POSTED ON JANUARY 6, 2010:
Too Much Mr. Nice Guy
Playing a little harder ball wouldn't have hurt Gov. Henry
I admit it: I often find Gov. Brad Henry exasperating.
Don't get me wrong. He's one of the nicest people you'd ever meet. You'd love to have him as your next-door neighbor.
But in much the same way I'm often distressed by President Obama's proclivity for consensus building, Henry's "Kumbaya" approach to leadership drives me to distraction.
There are more than a few times I've wished Henry would morph into a governor more akin to Frank Keating--hard-nosed, head-knocking, spoiling for a fight--than ever-cheerful, witty George Nigh or mild-mannered, understated Henry Bellmon.
Henry's a smart guy, of course. Entering his eighth and final year as the state's chief executive, his approval ratings remain high, no doubt in part because he doesn't pop off or relish hardball politics like Keating.
It's true that Henry dealt for most of his two terms with a Republican-controlled House that wasn't much interested in what a Democratic governor thought or wanted. And it's true his job became much more difficult when Republicans claimed a Senate majority in the 2008 elections.
It's also true that Henry never embraced the guerilla model that proved so successful for Republican Keating who battled Democratic legislative majorities in both his terms. Keating joined forces with legislative Republicans to create a veto-proof minority that ended up controlling, if not choreographing, much of the legislative agenda.
Henry's insistence on bipartisanship ended up infuriating many in his own party who felt--rightly so--he didn't employ the power of the governorship to support Democratic candidates and causes and help the party's fight to recoup legislative losses.
Indeed, he was less interested in party building than any governor I've covered in three decades of political reporting in Oklahoma, Texas and California.
"My focus is on building a great state, not building a political party," the governor once said. "I'll leave that to others. I try to do what's right. I sleep very well at night. I know that I'm never going to please the partisans in either party.
"I've always been very much a centrist. I think that's where most Oklahomans are. I think it's more effective to work together with members of both parties ... We've accomplished quite a bit through our bipartisan approach."
It wasn't political spin. He really wasn't much interested in party affairs. To hear Democratic insiders tell it, Henry often was slow to make time to meet with party leaders--or was all-but-dragged into hosting fundraising events.
Can you imagine Keating--or any Republican governor, for that matter--publicly expressing no interest in helping strengthen his party?
Henry's eight years will long be lamented as an opportunity lost for Oklahoma Democrats struggling to get the party back on its feet.
Henry's biggest mistake, though, was getting caught up in the economic good times that arrived midway through his first term, a huge relief after the $700 million budget shortfall he inherited from Keating. Henry agreed with Republican demands to reduce taxes, signing into law about $770 million in cuts--money that sure would come in handy right now with the state facing a $1 billion revenue shortage.
At the time, the governor noted, "I'm always open to tax cuts and tax relief ... I certainly believe that the tax relief packages that we've enacted over the past number of years are of the magnitude that we can handle that, even with a downturn in the economy.
"You always have to be concerned about a downturn in the economy. One thing that is inevitable, that I can guarantee you, as we sit here today, that sometime in the future there will be a downturn in our economy. I can't tell you exactly when it is going to be, but it will occur."
So, why didn't he listen to himself? Why didn't he heed Oklahoma's boom-bust history and insist the state take what he knew would be a short-term largesse to invest in education or highways or other critical needs? Why slash already low taxes (Oklahoma is near the bottom nationally in combined state and local taxes), especially since the state's Constitution makes it all but impossible to raise taxes, even in times of emergency?
Just like GOP legislative leaders who thumped their chests over the tax cuts, Henry is now living with a nightmare budget scenario he helped create.
Still, it's hard to imagine where Oklahoma would be if Henry hadn't brandished his veto pen and derailed some goofy legislation churned out by the Republican majority.
Last year, for example, the governor nixed a bill that would have criminalized any form of embryonic stem cell research. Supporters called it a "pro-life" measure, but in truth it was an example of religious zealotry run amok.
"It's important to point out that this legislation does nothing to stop an abortion or save a single life," the governor said, "but it does threaten life-saving research and unjustly criminalizes scientists who perform important work, the very kind of research that is supported by pro-life conservatives like former First Lady Nancy Reagan."
Even the Tulsa and Oklahoma City Chambers of Commerce lobbied against the bill, recognizing that cutting-edge medical research--think Dr. Jordan Tang and Alzheimer's breakthroughs at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation--is fast becoming an important cog in an Oklahoma economy sorely in need of diversification beyond energy and agriculture.
The conventional wisdom is that Americans love divided government, provided it serves as a governor on the excesses of one-party domination. In Washington, Democrats currently control the Congress and the presidency. In Oklahoma, next year's elections could -- if early polls are prescient -- give Republicans not only control of the Legislature, but also of the governorship.
It's enough to awaken Oklahoma Democrats in a cold sweat. "Kumbaya," anyone?
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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