students with the entertainment and nightlife options to be found in the Blue Dome and Brady districts, as well as the soon-to-open ONEOK Field.
"That would help inspire the kind of nightlife we're hoping to see transpire," he said, adding that such a system would benefit not just TU students and downtown merchants, but all the sites along the way where the trolley stopped. To prove his point, Adelson grabbed a sheet of blank paper from a tabletop and quickly sketched out his vision for the system.
"That would be a prime target for redensification, and light rail could build on a younger Tulsa crowd," he said, adding that the Cherry Street and Brookside entertainment districts could be tied into it, as well.
Projects like that will revitalize downtown and midtown, Adelson hopes, reversing an outward flow of population that has left some parts of the city all but deserted. Adelson looks at that decay and cringes, but he also senses an opportunity, he said.
"We've lost 50,000 people from the center of the city since I was a kid," he said. "No one can tell me we don't have a ridiculous amount of capacity to make it a center for new urbanism."
Adelson's vision for creating a new Tulsa extends beyond its physical appearance. He also wants to tear down a number of the boundaries between the city, county and surrounding communities and explore the idea of regionalism, a trend that more and more metropolitan areas around the country have embraced in recent years.
"I think there is a tremendous amount of ineffectiveness and waste because of the conflict between the city and the county. I think a long-term goal of ours should be to create a regional police force," he said, citing the success other cities have had with that approach, including Charlotte, N.C.; Miami; and Pittsburgh.
Adelson thinks there are a number of functions that joint city-county entities could perform more efficiently than the two can perform separately, delivering millions of dollars in savings in the process.
"We can achieve a lot if we work in collaboration and take advantage of economies of scale," he said.
Adelson believes that savings could be so substantial, in fact, that the city could afford to carve out a full half penny of the third-penny sales tax to dedicate to infrastructure costs, addressing one of Tulsa's longest-standing problems--the deplorable condition of its streets.
Adelson acknowledged he isn't the first local politician to cite the advantages of regionalism--Mayor Kathy Taylor opened her recent State of the City address with a reference to that subject--but he is the only mayoral candidate to make it an issue. He also anticipates it will be a tough sell in some areas.
"Regionalism is very difficult to do," he said. "Few governments have succeeded in implementing it, even though the citizens are almost always in favor of it. That's because of the territorial behavior of politicians and bureaucrats, who see their own power base possibly diminished."
Even so, Adelson plans on appointing a task force that will seek the participation of surrounding communities interested in pursuing regional arrangements. He points to a couple of other entities--the Tulsa River Parks Authority and the Tulsa City-County Library--as examples of regional organizations that already are working well together.
"I'd like us to tackle a bigger one, including the possibility of a metro police force," he said, adding that he's waiting to learn more about the specifics of the Tulsa Fire Department before possibly adding that to the list of city services that might be considered for regionalism. "Those are examples of things we can build upon."
Like Bartlett, Adelson had a great deal of praise for many of the policies of Taylor, the mayor he hopes to replace, particularly her efforts to bring more efficiency to city government. He cited her investment in information technology as one area in particular in which she has modernized City Hall.
He also plans on continuing her programs that promote the education, and health and wellness of Tulsans.
"The mayor plays a very broad and meaningful role," he said, explaining his governing philosophy. "I also think that the citizens are any city's greatest assets. So the health of citizens can't be ignored by any mayor, even though that's not a traditional role of the mayor. I plan on fighting for a quality education and health system that is more rational."
Those positions, of course, fall in line with traditional Democratic principles. But Adelson's political affiliation isn't the only thing that separates him from Bartlett. He quickly rattled off a list of his qualifications for the job, the other things he believes make him a superior candidate: leadership, competency, a sense of purpose, creativity and vision.
"There's no contest between the two of us on those important characteristics that are going to determine how well this city is led for the next four years," he said. "Leadership matters."
An Unusual Skills Set
Dewey Bartlett Jr. doesn't often get the chance to display this particular skill very often, but he might very well be the only candidate in the mayoral race who knows how to operate a backhoe.
"And I'm probably the only one that's driven a tractor," he said, laughing.
