POSTED ON AUGUST 4, 2010:
It's Time for Action
Candidates need to engage us, and voters need to closely watch them
The day before the primary election, our telephone lit up like the Las Vegas strip. We logged 10 incredibly annoying robo calls from political candidates, each either reciting their virtues or trashing their opponents -- or both.
In the two weeks or so before the voting, I lost count of the campaign ads that dominated commercial breaks on local television newscasts, most featuring candidates who proclaimed their devotion to faith, freedom, family and Oklahoma values or some variation thereof.
Faith, freedom, family? Really? In the midst of two wars, the worst economy since the Great Depression and widespread teacher layoffs, those are the best talking points most candidates could come up with?
Good grief -- who isn't for faith, freedom and family. Tough positions, all.
If you learned anything of value from those sales pitches -- that is to say, anything that seriously helped inform your decision-making as a voter -- you're more perceptive or imaginative than I.
What gives me the most heartburn, though, is the phrase "Oklahoma values."
In the context of Campaign 2010, the slogan does nothing more than pander to a noisy, knee-jerk strain of anti-federal government (especially Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid), pro-religious fundamentalism permeating Sooner politics at the moment.
It's an emotional backlash fueled by a fear that is all-too-pervasive in uncertain economic times. It's anything but a purposeful, intellectual response to governing and problem solving.
The fact is, "Oklahoma Values" are more accurately measured and understood in the context of everyday life. And it's hardly a flattering portrait.
Oklahoma ranks poorly on almost every socioeconomic measure imaginable: More than 600,000 of our school children live in poverty, receiving free or reduced lunches. Our divorce rate is among the highest in the nation. We routinely are among the states with the highest rates of obesity.
The recently released 2010 Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation is particularly troubling because it suggests our children -- our future -- start life behind the curve when compared to their peers in other states.
High rates of poverty, infant mortality, single-parent families and low birth weight babies all-too-often are translating into higher rates of teen pregnancy, suicide and dropouts.
Why aren't our candidates talking about these issues, rallying support for solutions that could make a real difference for Oklahoma's future?
It's among the most important discussions we can have as a society, but evidently it's not sexy enough for TV time -- or even robo calls.
Just days before the primary, I listened to four state political experts discuss the election at a luncheon hosted by the University of Oklahoma's Political Communication Center. All agreed that many voters (especially in lower-profile races) make their selections based on the ubiquitous 30-second TV spot.
It's frightening, if you think about it. It's pretty much impossible to have a serious, nuanced discussion about any issue in 30 seconds. The best candidates can do in a commercial is point to specific problems and offer simple worded solutions.
What often ends up happening instead is voters decide based on who looks or sounds best -- or who makes the most outrageous claims. That's why we end up with candidates wrapping themselves in the flag, thumping their Bibles and warning against a Nazi-like federal government takeover of our lives.
It creates a perverse reality in which if you don't have the money to produce slick ads to air both on TV and your website, you can't seriously contend. Big ideas simply aren't enough. Nor is a sterling resume. Or a long history of civic involvement.
Which leaves us ... where? You see, a mostly disengaged electorate can yield all sorts of mischief. Look no further than the case of Bell, Calif., a community of about 40,000 near Los Angeles.
Bell residents recently awakened from their collective slumber to discover their city leaders were stealing them blind. Their city manager was being paid $800,000 a year. Their police chief was earning more than the president. Their part-time City Council members were collecting nearly $100,000 each.
The civic malaise -- less than a third of Oklahoma's registered voters bothered to cast ballots in the July 27 primary -- allows style to trump substance in political campaigns.
Consider: One statewide candidate in Oklahoma this year stopped driving his beloved Ford Mustang because he feared it would send the wrong message to voters. He instead crisscrossed the state in a more conservative sedan.
What's it going to take to get Oklahomans engaged? The state has serious problems that merit serious statewide discussion. In fact, it's way past time to decide collectively what "Oklahoma Values" really means.
This is where leadership comes in. Oklahoma's governor isn't given much authority constitutionally -- the power to veto legislation and make appointments to boards and commissions top the list -- but is given access to something that at times can be even more significant: the bully pulpit.
An imaginative, charismatic governor -- a real leader -- has more power than anyone to help shape the state's future, able to deploy the high-profile nature of the office to direct the state's attention to key problems and possible solutions.
When the governor schedules a news conference, the TV cameras, radio reporters and print journalists are there. Not so for other elected officials.
In November, Oklahomans will elect a woman as governor for the first time. Maybe Democrat Jari Askins or Republican Mary Fallin will succeed where far too many of their male predecessors failed. Maybe they'll be able to inspire Oklahomans to engage civically, seriously debate the tough issues and help create a state that gives all Sooners a fighting chance at a brighter future.
Surely this is something on which we can all agree.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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