Oklahoma Republican House caucus in tumult; will we see a repeat of the '89 ouster of a Speaker?

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Mike McCarville has two stories from the State Capitol about dissatisfaction among rank-and-file Republican members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives with the way Speaker Kris Steele is using (or abusing) his power. Steele has one year remaining as speaker. Republicans have already picked T. W. Shannon to succeed Steele in 2013; they rejected Steele's anointed successor, Jeff Hickman.

Back in early November, Steele removed Broken Arrow Rep. John Trebilcock from his chairmanship of the Energy and Utility Regulation Committee. Trebilcock wrote on Facebook on November 4:

Speaker Kirs Steele just removed me as Chairman of the Energy Committee. Clearly, if I had supported his choice in the recent Speaker's race to replace him, I would remain as chairman. This is unacceptable Pay to Play trading of votes and punishing members for voting their conscience. Extremely saddened that someone i once considered a friend has let his office diminish him as a person.

The Republican caucus's retreat in Shawnee this week would have been the opportunity for members to air these sorts of concerns, but instead it's reported that Steele filled the meetings with presentations and position papers, limiting any opportunity for discussion to the tail end of the retreat. Panhandle Rep. Gus Blackwell wrote a scathing email to his colleagues protesting the way the meeting was conducted:

Obviously, our caucus retreat was not intended to be an opportunity for our caucus to discuss, debate, or decide policy. Instead, our caucus meetings have become carefully orchestrated and planned events, with little or no time for the actual discussion of caucus business.

The 2011 Republican Caucus Retreat in Shawnee stands as an outstanding example of what I am writing in this email. After a first day of tours and dinner, no caucus business was transacted. The second day had time for a breakfast with a political presentation, a 30-minute museum tour and five and one-half hours of other presentations, before staff was asked to leave and we actually began "caucus business." Our discussions as a caucus lasted less than 45 minutes out of the over 15 hours of scheduled activity.

Blackwell finally had the floor, at the very end of that 45 minutes, to discuss the removal of Trebilcock and Steele's firings of senior House staff, but after 10 minutes he was cut off by a hasty motion to adjourn:

As a senior member, who has been Acting Speaker, Speaker Pro-Tempore, Chair of three different committees, and who has served on every Republican leadership team except the present one, I would think I would be allowed to have more than two responses to speak on a topic I requested be discussed and which strikes to the very core of how we operate as a majority. However, I wasn't, neither was Rep. Trebilcock or any other members of the caucus.

An anonymous blog (caveat lector) called Oklahoma Truth Council has a description of those final minutes of the caucus retreat:

Before Steele could counter the accusation that he punished Trebilcock and in turn lied to the entire Caucus body about it, another Representative stepped in trying to diffuse the controversy. Apparently, Rep. David Dank couldn't stomach the conflict and consternation in the room and attempted to end the meeting. Seeing that the Caucus was obviously still divided by the heated Speaker-elect race, Rep. Weldon Watson, Republican Caucus Chair, agreed with Dank and gaveled the meeting closed.

This is where things get even more interesting. House leadership allegedly tried to end the Caucus meeting without a vote, just by fiat. When those wanting to take Steele out for a walk over his mafia style leadership skills raised the point that Caucus can't end without a vote due to a tabling motion, Watson held a vote, but only allowed legislators to vote in the affirmative and then again gaveled the meeting closed while legislators fumed.

Thus the reference to the "half-voted on" adjournment motion and Dank carrying a bucket in Blackwell's email.

(UPDATE: Peter Rudy (@WatchdogOK) tweets to say that bucket of honey also refers to a statement made by Dank in the Tax Credit Task Force hearings: "Dank says the task force isn't anti-business and doesn't think all tax credits are bad. But he went on to compare some tax credits to 'the huckster who took a bucket of manure, put a layer of honey on top and sold it as a bucket of honey' to taxpayers.")

The limited opportunity to debate and discuss led Oklahoma City Rep. Mike Reynolds to call for the Oklahoma Republican Party to set the rules for the caucus:

"The recent caucus was just another example of the abuse of members time for the speakers convenience. Discussion was supposed to occur about the House agenda during the upcoming session. Instead the Speaker chose to present position papers on what were apparently his favorite subjects. While they may have been informative, that is not why most members chose to take the time to participate in this meeting. Had these position papers been presented on the House floor there is no doubt the Speaker would have asked his close associates to 'move the previous question' to cut off debate.

