That '86 Tulsa election free-for-all


Vince Sposato's passing last week stirred up memories of his last run for office, for Tulsa Water and Sewer Commissioner in 1986, by one of Sposato's opponents in that race, Stan Geiger:

I was saddened to read of the demise of Vince Sposato. I went to school with a couple of his kids (he had a bunch). I also ran against him once, in one of the most interesting elections in Tulsa history.

It was 1986, I believe. I had recently changed my voter registration to Republican, believing my views were more in line with that party than the Democratic Party I signed up with as an 18-year-old. Patty Eaton, Democrat, was Water & Sewer Commissioner---and generally considered untouchable in an election. She had signed up to run for another term, and drew no Republican challenger.

I thought it somewhat un-American to hold an election with only one name on the ballot. So I filed as a Republican.

Not long after that, Terry Young, Democrat incumbent for mayor, found himself embroiled in a scandal. He was defeated in the primary by a "no-name" by the name of Tom Quinn. Back in the day, one could file as an Independent after the party primaries. Eaton decided to bail out of my race and go for the brass ring.

All of the sudden, I was the only candidate in the race for Water & Sewer Commissioner. But that didn't last long. As I recall, 19 Independents filed. Among them was the Democratic backroom-chosen replacement, Houston Adams. Vince also filed. I had no problem with such a thing. Both were from the opposition party. What annoyed me was the filing of two prominent Republicans of the day. Both were former commissioners. One was a fellow named Morris. The other was Jim Hewgley.

At the end of election day, Adams won. He garnered a little more than 39,000 votes. Hewgley finished second with a little over 22,000 votes. I was third with a little over 18,000. Morris came in fourth, drawing about 5,000 votes. Being an MIT grad, I'm sure you can do the math. The combined vote total of the three top Republicans came to about 45,000. The winning Democrat running as an Independent had less than 40,000.

It isn't a given that I would have won in the absence of such strong opposition from my own alleged party. But the argument could certainly be made that if the Republican Party hadn't worked so hard to get me beat, a seat on the commission could have been stolen from the Democrats. And I, at the ripe old age of 28, would have likely been the youngest commissioner in Tulsa history---and, potentially, a rising star in the party. But there was that little problem: I wasn't a member of the club.

I present the above allegory as a bit of an admonishment to you. I know you are quite attached to the Republican Party. My feeling is, the elite members of your own party will cut you in half just as quickly as the elite from the other side of the fence. The idea is to maintain the "integrity" of the club---party affiliations notwithstanding.

At any rate, I liked Vince. I think he was just a good guy wanting to do the right thing. And I, like you, am somewhat surprised that Ken Neal would glorify him in death. I'll bet you're right. I'll bet if you checked the archives, Neal vilified, ridiculed and spat upon Vince in his day. Or, at best, Vince was given no ink at all.

The 1986 election, the next-to-last election under the old Commission system of government, was unlike any other. In the end, two of my high school classmates had parents in the race -- Dick Crawford, the Republican nominee, who won the election, and Patty Eaton, a Democrat who filed for Mayor as an independent after the stunning result in the Democrat primary. As Stan noted, Tom Quinn's upset victory over incumbent Mayor Terry Young threw everything into an uproar. If memory serves, there were about 50 candidates for mayor.

The City Charter at the time allowed anyone to file as an independent candidate for office as late as 10 days before the general election. The first Democrat mayor in 18 years was knocked off by a no-name, and the Democrats scrambled to find a more acceptable candidate. That candidate was Patty Eaton, and by dropping out of her reelection race and running for mayor, it threw the race to replace her wide open.

I have to disagree with Stan's interpretation of the events in his race. As an elected leader in the Tulsa County Republican Party, I can imagine how the leadership at the time would have reacted to the sudden transformation of the Water and Sewer Commissioner race from an apparent easy reelection bid to an open seat: The Democrats found a strong candidate to replace Eaton. The Republican leaders take a look at their nominee -- a young man, only recently re-registered as a Republican, not involved as a party volunteer, jumped into the race at the last minute, and doesn't have a campaign organization. Here's a chance to take over an open seat on the commission, but we don't think we have a candidate who can make it happen. So a party leader calls a former Commissioner and suggests he think about running again. It would be a party leader's responsibility in a situation like that, much like a special election, with the possibility of multiple candidates splitting the party vote and handing victory to the other side, to try to persuade all the other candidates to drop out in favor of the strongest.

But I doubt the Republicans were even that organized. More likely both former commissioners were encouraged by friends to jump in and did so, without any party coordination. I'll have to ask Jim Hewgley about his memories of that election.

A lot of politics is about who you know, not in any corrupt sense of mutual backscratching, but party activists are more willing to contribute money and volunteer for a candidate that they've come to know through campaigns and party activities. When I ran for Council in 1998, I had not been active in the party for about seven years, so activists didn't rally behind me. After that election, I started to attend monthly Republican luncheons and to help with campaigns. By the time I ran in 2002, I was a "member of the club" -- Republican activists knew me as one of their own and supported me in the primary and general. I refer the honorable gentleman to one of my first entries on this blog, about the joys of activism. The importance of being there and being known didn't make sense to me until I saw first hand how it worked.

Of course, there was another club -- Republicans In Name Only -- who had more loyalty to the Cockroach Caucus than to their own party, and they raised money and support for my Democrat opponent. That bunch did try to cut me in half, but not because I wasn't a member of their club, but because I favored policies that they opposed. But these people, despite their party affiliation and their connections, don't have any control over the Republican Party organization,

As for the Republican elites -- either I'm one of them, or they don't really matter.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on October 19, 2004 11:42 PM.

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