Bartlett learned to do both while working in Enid for Halliburton Services, an oilfield services company, after graduating from Regis University with a bachelor's degree in accounting and earning an MBA from Southern Methodist.
His father, one-time Oklahoma governor and U.S. Sen. Dewey Bartlett, recommended that he get a job "working in the field," literally learning the oil business from the ground up.
Bartlett Jr. knows the chances are slim he'll be called on to put them to use in the mayor's office, but he believes that blue-collar experience gives him an invaluable frame of reference when it comes to understanding the concerns of most citizens.
"The whole experience of hard, physical work teaches a person what most of our population experiences every day," he said. "People that are in executive positions, or if they simply don't work, they lose sight of that fact and they lose touch with people."
Most of all, that experience taught him how to interact with folks, Bartlett said.
"I can relate, I can talk with anybody--not just talk down but talk with, communicate," he said. "I understand. It's so simple, so easy. And I relate that to so much of my life experiences--everything from driving those trucks to working on a backhoe to eight hours to whatever. Interacting with people who do that same thing. That's a real good part of my background. It's amazing how much pleasure I could get by being on a backhoe and simply digging a hole in the ground and doing it pretty well. There's an art to digging a hole."
As the president of Tulsa's Keener Oil & Gas Company, Bartlett doesn't spend nearly as much time these days on those noisy, dirty oil rigs as he used to. But he believes that ability to get along with people is just what is needed in the mayor's office these days, especially after the past year, when the relationship between Mayor Kathy Taylor and the City Council seemed to turn especially contentious.
Bartlett wasted little time making that issue one of the hallmarks of his campaign, calling for a return to civility at City Hall in his remarks at the Tulsa Press Club in June when he announced his intention to run for mayor.
"That is one of my very strong attributes that I'm very proud of. (Adelson) is a believer in being adversarial. He likes to confront people politically and personally. That, to me, is not a way to get along. We have a big difference in that regard."
Bartlett believes one of Tulsa's most significant problems is the inability of its elected officials "to get along and communicate well, and act and make decisions for the common good."
He acknowledges the financial difficulties Tulsa faces and indicates it wasn't hard to see this coming.
"This has been developing for decades," he said. "Past decisions have come home to roost."
It is primarily those two factors that have left the city in the situation it's in today, he said.
"Both are going to have to change," he said. "From those sprout a variety of difficulties, many of which would come to an end if either of those two big problems were solved."
Bartlett plans on bridging the divide between the mayor's office and the council by following the example of his father, a Republican who learned to compromise with a Democrat-dominated Legislature during his time as governor and later through one term in the U.S. Senate, where he served from 1973 to 1979.
"My father--a strong, conservative Republican--was consistently recognized for his statesmanship by being able to look for common ground, agreeing and then forging an alliance of friendship to arrive at a solution to the problem," the younger Bartlett said. "He did that repeatedly."
The esteem in which the elder Bartlett was held by his fellow senators, Democrat and Republican alike, was evidenced by their reaction when he died of cancer several months after completing his term and leaving office. The younger Bartlett recalled that a large majority of senators promptly got on a flight and headed west to pay their respects to his father.
"They liked him and respected him so much, they came to Tulsa for the funeral," Bartlett Jr. said. "Very impressive to me. That, from what I can gather, had never been done before."
Bartlett has been influenced politically not just by his father, but by two other Oklahomans known for reaching across the aisle.
He cited the late Gov. Henry Bellmon, a moderate Republican, as someone who had a profound impact on him, along with Randle, a Democrat who served as mayor when Bartlett was on the Tulsa City Council.
"While I was on the City Council, he, by his example, showed me that being inclusive with other political leaders was a very smart thing to do," Bartlett said. "While mayor, he would include the City Council in briefings and important decisions, even when he did not need our input. But he included us. That was a good example, a good influence on how I will be mayor if I am so fortunate."
If he is elected, Bartlett likely will inherit a budget situation that seems to deteriorate by the day. A sharp decline in sales tax receipts already has resulted in a series of cutbacks that might only get worse.
