POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 29, 2010:
Against Most Odds
Yet, there's a betting chance this gubernatorial underdog has more than meets the mainstream's eyes
My background, my experience in appropriations, my willingness to work with anybody who’s got a good idea to get things done means that I have the skill set that I think the state needs now.
She was given little chance of defeating House Speaker Todd Hiett in the race for lieutenant governor four years ago.
Some polls indicated she was trailing Attorney General Drew Edmondson by double-digits just days before the Democratic gubernatorial primary this year.
And a recent statistical analysis by Nate Silver's progressive FiveThirtyEight blog and the New York Times suggests she has only a five percent chance of knocking off Republican nominee Mary Fallin in the race for governor.
Yet, Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, 57, has defied the odds so far -- and her streak of upset victories is leaving more than a few GOP insiders nervous heading into the Nov. 2 general election showdown.
"Anybody that would underestimate Jari Askins in this race would be foolish," veteran Republican political consultant Neva Hill noted during a recent Political Junkies luncheon in Oklahoma City, sponsored by the University of Oklahoma Political Communications Center.
No matter the result, the 2010 governor's race is historic because Oklahoma will elect a woman as the state's chief executive for the first time.
It's not a ground-breaker regionally or nationally -- neighbors Texas (Ann Richards) and Kansas (Kathleen Sebelius, Joan Finney), for example, elected women in recent decades. But it is believed to be only the third time in U.S. history that both major party nominees are female -- although New Mexico's major party nominees this year are women, too.
Furthermore, the outcome of the governor's race could well determine Oklahoma's long-term political landscape -- given that next spring lawmakers will be charged with the once-a-decade task of redrawing legislative districts based on the latest Census figures.
If Republicans capture the governorship and maintain their majorities in both houses of the Legislature, they will be able to impose a redistricting plan that tightens their party's grip on power and further pushes Democrats to the margins. If Democrats can get Askins elected, it gives them power to influence the new district maps because the governor has veto power over the Legislature's reapportionment plan.
"If Fallin wins, a united government is going to make it a slam dunk ... a strong Republican dominance for the next several years," says Dr. John Wood, a Rose State College political science professor.
"Democrats rightly are putting all their eggs in Askins' basket because even if they have a miracle and pick up a (legislative) seat or two, it's still going to be a very dominant Republican presence and Democrats don't have a prayer to block some of the extreme measures that might come out of the Legislature."
Askins and Fallin arrive at this gubernatorial showdown with similar political biographies -- both served in the state House and as lieutenant governor. Both are from smaller, rural towns -- Fallin from Tecumseh and Askins from Duncan. (For more on Fallin, check out "The Race Is On" in the Feb. 18-24 issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly.)
A University of Oklahoma graduate, Askins nearly became the first female House speaker in state history -- she would have been chosen had Democrats not lost control of the House in the 2004 elections.
Two years later, when Fallin opted to seek the state's 5th Congressional District seat rather than a third term as lieutenant governor, Askins won state's No. 2 post in an upset over Hiett.
In addition, Askins spent eight years as a special district judge in Stephens County, was the first woman chairman of the state Pardon and Parole Board, later served as executive director of the Pardon and Parole Board and as deputy general counsel to the governor.
It's a resume that Askins contends puts her in a unique position to help lead a state with a struggling economy, increasing unemployment and widespread poverty -- and almost certainly facing a $1 billion-plus budget hole in the 2011-12 fiscal year.
"Times are tough," she said in a recent interview, during a campaign stop in Muskogee. "We knew when we got in this race that the economy was going to be weak, would not have recovered.
"My background, my experience in appropriations, my willingness to work with anybody who's got a good idea to get things done means that I have the skill set that I think the state needs now.
"I'm a decision-maker ... I've been a problem-solver, and especially the next 18 months to two years, it's really going to require us to roll up our sleeves and get to work."
Askins first must convince voters to promote her into the decision-making position. So far, in what is widely viewed as a strong Republican year, Askins is a decided underdog to Fallin, according to the polls. Just last week, a Rasmussen poll reported 60 percent of the 500 likely voters surveyed preferred Fallin, compared to 34 percent for Askins -- up from a 15 percentage point Fallin advantage last month. Even, so most political analysts expect the governor's race to be a battle to the end.
Both candidates are dealing with discontent in their party's ranks -- Fallin with the Tea Party, ultra-conservative crowd that supported state Sen. Randy Brogdon in the primary and Askins with the Democratic Party's small, but energetic liberal wing.
Some of those who supported Brogdon have said privately they aren't sure they will back Fallin -- they consider her a Johnny-come-lately to their don't-tread-on-me brand of conservatism. Will they vote for Fallin anyway? Or will they skip the race altogether?
Askins' problems with the more liberal wing of her party are on such issues as abortion -- she's pro-choice. Will progressives vote for her anyway? Or will they sit out the race? It's evidently not a slam-dunk decision for some liberals -- several, for example, declined to comment publicly on the race for this story.
