POSTED ON AUGUST 17, 2011:
Former Mayor Kathy Taylor just can't stand still; As a charter member of the creative class, there is no such word as "retirement" in her lexicon
Somedays Kathy Taylor is tempted to pinch herself.
At 55, the former Tulsa mayor is financially secure, able to scratch most itches -- whether it's travel abroad (she's visited Italy and Argentina since May 2010) or loading books onto her Kindle, hosting charitable or political fund-raisers, embracing the "professional do-gooder" moniker or enjoying her new grandson.
She may no longer hold elective office, but it's clear she hasn't been forgotten. She recently was inducted into the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame, she joined forces with former Lt. Gov. Jari Askins to co-chair Legal Aid's annual statewide fundraising campaign and she's now mentioned as a potential candidate to become the University of Tulsa's next president when Steadham Upham retires next year.
And -- oh, yes -- she even found time to return to private law practice, hanging her shingle at one of the state's premier firms, McAfee & Taft.
"There are some days life is so easy I just laugh in my office -- what a great life," she said.
"For 10 years when I was at (the state Department of) Commerce and as mayor, my schedule was so long -- and it was seven days a week. Now it feels very much like I have a very leisurely life."
It's a remarkable chapter in a tragedy-to-triumph saga that began with her modest, northwest Oklahoma City upbringing -- the third of four children born to parents who worked together operating small businesses: a cleaners and an insurance agency.
A product of public high school (John Marshall), Taylor was in her freshman year at the University of Oklahoma when misfortune struck -- her father died suddenly at age 54. A year later, she lost her mother -- a day after her 55th birthday. With the help of a Sapulpa family that befriended her and "tons of student loans," Taylor survived the heartbreak, earning a journalism degree then finishing first in her class at OU's law school.
"I'm not sure people really realize she's a self-made woman," said Vickie Vaniman, Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group's executive vice president, general counsel and secretary, who first met Taylor when the two were law school classmates.
"I see her in a perfect place to be right now. She has worked so hard to get there."
At Tulsa City Hall, by contrast, it's been a tumultuous 20 months since Taylor left office -- seemingly one headknocking battle after another between her successor, Dewey Bartlett, and the City Council.
Taylor, though, studiously avoids offering her take on the state of city affairs or offering advice to the city's current powers-that-be, saying -- diplomatically -- that "there may be kind of a perception of chaos at the city," but "the fact is, 3,980 employees do their jobs every day, and they have for years.
"So the noise around political issues is unfortunate, but that doesn't impede progress as much as I think people believe.
"Government is not a simple sport. It's a little bit messy."
Still, such rancor can be jarring to many Tulsans, especially those who came of age in the 20th Century when, for the most part, a relatively small business and establishment elite reigned supreme. In today's oft-spirited, sometimes nasty give-and-take, Taylor sees a maturing city -- less homogenous, more cosmopolitan than ever.
"We do have a diverse set of voices at the table and that does make for a raucous debate," she said. "But citizens get so much more engaged when they get the opportunity to give their input. And that's, to me, what really makes for a vibrant community."
Taylor, who served as mayor from 2006-09, said she wouldn't trade places with Bartlett, but she admits to occasional bouts of wistfulness.
"There are days I miss it a little bit...There were some projects that I would have liked to have seen through: our comprehensive planning -- we hadn't done in 30 years -- that I started. Mayor Bartlett finished that plan and now is implementing it. I had a passion for doing that.
"But I've done that job and am glad I've done it and I would not do it again."
After deciding not to seek a second term as mayor, Taylor became the unpaid chief of education strategy and innovation for then-Gov. Brad Henry, spearheading the state's unsuccessful quest for Race to the Top federal education grants.
For the first half of last year, she spent Mondays through Wednesdays each week in Oklahoma City, working out of a spartan, first-floor state Capitol office. The walls were undecorated and the desktop bore only a computer -- no photos or awards. Indeed, the only thing that suggested it was Taylor's office was a single-cup coffee-maker that she used to brew a strong El Salvadoran coffee called Topeca.
"I didn't want anybody to think it was permanent," she said at the time. Even so, "I'm working at it full-time. I just don't need to be at the Capitol every day" -- so she worked from Tulsa on Thursdays and Fridays.
Taylor no longer is a government insider working on education issues, but it's a subject about which she remains passionate.
She spent two hours every Wednesday this year at Clinton Middle School, five minutes from her office at 17th and Boulder, but world's apart, on the west side of the Arkansas River. She helped mentor sixth graders through a program called the College Access-Career Readiness Program.