"That is why it is so imperative that you have in the mayor a person who has that experience, and a lot of it," he said. "Thirty years of running my own business, as well as the affiliated things I have done, give me that experience."
Bartlett said job creation will be the most important component of his administration.
"It has to be," he said. "For too long, our population within the city of Tulsa and our retail business within the city of Tulsa has at best been flat and mostly declining. That's the biggest reason we're at the crossroads."
To an extent, the PLANiTULSA process and accompanying master plan update are attempting to reverse that outward flow of people and businesses by encouraging increased population density in Tulsa through infill and mixed-use developments. Bartlett said he has been watching the process unfold with great interest, but he has some concerns about what may transpire.
"What I would hate to see happen is if the resulting plan is so focused without the ability to be very flexible," he said. "That flexibility is extremely necessary because I would hate to see a situation develop where the plan could be somewhat criticized as being, 'Big Brother's telling us what to do.' If that happens, we'll immediately lose a lot of support because people will see private property rights being put in jeopardy."
He also worries that many of the ideas being touted in PLANiTULSA won't be considered realistic by the business community.
"People can have some great ideas, but if the individuals that are willing to risk the money and their own capital, if they don't buy into it, it's a waste of time--huge waste of time," he said. "Pristine ideas sound good, but the practicalities of the fact (are) that somebody will have to invest a lot of capital, and that investing cannot be mandated."
Bartlett believes a common-sense investment in Tulsa's future would be the completion of the Gilcrease Expressway.
"That would open up our last large open area for business and residential development," he said, noting the improved access the completed expressway would mean for west and north Tulsa.
Bartlett conveys a simple message when challenged to explain why voters should cast a ballot for him come Nov. 10.
"Far and away, my life's experience--everything from hard manual labor to the City Council, (and) an extremely large number of civic and community organizations from the American Red Cross to Woolaroc," he said. "It all adds up to an ability to accomplish a vision and do it. I'm fortunate to have the demeanor and temperament to motivate people to accomplish the necessary goals that we need to accomplish.
"That experience, plus my demeanor, those are the two reasons the voters should vote for Dewey Bartlett. Because, without electing me, on-the-job training will be required, and the potential for continued conflict and bickering will remain high."
Mark Perkins didn't wake up one day and decide he wanted to be mayor of Tulsa--or did he?
"On some level, I did wake up," said the 30-year-old independent mayoral candidate and lawyer. "It wasn't waking up and saying, 'I want to be mayor of Tulsa,' it was waking up and deciding that I would be a better mayor of Tulsa than the individuals who were considering filing to run at the time . . .
"I just think that they don't have the perspective and judgment to do things a little differently. I think we need kind of a fundamental change in Tulsa. I'm also concerned that the other candidates don't have the courage to make difficult choices that may not play well to the base that gets them elected and enables them to raise money because they either have future political careers to worry about or are so entrenched within a party that they're indebted to that party. I think we need to throw all that out the windos and put the focus back on Tulsa--not just the Tulsa of today, but the Tulsa 10 years from now."
Perkins is not a total novice at politics, having served as president of his law school class at OU and chairman of the graduate student senate. He also spent a summer working in the office of U.S. Rep. John Sullivan, a Tulsa Republican.
"It was interesting, but I just didn't enjoy the experience," he said. "And I don't think I would want to get into a legislative career.
"I just think local politics is different. You see tangible results. Your friends and your family hopefully get to enjoy the results. I think there's something more noble about it ..."
Perkins is calling for Tulsa to adopt nonpartisan elections, an issue he has made a centerpiece of his run for the mayor's office.
"We're kind of trained by our national politics," he said. "It's so acrimonious at that level, it creates just a distrust of the other party. We carry that into our local politics, when most of the issues that divide us are national issues that we have no control or impact on except as citizens, but not as a city government. It's one of the reasons why nonpartisan elections at the local level--where we're not legislating--make sense."
Sharp divisions along geographic and political lines have kept Tulsa from achieving its potential, Perkins believes.
"It's harmful," he said. "It holds us back. People use this acrimonious language to shore up power, usually for personal interest. There is a deficiency in the sense of civic responsibility and betterment and economic development for Tulsa and improvement in the quality of life.