"There appears to be only one way to eliminate the arrogance that is displayed by this leadership team. The caucus rules of the House Republicans must be drafted by the Oklahoma Republican Party. This will allow for meetings open to the public and honest discussion, rather than intimidation and statements that might not be factual, but can't be discussed outside of caucus because of 'confidentiality rules.'

I didn't like this style of operation when the Democrats had an overwhelming majority in the legislature, and I don't like it any better when Republicans do it. It's bad enough for major policy decisions to be made in caucus, behind closed doors, out of the public eye, with the expectation that party members will uphold the caucus's decisions on the House floor. It's worse when the caucus isn't given opportunity for debate, but are expected to follow the decisions of an even smaller and more closed group, the leadership team, under threat of losing committee chairmanships, being denied a fair hearing for their legislation, or having leadership recruit and finance a primary opponent.

It seems to me that legislative leaders who use these heavy-handed tactics do so because their motives, goals, and actions won't stand up to public scrutiny. It looks like a classic battle between fair-dealers (those Republicans who believe in limited government with everyone playing by the same rules) and wheeler-dealers (those RINOs who would use government power to benefit their cronies, who in turn fund the continuation of their political power).

Every member of the State House represents the same number of people. Every member deserves to have his bills heard and to speak his mind, even if he's a member of the minority party or a member of the majority party on the outs with his own leadership. It's a matter of showing due respect to the citizens who elected him. Legislative leadership ought to be about facilitating the will of the majority while respecting the rights of the minority, not extorting obedience.

Back in May 1989, I recall watching an amazing event on OETA's weekly legislative highlights show. A 30-year-old Democrat State Rep. from Claremore, Dwayne Steidley, had moved to declare the speaker's chair vacant -- a revolt by disaffected Democrats against an increasingly autocratic House leadership under Democratic Speaker Jim Barker and Majority Leader Guy Davis.

What most impressed and appalled me was a speech by Poteau Rep. Jim Hamilton, who urged his fellow Democrats to settle their disagreements with Barker within the privacy of the caucus, not out in front of everyone. I recall Hamilton speaking about his own act of disloyalty to the caucus in the past and how he was rightly punished for it. I described the debate in a lengthy email to a couple of friends and wrote that Hamilton deserved the Li Peng Faithful Party Hack award for his performance.

In 1989, Democrats held a 69-32 advantage in the House. But in the previous election cycle, 12 incumbent Democrats had been beaten by candidates running as reformers, not beholden to Barker. When the vote to oust Barker was taken, only 25 Democrats stuck with him; the rest joined with the Republicans to give him the sack by a vote of 72-25. Of the 26 freshmen in the Legislature, 24 voted to boot Barker. (Freshmen were rarer in those days before term limits.)

Reading news stories at the time, it's clear that tactics like those
being complained about today were at the root of the revolt:

""We didn't expect to be in the speaker's office every week or down with the governor, but we represent a district, and those people are entitled to input,'' said state Rep. Gary Maxey, D-Enid, a former Garfield County special district judge.

Maxey, who defeated eight-year incumbent Homer Rieger, said he entered the House hoping to listen and learn.

But it soon became apparent that a large group in the House was not involved in the process, said Maxey, 34.

From an Oklahoman editorial after the ouster:

Standing in the shambles of his once all-powerful leadership team, Barker, the feisty, diminutive Democrat from Muskogee, was unbowed. He accepted his historic ouster with class. But he couldn't resist pointing out the House members never could have pulled if off in a secret, Democratic caucus with no Republicans to help and no recorded votes.

Statements by Davis showed even more disregard for the rights of the minority party, or for the majority opinion of the Democrats and Republicans in the House, for that matter. As a member of the leadership team, Davis said, "You have to put pressure on people to do things that they really don't want to do, and then sometimes the leadership makes decisions that the membership don't agree with.''