She also is working with TU to help better prepare future educators to work in urban schools.
"I do talk to so many teachers who say I was not prepared to work in an 87 percent free breakfast and lunch school and I wish I was."
Moreover, she recently helped judge the Broken Arrow Teacher of the Year competition and spoke to adults in a Union Public Schools program aimed at helping them learn English as a second language.
"Almost without exception," she recalled, "people were from Syria and Turkey and Laos and Vietnam and Mexico and Brazil and all over the world and almost without exception they were taking English to help their kids learn better in school.
"That was pretty incredible."
Taylor, a Democrat, demurs when asked her opinion of new State Superintendent Janet Barresi, a Republican, and the changes she is making in the state's public schools. And she betrays no interest in herself seeking the superintendent's position.
"I called (Barresi) when she was first elected and offered my help and support," Taylor said. "I think it's the most important work you can do. Certainly, it is what allows us to break the cycle of poverty, making sure kids have a good education.
"As long as kids are continuing to drop out of school, we're going to continue to have everything that comes from that -- increased crime rate, increased rates of incarceration. We've got to figure out how to somehow intervene in these kids' lives so they have a chance at making a contribution to making this country great. That's my biggest worry with education. We've got to figure out a way to graduate more kids from high school, get more kids a post-high school education, particularly those kids who are from circumstances where their parents won't ever be involved.
"I don't know what the answer is, but we have to do it."
Taylor may be reticent to give advice to the City Hall powers-that-be, but she's doesn't hesitate when asked if she has a message for Tulsa's business community.
Not surprisingly, it's a message focused on education.
"As secretary of commerce and mayor, businesses requested a well trained educated workforce," she said. "That means we need to prepare kids to learn through our great Pre-K programs, expand community schools so we help children in challenged circumstances learn."
She urged business leaders to work with elected officials to "invest in preparing and hiring the best teachers by updating higher education teacher training programs, recruiting -- and retaining after graduation -- the brightest students to Oklahoma's public and private universities."
"That is the single best investment for Oklahoma's economic growth."
Jim East, a former Tulsa journalist who later served as top assistant to Mayor Susan Savage, describes his longtime friend, Taylor, as someone who thrives when the odds are longest.
"She is best when she is starting fires," he said. "She is a pro at it. She can move people to do not only the best they've ever done, but also better than they ever thought they could.
"She not only wants to figure out how to get to the top of the mountain, but she wants to figure out a way to build an escalator to the top of the mountain so people can get there all the time."
Taylor describes herself as a "team-builder" and a "problem-solver."
"That's really what I think I'm best at. Now, I love practicing law. I've done it for a long time. It's very easy for me. There are some days life is so easy I just laugh in my office -- what a great life.
"But I like running things. That is really my passion."
These days, however, much of Taylor's world revolves around her new grandson, Charles Taylor Ellison, born in late June to daughter, Elizabeth, who owns a cupcake catering business.
She's especially pleased he's being called by his middle name, Taylor.
In the months leading up to his arrival, Taylor and her daughter walked for an hour to hour-and-a-half twice a week around the river, a "great...time just to chat." It wasn't something that would have been easily scheduled from 2003-06 when she was the state's Commerce Department director and a member of Gov. Henry's cabinet -- nor from 2006-09 when she served as Tulsa's mayor.
"I remember how fast, how all of a sudden my daughter was a baby and now she's 28," said Taylor, who serves on numerous boards and along with husband Bill Lobeck and family operates the nonprofit Lobeck-Taylor Foundation.
"Somebody asked me the other day, 'How do you deal with work-life balance?' I was like, I'm a complete failure. I'm working on it right now."
Along with family, Taylor's all about exercising, cooking and reading. She gets up early five to six days a week for exercise, often watching CNN as she works out.
Her Kindle is frequently on -- her latest reads include two Eric Larson best-sellers, Devil In The White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America and In the Garden of the Beast: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, as well as Thomas Tierney's and Joe Fleishman's Give Smart: Philanthropy that Gets Results.
She was so fascinated by Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big To Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System -- and Themselves that she created a flow-chart on paper to keep track of the rapid-fire bank mergers.
Hillary Clinton famously insisted she wasn't a cookie-baking, stand-by-your-man kind of woman, but Taylor loves to cook, tends a large garden and buys all her meat at the Tulsa farmers market -- a result of watching the documentary Food, Inc.
"So I'm doing a lot of organic food and locally owned food," she said. "And I'm growing my own."
So you don't hang on every word from Southern cooking queen Paula Deen?