"It's really upsetting, but it's been holding us back for a long time. We are more averse to beneficial change than any city that I have visited. To me, it doesn't seem natural. Collaboration is really what gets things done. And that's why I support nonpartisan elections, because it would force people to inform themselves about the candidates, and the candidates would have to prove through their ideas and their capacity for leadership to the voters who the best person for the job would be instead of relying on party-line voters. Frankly, we're already seeing that between the other two candidates throwing bombs at each other and these creatively weak terms: 'So and so is going to be more liberal.' It takes the conversation away from the issues."
As for what he plans to do if he's elected, Perkins has a long list of concerns, and he's put together a number of what he calls "think tanks" to advise him on those issues. Perkins has recruited experts on such subjects as public safety, roads and infrastructure, education, and economic development--what he calls the four primary responsibilities of civic government--to advise him on the best way to address the challenges facing each of those. Perkins expressed frustration that some of those issues have never been dealt with adequately.
"The road issue is a perfect example," he said. "Our notoriously bad roads are a persistent problem . . . I can remember this being an issue since I was a child. And we're talking roads here. Cities and states all over the country and all over the world have figured this out. This is not a complex and insurmountable theorem that we can't wrap our heads around. This is a solvable problem.
"But what we've done over time is put a Band-Aid on the problem. And what happens is, if you do that long enough, then it requires a half-billion-dollar tax package to get us grading out from a D to a C. That's not a long-term solution. It doesn't make sense to me. We need to solve these problems in a more long-term way, and it's more fiscally responsible to do it in that way. Because the way we solve it now, 10 years from now, we're probably going to have to look at another tax package."
Perkins said he would call for immediate audits of all city departments in an attempt to identify waste and duplication so that protocols ensuring greater efficiency could be put in place.
"I have a concern--and this has been verified by people in the city--that things are done a certain way because that's the way they've always been done," he said. "That is one way it needs to be run like a business, setting up a solid foundation. I think we can save a lot of money."
Perkins also favors creating a transportation infrastructure--perhaps represented by light rail and an expanded bus system, as indicated in PLANiTULSA--that will accommodate a more densely populated Tulsa in the future.
"I think times have changed," he said. "We've grown to the city limits, and it makes sense to create an infrastructure that is more accommodating increased population density, which is inevitable. We're at our boundaries. An increase in population density is going to happen. I don't think we have a choice on that. So we can either prepare for it or not prepare for it."
He also supports PLANiTULSA's call for alternative zoning codes that encourage greater mixed-use development, a message he hopes will resonate with younger voters looking for a more dynamic, vibrant city.
"I think that's crucial," he said. "Outward growth will continue probably, too, but we need to take care of our city. So we need to maximize our revenue-earning potential by creating conditions that allow for responsible infill development, mixed-use development. And not only that, but I do think it's trending that way. People like more livable and walkable cities. And if they want that, we need to create that. Empty buildings do no good. They bring nothing to the coffers, and they attract crime."
Running against a pair of older, politically experienced and well-financed candidates puts Perkins at an obvious disadvantage in a number of respects. He acknowledges the age difference between himself and the two major-party candidates, but he isn't willing to concede much beyond that.
"I am the youngest candidate in the race," he said. "I have as much education as any of the candidates, and I have as much experience being mayor as any of the candidates. But I am from a different generation. And I still have my whole life to live, and I still have children to raise here. And when you come from that perspective, that you can affect where your kids are going to grow up, I think you have a different kind of passion to really do the right thing, rather than taking into consideration how your record as mayor may look when you're working on running for your next office."
Perkins is counting on rallying to his cause a constituency of young, urban professionals like himself who are on the cusp of assuming leadership roles in the city. Perkins is 30 years old.
"On some level, we have the most to gain and the most to lose," he said. "And so I think we should have the biggest voice. People my age are running companies in every industry in this town, and nobody's going to tell them that they can't do it. Running the city's no different. There are no qualifications that I don't have that the other guys do have, with the exception of name recognition and money."
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