POSTED ON DECEMBER 1, 2010:
Looking for Men and Women of Goodwill
As new elected officials are sworn in, state voters hope the new capital crew do what's best for Oklahoma
Just after the election, more than 100 newly elected and re-elected state House and Senate members assembled at the Capitol to be sworn in. It's the most collegial day imaginable -- the galleries packed with family and friends, all savoring and celebrating ballot box nirvana.
For those so moved, tradition offers a few moments in the spotlight to introduce loved ones and supporters, most often a much-deserved shout-out to a spouse who worked every bit as hard and fretted every bit as much as the would-be lawmaker. Young children often sit (or more accurately, squirm) alongside their legislator-parents on the Senate and House floors.
In the midst of the revelry, incoming House Speaker Kris Steele, a Shawnee Republican, called on the next member: "Rep.-elect Inman, you are recognized."
The first thought that crossed my mind, as incoming House Democratic Leader Scott Inman, holding his infant daughter, was: "Rep.-elect Inman, you are recognized. Enjoy the moment. It'll be your last."
Forgive my cynicism in this holiday season of jaunty spirits and high hopes, but I suspect that all-too-soon war will supplant peace at the state Capitol. And not because the new House speaker, a Methodist minister, wouldn't prefer peace.
It's just that collegiality is bound to collide with more powerful forces that often rise up in the legislative sausage-making process -- which special interests are being served, who's getting credit for what, how can Republicans expand their legislative majorities, what can Democrats do to get back in the game.
Before the election, before the extent of the GOP tsunami known, before Democrats lost seats in areas that had never been Republican before, before Democrat Jari Askins was blown out in the governor's race, there were hopeful signs that strict partisanship might not rule the day.
Steele, for example, appointed members from both parties -- five Republicans and three Democrats -- to a committee that will negotiate the guidelines and framework for the once-a-decade task of redrawing the state's legislative and congressional district boundaries to reflect population changes in the latest Census.
"We want to ensure that this process is bipartisan and fair as we construct appropriate districts to reflect the changing population of our state," Steele said at the time. "I have complete faith that these members will put in the hard work necessary to ensure Oklahomans remain well-represented at the state Legislature and in Congress."
Of course, redistricting often is the most important weapon available to the political party that controls the state Legislature. If the lines are drawn cleverly enough -- can you spell g-e-r-r-y-m-a-n-d-e-r? -- the majority party not only can protect its incumbents, but also put minority party lawmakers at political risk.
Steele's promises of fairness notwithstanding, he no doubt will face tremendous pressure from some in the Republican caucus to redraw the lines to make it as difficult as possible for Democrats to win seats over the next decade.
Indeed, there is evidence to suggest the most partisan GOP forces in the Legislature already are influencing the new speaker: You need look no further than Steele's newly appointed task force that will review House rules and propose changes aimed at making the legislative process more transparent.
Five Republicans, no Democrats.
You may dismiss this as inside baseball. And yes, Republicans are a lopsided majority in the House (70-31). To the victors go the spoils -- and the power. But if you're going to wield the power, don't insult the voters' intelligence by pimping it as an open process aimed at real reform and transparency.
Moreover, failing to name any Democrats to the panel leaves its work open to criticism that it's going to produce nothing but window dressing.
"I believe increased public scrutiny and oversight is vital to a healthy democracy, and technological advances now allow us to be more user-friendly than ever," Steele said. "I am serious about bold reform and am confident the members of the working group will develop proposals that significantly change the way things are done at the Oklahoma Capitol."
The failure to involve a single Democrat in what could be a transformational process even rankled the normally placid Rep. Joe Dorman, a Rush Springs Democrat known widely for his collegiality and ability to work with members of both parties.
"I hope that the group," he said, "will approach other members for ideas and input as they consider procedural reforms and transparency."
The hopeful sign is that Steele's five-member reform panel isn't a Who's Who of venal Republican partisans. For example, two members -- Reps. Gary Banz, R-Midwest City, and David Dank, R-Oklahoma City -- are among the most decent, hard-working state representatives you'll find. Conservative, yes, but more than willing to listen, discuss and consider other ideas, no matter the source.
As is the case with any speaker, Steele's leadership skills will be sorely tested. He will be attempting to choreograph a Ringling Brothers-like Big Top that includes corporatists, moderates (yes, there are a few left) and the so-called Liberty Caucus -- whose membership varies from issue to issue but is mostly a lineup of hard right social and religious conservatives.
The corporatists, tools of the State Chamber, and the Liberty Caucus band of Birthers, Tenthers, Birchers, xenophobes and theocrats (to name a few) often clash. And you never know what's going to push the red button.
Case in point: Amid the swearing in festivities, Steele invited the interim minister from his home church, Wesley United Methodist in Shawnee, to deliver the invocation. Dr. James Hewitt's prayer ignored a firestorm on Steele's right flank, all because the minister had the temerity to implore lawmakers to treat illegal immigrants fairly and justly -- and to express remorse over past mistreatment of Native Americans, including their forced relocation to Oklahoma.
"To those we say, 'we're sorry for what our fore parents did to your fore bearers,'" said the minister, who also implored God to help enlighten lawmakers so that Native Americans are never victimized again.
Further, Dr. Hewitt invoked the plight of undocumented workers -- those who "dwell and work in our land, but it has yet to become their land -- they're aliens in our midst."
"Give wisdom, sensitivity to circumstances, and compassion to our legislators for these who labor and live among us without appropriate authorization."
I think it's healthy that we acknowledge how native peoples were mistreated in the past -- no doubt many still are.
And I don't know how anyone -- especially those of us who profess to be Christians -- could begrudge the minister his moment to urge us all to treat immigrants in our midst with dignity and love and to walk a mile in their shoes (most are desperate to provide for their families back home and coming to this "shining city on the hill" in hopes of a better life.) It's not their fault our Congress refuses to tackle the issue.
So, on swearing-in day, a day full of peace on earth and goodwill toward all, the opening prayer ignites a firestorm. Welcome to Kris Steele's world. As the 2011 session approaches, the strains of the Calliope grow louder.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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