POSTED ON MAY 25, 2011:
Ringside in the Rotunda
Frustrated lawmakers hit the capitol mat and almost brought the House down
On the day before the Legislature adjourned, Rep. Joe Dorman was walking alongside the marbled railing in the state House gallery, as debate -- insanity? -- raged on the floor below. He glanced up to the journalists in the glass-enclosed press gallery, transformed his fingers into a make-believe pistol, put them to his head and pulled the trigger.
It's not uncommon for lawmakers to suffer a severe case of put-me-out-of-my-misery during the session's harried final hours. Tempers often get short as time runs out on pet proposals that legislators have nursed for months, hoping they become law.
Dorman, a Rush Springs Democrat, is normally even-keel, a guy who clearly relishes the intellectual give-and-take of the process. But his exasperation was not unique this year.
For example, Rep. David Dank, the House's senior member and one of its most even-tempered, refused to take questions from one of his fellow Oklahoma City Republicans, asserting that Rep. Mike Reynolds "embarrassed" the House and should have been booted for his name-calling vitriol.
At times this session, it seemed as if the Oklahoma House was on the verge of becoming one of those world-away legislatures we occasionally see on network or cable news or in riveting YouTube segments: chairs sailing, fists flying, members hurdling desks to get at their adversaries -- WWE morphing into real life.
Even in the normally staid Senate, tempers flared and members turned their backs on each other during debate -- one even appeared to be surreptitiously giving the finger to another senator as he asked questions about a bill.
But don't for a moment think it's always a tense, take-no-prisoners, fight-to-the-death battle. There are plenty of genuinely funny or light-hearted moments. And there are some members who display quite an imagination -- though not all their colleagues appreciate the effort.
Take the case of Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail.
What? You've never heard of these elected lawmakers? Flopsy and Mopsy are Republican House members and Cottontail a GOP senator -- or so they say. They launched an Internet blog (oklahomabunnies.blogspot.com) on April 12 that takes inquiring minds behind the scenes in the state Legislature -- into the GOP's closed-door caucuses and into the world of intra-legislative politicking.
As the session ended, it wasn't entirely clear which members were operating behind the non de plume or whether it was legislators at all. There was plenty of speculation around the rotunda about the authors, especially since the blog included just enough insider details to give it credibility.
What did we ostensibly learn? Everything from second-term Rep. T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, wants to be the next speaker (no surprise) to Gov. Mary Fallin provided the GOP caucus Chick-fil-A -- "bunnies and cows agree -- eat more chicken," wrote Flopsy -- while urging them to support the proposed $40 million Indian Cultural Center bond (it wasn't approved).
"It has been hailed as a tourist attraction, a way to honor our state's history, and a profitable enterprise that will make annual profits of $7 million in just a few short years," Flopsy continued in a post dated May 11.
"Conservative members of the Republican Caucus are having problems supporting fascist capitalism in an era of budget cuts. In a year where Common Education is scheduled to be cut 4.1 percent, and Higher Education 5.8 percent, some will have a hard time voting to give $40 million to a potential public-private boondoggle. If tourists have an extra day in Oklahoma City, they can choose from Frontier City (private), driving up to Old Town Guthrie (no extra government help), or the Indian Cultural Center (half-funded with tax money). Why should our history be honored on the backs of private business?
"All Republican members face a difficult choice since all of Oklahoma, the former Indian Territory, has tribal members who would like to see the state honor their heritage. The members also know that the principled conservative position is opposition based on the fiscal impact.
"Native American conservatives are in even more of a bind -- to vote for their personal heritage, or vote for the conservative principles that got them elected."
In a separate entry on May 11, Mopsy wrote: "On Tuesday, my colleagues in the House of Representatives and I were told by (Rep.) Paul Wesselhoft (R-Moore) that there are now four candidates to be the next Speaker of the House: T.W. Shannon, (Speaker Pro Tem) Jeff Hickman (of Dacoma), George Faught (of Muskogee), and Becky Faught (a joke -- this is Rep. Faught's wife, a regular in the House gallery).
"This is not a good development for T.W. Shannon. In early March, OCPAC (Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee) announced he was only days away from wrapping up support from a majority of House Republicans. Over two months later, additional people are running for the office. If T.W. had strong support and a team of supporters who weren't too busy messing around with their staff, he would have been elected Speaker of the House for 2013 by now."
Both Republicans and Democrats meet frequently behind closed doors during session to map strategy. The game play often becomes clear -- for example, Democrats voted frequently this session against the "emergency clause" that would allow legislation to take effect immediately, rather than six months later. The idea was to slow down some key legislation that the Republican majority wanted now, giving minority Democrats some measure of negotiating power in the process.
There are times, though, where trying to learn what's happening in secret caucus meetings is akin to divining Kremlin policy back in the Cold War days by scrutinizing public comments.
Assuming the bunnies are legit, they at least have given us a window into the GOP strategy that played out this legislative session -- even if it's nothing more than their individual impressions. Or perhaps they have an agenda -- to stick it in the ear of a fellow Republican they don't like.
Of course, anyone with a computer, an Internet connection and some tech-savvy can set up a blog. And much of the information posted at Oklahoma Bunnies could be fodder for informed speculation -- all you have to do is chat up lawmakers and staff in the hallways or their offices or debrief some of the small army of special interest lobbyists crowding the rotunda.
True or false, the blog was a bit of guilty pleasure in a raucous first session in which Republicans controlled all levers of state government power.
Still, inquiring minds want to know: who are Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail?
-(Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net)
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