"I don't," she replied. "I'm five feet tall. My parents were diabetic. I mean, really... "
Taylor also is not much of a TV watcher: "We used to watch the Weather Channel a lot; now we've moved to the cooking channel." She admits a fascination with competitive cooking shows like Bravo's Top Chef.
Even though she's no longer an elected official, Taylor's daily pace is often frenetic. She recently began her day at 1:15 -- a.m.
Dressed in a bright blue jogging suit and impressively outsized London hat, she welcomed more than a dozen of her closest friends and family to her mid-town home for a Royal Wedding watch party.
She loaded up on decorations at the dollar store. She served English breakfast tea, scones and blue velvet wedding cake. Her driveway was filled by 2am, most guests dressed in pajamas and robes -- though one gentleman was especially dapper in a green plaid tux jacket.
By mid-morning, Will and Kate were kissing on the palace balcony, and Taylor was off to ceremonies launching Antonio Perez's new Hispanic radio station (KMUS-AM 1380).
At noon, she was hobnobbing at the annual Law Day luncheon at the downtown Hyatt, where she implored attendees to give generously to Legal Aid of Oklahoma, the state's non-profit that provides civil legal services for the poor and seniors.
After lunch, she sat on the hotel's patio for two hours, nursing a latte, soaking up the sun-filled spring day, answering a reporter's questions and frequently greeting and waving at passersby.
Taylor may no longer be mayor but she's a high-profile figure around town. Go almost anywhere with her and citizens call out her name and wave or stop to visit. It's a charisma, approachability and familiarity that most public figures lack but would die for. It's a gift, as East put it, that "scares the hell out of people who don't want to see her succeed."
"That knack is a talent and an asset whether it be in politics or business," East continued. "She's bright, she's got resources...and she can build a grass-roots effort with basically the snap of a finger." The late U.S. Sen. and Gov. "Henry Bellmon had the same thing. He was much more subdued, but when he walked in a room, everybody knew he was there. Everybody wanted to talk to him."
A Democratic loyalist, Taylor admits to despair over her party's crushing decline ? from the state's dominant party for most of the 20th Century to a distinct minority in the early 21st Century.
"Our party, which has fought for the rights of small businesses and individual workers and families, I think we've kind of lost our message," said Taylor, who continues to be an important Democratic fund-raiser in Oklahoma.
"I'm really glad that there are smart people like (state Rep.) Jeannie McDaniel (of Tulsa) who continue to run, despite the fact that it's a lot harder to make an impact. It's important to have that voice. If people get discouraged and we don't have a balanced voice...I'd say that for either party...it's important to have a balance. I'm not sure I know what the solution is, but we have to continue to raise our hands about things we believe in."
Taylor also said she's troubled by the vitriol all-too-common in American politics.
"I happen to believe there's a respectful way to agree and disagree with political leaders," she said. "I've never agreed with everything any president has ever done. But they put their name on the ballot and got elected and I think you can respectfully disagree and voice your opinion, but ultimately you've got to support the leaders to move the country forward."
As a woman who achieved success in what traditionally has been a man's world, Taylor often is approached for advice by younger women eyeing elective office. Even though she was elected Tulsa's 38th mayor, and a woman (Mary Fallin) finally was elected Oklahoma's governor, Taylor knows the numbers: only 23.6 percent of the nation's 7,382 state lawmakers are female. Only 17 of 100 U.S. senators (17 percent) and 72 of 435 U.S. representatives (16.6 percent) are women.
"Any woman who comes to me, I encourage them," she said, adding she gives each a copy of former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin's Pearls, Politics and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead for inspiration.
"I think it's important for people to put their name on the ballot. That's what helps the dialogue."
Taylor insists she harbors no electoral ambitions, but she assumes a savvy never-say-never approach to the subject. She can't think of an elective post, she said, that's as attractive as Tulsa mayor because it affords real decision-making power -- unlike, say, the governorship which is largely ceremonial (other than veto power and appointments to state boards and commissions).
"I never imagined the opportunities that presented themselves to me, so I have no idea whether I might continue practicing law for the next decade or there might be some other opportunity that might present itself," she said.
This much is certain: Taylor said she will remain active in city and state affairs, imploring the powers-that-be to "encourage and listen to diverse voices, not discourage them -- even though that is sometimes a messy process.
"I think that is vital for a healthy community and for a community that attracts and retains young people and growing businesses," she said. "Every time there is any disagreement or conflict people seem to be unhappy.
"But conflict is how you resolve problems. You have a conflict and you discuss it and you come to a resolution. I mean, that's democracy."
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