Scandals nothing new at Capitol
Recent flurry of upheaval in Oklahoma Legislature continues long history
On May 22, 1921, a 20-yearold stenographer at the Oklahoma Capitol put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger. The state representative with whom she'd been living for two months had turned out not to be single after all.
So if you think the recent spate of legislative misbehavior enters new territory, you're wrong. Greed, corruption and sins of the flesh have tainted state politics from the start.
Oklahoma's first governor, Charles Haskell, was indicted while in office by a federal grand jury in Tulsa and only through a technicality avoided trial on charges that he stole land from the Creek Nation.
Bob Burke, an Oklahoma City attorney who has written dozens of books on Oklahoma history and once covered the Capitol, said the biggest change is not the overall level of sexual exploits and general shenanigans but how much more difficult it is now to keep such things quiet.
“Fifty years ago, I was a state Capitol reporter and remember one July 4 weekend three state senators and one House member were arrested on (driving
while intoxicated) charges,” Burk recalled. “None of the stories were ever reported because it was acceptable behavior for reporters, including me, to assess the situation as a personal behavior that did not necessarily have anything to do with the public official's performance on the job.
“Thankfully, that is no longer the standard for journalistic reporting,” Burke said. “The people have a right to know what their public officials stand for and when they fail to obey the law or live by a reasonable standard of morality.”
The late Marty Huaun revealed the seamier side of mid20th-century Oklahoma politics in three memorable books titled “He Buys Organs for Churches, Pianos for Bawdy Houses,” “How to Win Elections Without Hardly Cheatin' At All,” and “Oklahoma's Legal Graft, Illegal Graft and Just Plain Stealin'.”
Still, the pace at which lawmakers have been tendering resignations, whether from scandal or because they just want to go do something else, is close to unprecedented.
Seven legislators have resigned since the November general election, and an eighth has died. The only time something like that has happened was nearly 100 years ago, when nine House members resigned during the Ninth Legislature, which was in office from 192224.
It isn't clear why all of those House members packed it in. No one from the Senate seems to have left.
Those were peak years for the Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma, and they included a messy impeachment trial and removal of Gov. J.C. Walton. Many Klansmen were unmasked in the process.
One of those resigning, Dr. G.S. Long of Tulsa, was a Klansman and also came under scrutiny for alleged ballot-box stuffing. Rather than answer questions about the incident, Long quit.
Long, by the way, was the brother of one Huey P. Long, who would later become the political strongman of Louisiana.
The current string of resignations actually goes back to January 2015, when Sen. Jabar Shumate, D-Tulsa, left to become a lobbyist for a school voucher group and then wound up an administrator at the University of Oklahoma.
Later that year, Sen. Rick Brinkley, R-Owasso, left office after admitting that he'd been embezzling from his employer, the Better Business Bureau, for years.
The cost of replacing lawmakers who leave in the middle of their terms is two-fold — the expense of special elections, when those are called for under the law, and constituents' lost representation.
Every opening since last November has necessitated special elections, at a total cost estimated in excess of $200,000. Not a huge amount, in the big scheme of things, but not insignificant, either, given the state's budget trends.
The loss of representation is incalculable, but under current election laws it is not unusual for a district to be without representation for an entire session. This year the House of Representatives has never had a full complement of 101 members.
“This current series of scandals is horrible for our image, but it is not the first time our public officials, as humans and subject to temptation, have betrayed the trust of the electorate,” Burke said.
“Our history, like the history of all other states,” he said, “is filled with scandal.”