Special to The City Sentinel
OKLAHOMA CITY – Brenda Reneau, the first woman elected to the position of Oklahoma Labor Commissioner, died peacefully in her sleep earlier today of natural causes at her west Oklahoma City home. She was 58.
The news came Thursday in a special release by the office of the Oklahoma auditor and inspector.
Governor Mary Fallin said, “I am saddened to hear of Brenda’s passing. During her tenure as labor commissioner, she improved the Oklahoma Labor Department’s relationship with the business community. We both were the first women in Oklahoma to be elected to our respective offices. My prayers and deepest sympathies go out to her family and friends during this time of loss.”
Fallin served as Lieutenant Governor during the same period Reneau served as Labor Commissioner.
“We grieve, along with her family, at the loss of this feisty public servant whose strength and courage was much bigger than her diminutive stature,” said State Auditor Gary Jones. “I knew Brenda as a strong leader who never shied away from telling it like she saw it. Her straightforwardness and tenacity had a lot to do with Oklahomans electing her to three terms as Labor Commissioner.”
During her tenure as Labor Commissioner, Brenda Reneau discovered fraud in the federal prevailing wage system which established labor costs on state and federal construction projects in Oklahoma. She took her battle to Washington, testified before Congress, and was ultimately successful when the U.S. Department of Labor conceded the fraud occurred and corrected labor wage scales in Oklahoma.
Her efforts prompted a lawsuit in which the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled Oklahoma’s Little Davis-Bacon Act unconstitutional resulting in the savings of hundreds of millions of dollars in labor costs on municipal, school, and state construction projects.
Current Labor Commissioner Mark Costello said, “Brenda Reneau was tenacious. In her historic twelve years of service she successfully championed for the passage of Right-To-Work and courageously led the investigation into criminal prevailing wage fraud. Oklahoma is a finer place due to her service.”
During her tenure, Brenda elevated a previously little known workplace safety effort into an effective, nationally recognized program. She called it Safety Pays and assisted Oklahoma employers to reduce workers compensation costs through improved safety programs and significant reductions in workplace accidents. Brenda told employers, “I’d rather do things with a hand shake than with a hammer.” Employers who worked with state safety consultants were able to keep federal OSHA inspectors at bay.
“We worked together on safety issues and other important public policy issues when I was in the Senate, and later as governor,” said former Governor Brad Henry. “Brenda became a friend and I was impressed with her determination to serve Oklahoma, even though she encountered health challenges. Kim and I offer our deepest sympathy to her parents Norman and Marjorie, and to her daughter Jennifer.”
Brenda Reneau grew up in rural, eastern Oklahoma where she learned from her parents the importance of fighting for what she believed in and the rewards that come from hard work, sincerity, and dedication.
Former Corporation Commissioner Denise Bode recalled, “Brenda was a courageous public servant and a true conservative who made a real difference for workers in Oklahoma. Beyond that, she was a good friend and a lovely, compassionate woman who was always so thoughtful to others.”
Elected to her first term in 1994, Brenda Reneau was one of three statewide elected officials at that time whose journey to the State Capitol went through Muskogee County. Former State Superintendent of Public Education Sandy Garrett noted, “We were both from Muskogee County and developed a bond even before she was first elected. Brenda was a woman of great character and committed to reform in state government. We shared ideas on how improvements could happen at both our agencies. She was a sweet and kind friend. I send my deepest sympathy to her family.”
Survivors include her daughter Jennifer Gail Houghton, of the home, her brother Kevin Lloyd Fallen of Oklahoma City, her parents Marjorie Laverne Fallen and Norman Lloyd Fallen of Muskogee. Funeral arrangements are pending with Cornerstone Funeral Home, Muskogee. Burial will be in Fort Gibson, her childhood home. Brenda’s family expressed thanks to her best friend, Kathy Johnston, for her support.
NOTE: Associate Publisher Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report, which was prepared by Trey Davis of the state auditor’s staff. Both worked for Reneau during her tenure at the state Department of Labor.