POSTED ON JUNE 9, 2010:
A Party of One
Gov. Brad Henry, how late we knew ye! If Mr. Milquetoast have kept the Legislature balanced, could he have accomplished more?
Gov. Brad Henry gave the 2010 legislative session a slightly better-than-average grade of B-minus.
In my view, if he's including his performance, he's far too modest.
Henry saved his best for last, routinely employing common sense, compassion and decency to offset the worst instincts of the Legislature's noisiest factions -- the conspiracy believin', states' rights lovin' wingnuts and the greedy, government-hating corporatists.
The governor's boffo performance stands in stark contrast to the miserable collective efforts of state lawmakers who deserve a big, fat F for their unwavering devotion to special interests and shameful preoccupation with petty partisanship during a time of dire fiscal crisis.
Wouldn't you know -- Henry blossoms just as the final curtain lowers on his two terms. It's too bad term limits prevent him from reprising his role as the adult to the Legislature's oft-impetuous, infantile leadership. Oklahoma will miss Henry more than it might think.
In the past, I've taken issue with Henry's low-key, can't-we-all-just-get-along approach to leadership. More than once, I've experienced serious heartburn when he turned the other cheek and refused to counter-punch.
This year, though, he struck the right balance -- sometimes delivering powerful jabs even when he knew they might not connect (three of his abortion-related vetoes were overridden), other times sparring tirelessly until Republican legislative leaders declared "no mas" to a budget plan that spared essential state services from the direst of cuts.
Nonetheless, there were some decisions I'll never understand. For example, while he frequently plotted strategy with legislative Democrats near session's end, the governor never demanded that members of his own party be given a seat at the budget negotiation table. In fact, evidence suggests he caved to Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee's petty insistence that legislative Democrats be excluded.
It was a missed opportunity to involve the Democrats' best in an arduous priority-setting process -- and to strengthen, symbolically if nothing else, his party's legislative minority at a time when it is reeling from a series of electoral setbacks.
Even so, the misstep is relatively minor when compared to the fact Henry repeatedly pushed back against the Legislature's wackiest, most venal ideas, deploying his veto pen 16 times before the session ended.
Facing a $1 billion-plus budget hole, he wisely sought to save lawmakers from themselves, rejecting legislation he knew was likely to be challenged in court, likely to be overturned and likely to cost the state precious resources it doesn't have.
Of course, that never stopped grandstanding legislators -- Republicans were setting the agenda, but far too many Democrats rolled over and played along -- from preening for the TV cameras or pandering to the polls.
Even though teachers are being laid off by the hundreds, prisons are understaffed, overcrowded and crumbling and the mentally ill are going untreated, lawmakers worked overtime to come up with a way to challenge the new federal health care reform act because surveys show Oklahomans view it as the politically unpopular work of a politically unpopular president.
Henry wisely opposed the effort, not because he was carrying water for his party's president, but because it makes no sense for Oklahoma to spend the money on legal fees when more than a dozen other states already are taking up the fight. He wanted to spend Oklahoma's precious resources where it could do the most good, not on some quixotic quest that wins short-term political points but has little chance of success.
He bravely stood up for the reproductive rights of women, vetoing a series of mean-spirited, constitutionally dubious measures aimed at turning a legal medical procedure into a 21st Century Scarlet Letter. Even Republican Rep. Doug Cox, a Grove physician, had the courage to stand up on the House floor and call out his colleagues for trumping common sense with politics.
It's going to cost the state treasury -- that's taxpayer money, your money -- to defend lawsuits challenging new laws that will force women to undergo pre-abortion ultrasounds and require them to answer a lengthy questionnaire (answers will be posted on the Internet, without identifying the individual). The courts have thrown out similar laws in the past. They may well again.
Financial stewardship aside, Henry's opposition reflects basic human decency: It's appalling that lawmakers wouldn't at least exempt from these requirements a woman or girl who is the victim of rape or incest. These laws victimize them a second time.
Henry also spared the state another public relations drubbing when he vetoed open carry legislation that would have rolled back the clock on civilized society.
I'm not anti-gun, but I don't want to be around -- or have my family near -- people I don't know who are wearing weapons strapped to their hips, frontier-style.
In my view, there's an important distinction to be made between conceal carry and open carry: When a person is licensed to carry a concealed weapon, they are in a defensive posture, armed in case they are threatened. Open carry is an offensive posture, advertising to all that the carrier has a firearm and is ready, willing and able to use it. The problem is, you never know these days what might provoke a confrontation -- or who could be wounded or killed in the process. It might not be the bad guy.
Before you knee-jerk condemn Henry as anti-Second Amendment, consider this: Even the Oklahoma Rifle Association was neutral on this proposal -- about as close as you'll ever see to them embracing a gun control measure.
Henry's solid performance -- I'd give him an A-minus -- underscores a broader political point that Oklahomans should consider as the 2010 campaign season unfolds:
In this year's legislative session, a Democratic governor was in position to thwart the worst excesses of a Republican legislative majority. The same has happened in the past when GOP governors put the brakes on an overreaching Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Next year, though, Oklahomans could -- if early polls are accurate -- live under one-party rule, Republicans controlling the state House, Senate and the governorship.
If you are among the Oklahomans dismayed that Democrats control the Congress, U.S. Senate and the presidency, will you really be happier if Republicans have a similar stranglehold on state government?
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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