POSTED ON FEBRUARY 3, 2010:
What happens when a master puppeteer leaves his non-elected position, days before the next session? An interesting four months, no doubt
Buried in the back pages of the state's metro dailies last week was personnel news from the state Legislature that deserved far more attention and scrutiny than it was given.
Fred Morgan, a former six-term state representative, departed his position as general counsel and senior policy advisor to the Senate's Republican leadership in order to become president and CEO of the State Chamber of Commerce.
He was replaced immediately by former GOP Sen. Jim Williamson, a Tulsa attorney forced from office in 2008 because of term limits.
The change, announced six days before the 2010 session was gaveled to order, has the potential to alter the dynamics of the legislative process far more profoundly than even the state's billion-dollar-budget crisis.
Love him or hate him--and many legislators loathed him--Morgan was arguably the most powerful non-elected official in the Capitol, viewed widely as a master puppeteer pulling the strings in both the Senate and the House.
How big a player was he? His relationship with Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, was the Oklahoma equivalent of Karl Rove choreographing President George W. Bush's every thought and step.
Morgan's influence probably wasn't that grand, but in politics, perception is reality, and he seemed nothing if not omnipresent. True or not, Morgan's detractors came to believe his fingerprints were on everything, significant or not.
In fact, one of the most oft-uttered, sarcastic lines at the Capitol was, does Morgan have (compromising) photos of Coffee?
In public, legislators are typically tight-lipped about specific grudges, preferring to appear thoughtful, high-minded, above the fray. In private, they often let 'er rip.
It was a sure sign of Morgan's power that, even off the record, lawmakers often would express their displeasure by rolling their eyes or carping about his heavy-handedness or his ego. They offered few specific complaints, lest word get back to Morgan, unnecessarily poking the hornet's nest.
The public decorum aside, it was clear that Morgan's mere presence was a flashpoint in a testy battle over who would succeed Coffee next year as Senate leader (Coffee is another casualty of term limits). Coffee and Morgan wanted to hand-pick the next pro tem to ensure their corporatist agenda endures. Morgan's desire to hang onto a nifty $140,000 a year salary was no doubt a factor, as well.
Increasingly, though, it became a showdown over which of the contenders would--or wouldn't--keep Morgan aboard.
Morgan wisely jumped ship when the State Chamber beckoned. The question is, what's in it for the Chamber?
"I think the board showed wisdom in selecting Fred as the next president and CEO," outgoing Chamber leader Richard Rush said in a news release heralding Morgan's selection as president and CEO. "I have witnessed his abilities as a champion of business for our state.
"There is no doubt in my mind that the members and staff of this organization will be in great hands."
In Morgan, the Chamber gets a smart strategist and articulate insider who knows the players, their weaknesses and strengths and the issues. But surely Chamber leaders also recognize that Morgan is a lightning rod, with plenty of enemies--with long memories--as well as friends.
Maybe the silk-stocking boys are arrogant enough to figure no one of import would dare cross them anyway.
Let's be honest: The Chamber wields the most power because it unites the state's deepest pockets. As a result, the House and Senate leadership is uniformly corporatist, making little effort to conceal the fact it carries the Chamber's rich-get-richer agenda.
Need proof? The No. 1 priority for the Chamber and its affiliates this year is workers' compensation reform--a bid to ensure business gets lower costs and it's more difficult for workers.
What's the No. 1 priority for House and Senate Republicans? Workers' comp reform, naturally.
Even with the Chamber's financial hammer in hand, Morgan no doubt will discover that many legislators have long memories.
Williamson's selection is less curious. Perhaps best known as the point man on anti-abortion legislation, Williamson's theocratic tendencies were offset by a straight-forward, no-nonsense approach to legislating. He wasn't a game player, winning grudging admiration from those who disagreed with him on the issues.
What's interesting, though, is that Coffee and Co. evidently felt the need to shore up their (religious) right flank by hiring Williamson for the session--at a salary of $65,000 for the four months.
Senate Republican leaders reportedly also gave consideration to another term-limited, former senator, Owen Laughlin of Woodward, a highly-regarded, more traditional (i.e. corporate) Republican to fill Morgan's position before settling on Williamson.
Laughlin might have been passed over because he's also considering a bid for state treasurer to replace retiring Democrat Scott Meacham. But given the intra-GOP warfare over Coffee's successor, it seems more likely that Williamson's selection is a carrot for senators considering a pro tem candidate other than Coffee's choice.
Four Republicans have expressed interest in becoming pro tem: Sens. Brian Crain of Tulsa, Brian Bingman of Sapulpa, Harry Coates of Seminole and Cliff Aldridge of Midwest City.
Coates is the one who gives Coffee the most heartburn. He is a Dewey Bartlett (the former governor and U.S. senator, not the current Tulsa mayor) Republican who is fiercely independent and doesn't take marching orders from anyone. Coffee and Co. seem determined to stop Coates, no matter what.
It remains to be seen whether Morgan's switch to lobbying and Williamson's return to the legislative sausage-making help smooth out what seems certain to be a contentious session--think budget crisis in an election year.
Coffee can only hope so. Otherwise, four months will have never seemed so long.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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