He told his local newspaper, The Durant Democrat, that "you have to twist arms to get votes ... The role I had called for me to be tough, to do what was necessary to keep the thing moving, to get the votes when it was necessary ... '' After almost six years of playing ball, meekly following the leader like sheep or caving in under the political pressure, most House members finally had enough and staged the successful rebellion.

A story a week before the revolt, about the defeat of a rules change backed by the Speaker, a harbinger of his ultimate defeat, noted that the Speaker had held only one Democratic caucus meeting that year. It also mentions accusations that Speaker Barker had used his power to retaliate against members who had challenged him publicly:

Many of those same members who supported [Cal] Hobson [for a leadership post] -- Reps. Linda Larason of Oklahoma City, Carolyn Thompson of Norman and Don Ross and Don McCorkell of Tulsa -- got together again in March to sign a letter to Barker asking him not to link higher education funding to criticism of the Legislature by a state regent.

That incident was also seen as a challenge to Barker and may have set up what happened in the last week.

Most of the people who signed the letter were left off the budget-writing conference committee, perhaps the most important committee at the Capitol.

Barker denied that they were being punished, though some of them thought otherwise and were more than a little upset about it.

The same patterns seem to be at work, now that Republicans have almost as overwhelming a majority as the Democrats did 22 years ago. If voters get the sense that their Republican representatives are sacrificing the best interest of Oklahoma for the sake of favor with the Speaker and his corporate sponsors, they're likely to replace their reps with more independent thinkers, or they may dump the GOP altogether. It happened before, and it could happen again.

I'd like to think that Republicans are smart enough and ethical enough to avoid the same traps that tripped up the Democrats, but we saw in 2006 at the Federal level that that isn't true. But perhaps, if grassroots Republicans put the pressure on their state representatives to work for openness and fair dealing in the caucus, we'll avoid the same fate here in Oklahoma.

NOTE: The links above to Daily Oklahoman stories from 1989 about the Jim Barker ouster are available to Tulsa Library cardholders via NewsBank.

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1 Comments

Bob said:

Excellent political commentary, Michael.

A few years ago, describing a similar style of GOP leadership as exhibited by Speaker Kris Steele, you coined the terms Wheeler-Dealers vs. Square Dealers, which I considered very precise and prescient.

To-wit, the Wheeler-Dealers in the GOP leadership were not interested in core GOP principals, only paying lip service to the core principals while maximizing their own inducements, blandishments, and enticements so as to game the system for themselves and their corporate patrons. The Legislative Kingdom of the Favors-Traders.

This, versus a Square-Dealer, who first and foremost based every major policy-decision on core GOP values of smaller government and less taxes.

Looks like after the titanic, multi-generational battle of capturing first the state House of Representatives, then finally the state Senate, the Wheeler-Dealer GOP leadership have emerged in charge, and they have quickly succumbed to accurate predictions that it was just a matter of time before they sold out their fellow members on behalf of their short-term self-interest and that of their corporate crony patrons.

With the GOP now in charge of the state legislature, as well as the executive branch of our state government, where is the progress on reforming the following five areas of state government so in need of change?

1) Tort Reform, modeled on the Texas system.

2) Workmen's Compensation Reform, modeled on the Texas system (with Gov. Fallin's latest husband getting state ethics waivers to remain as he has been for years grifting off of injured worker's Workmen's Compensation payments, I'm not holding my breath).

3) School District Reform (why is Oklahoma still #4 in the U.S. in the number of independent school districts?).

4) Eliminate the patronage system of Tag Agents so that the state can hereafter issue driver's licenses and car tags, and derive all financial benefit thereafter, and eliminate the requirement that we be fingerprinted by the state because the state does NOT know its Tag Agents are issuing driver's licenses to.

5) Eliminate abstracting requirements on every real estate transaction, an unnecessary overhead cost that puts Oklahoma in the top 10% for closing costs on residential sales transactions. I believe we're the last of only TWO states in the U.S. that still require abstracting on every real estate transaction, rather than simply title insurance alone. Is it simply because some ruling Oklahoma families own abstract companies?

Institute these five reforms, and maybe I'll again have some confidence that the Square Dealers are once again deservedly in charge in the Oklahoma legislature.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on December 9, 2011 11:37 PM.

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