Brogdon publicly endorsed Fallin -- but it took more than a week after the primary for him to do so. The delay, he said, was merely a matter of him taking vacation after a hard-fought election, but some political insiders wonder if it was a signal he's not entirely sold on Fallin.
Askins, by contrast, was endorsed almost immediately by Edmondson, a sign that unity is especially important for Democrats, reeling from a series of electoral setbacks in recent decades that saw Oklahoma transformed from a dominant Democratic state to one of the nation's most reliably red, Republican states.
Democratic leaders argue that while there may be policy disagreements, Askins' election is essential to thwart the worst excesses of a GOP majority whose agenda is driven by corporatists, social conservatives and anti-government activists.
Askins makes that case herself, but perhaps more subtly: "Even if we create new jobs, we don't see an improvement in the economy for several years, so the budget decisions that are going to have to be made are going to be extremely difficult.
"It's going to require someone who has a really good feel for the state, for the government process, and that's me ... I've been a director of a state agency. I understand what state departments and agencies are going through with these types of budgets. So that familiarity with these type of budgets, and that familiarity with the mechanics of government, how to make things work, is very different from my opponent."
Askins is clearly popular with her former legislative colleagues -- from both parties. Every time she was introduced the last four years to formally gavel open a joint session of the Legislature, lawmakers from both sides routinely gave her long, loud standing ovations.
In fact, her former Democratic colleagues in the Legislature are widely credited with helping pave the way for her upset victory over Edmondson in the July primary -- a secret weapon of sorts that exploited already established grass roots political groups.
For example, in McCurtain County in southeastern Oklahoma, with the help of state Sen. Jerry Ellison, D-Valliant, who served with Askins in the House, Askins racked up a 1,500-vote margin over Edmondson -- she won by 1,494 votes statewide.
Another reason that political experts give Askins a chance at pulling the upset: She is widely viewed as a terrific retail campaigner, meaning she is personable and engaging at events, visiting one-on-one, shaking hands, connecting with voters.
She often is among the first to arrive at an event and among the last to leave, usually not until she has visited with everyone who wants to visit with her. On her recent campaign stop in Muskogee, she delivered a speech opening a women-in-agriculture conference, then spent time chatting individually with those in attendance. Though time was running short -- her next event was across state in Perry -- she even went back into the convention hall to locate some attendees who wanted their photo taken with her.
"My ability to win statewide office four years ago and my ability to make it thus far in the governor's race has been two-fold," she said. "First, there are so many people from Duncan or who went to college with me that still live in Oklahoma, they live around the state, and these are people who knew me before I ever was interested in politics or elective office. And these are people who support me and I've heard them tell their friends that I'm the same now as I was when they knew me in high school or when they knew me in college. And I find that very gratifying because I want to be the same person.
"Secondly, having served 12 years in the Legislature, I developed working relationships with men and women across this state, some of whom are still in the Legislature, others have term-limited out and they saw how hard I worked in the Legislature, they saw how I was given the responsibility to negotiate difficult issues and they know that I will always work to find a solution. So I appreciate people who have worked with me in government that are very supportive."
Askins possesses another potentially significant advantage: personal wealth. She's loaned or given her campaign more than $1 million, not quite half the $2.356 million her campaign has raised overall, according to her latest report, filed in early August. "I'm pretty fortunate I'm a saver," Askins told KTOK Radio in Oklahoma City, "and for years I have saved my money."
Both Fallin and Askins have downplayed the fact that one will become the first woman elected governor -- both asserting they just happen to be women running for the state's highest elective office.
"I'm not running because I want to be the first woman governor -- that's not it," Askins said. "However, I recognize that our race is historical.
"To me, what I hope that means to the young girls in our state is that whether you want to be a ballerina, whether you want to be a medical doctor or a classroom teacher or an elected official, if you work hard, you have a chance to reach your dream. That's how I think of the historical significance."
The campaign so far has played out without much vitriol between the candidates themselves. But the Republican Governors Association lobbed a Molotov cocktail recently when it began airing TV spots that attempted to portray Askins as a Barack Obama-style liberal.
Some political analysts suggest the ads reflect GOP unease over the race. The ads were widely denounced by editorial writers, including at the state's largest newspaper, the arch-conservative Oklahoman, and even by Republicans, all of whom pointed out it's laughable to suggest Askins is a liberal. Liberals shook their heads, too -- one blogger noting that if Askins really were a liberal, she would have gotten the blogger's vote.
Askins' campaign responded quickly, running an ad that portrayed the RGA spot as typical Washington-based "cookie cutter" politics -- a way to not only play on anti-Washington sentiment in Oklahoma, but also to not-so-subtly point out that Fallin is a sitting member of Congress.
"It was no secret what kind of campaign they would run against me and that was to try to take everything bad that they perceive happening in Washington and blame it on candidates in Oklahoma," Askins said. "That is designed to frustrate and depress the electorate so that they stay home.
"We're trying to run a campaign to let Oklahoma voters know this is where my heart is. This is where I've always wanted to work. These are the people that I care about. This is always going to be my home. And I care about it not just now but I care about what it's going to be like 25 years from now."
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