by Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – Although some would designate the 2016 elections as a national event primarily, from the presidency to the grass roots in the heart of Oklahoma City they were the top local story of the past year.
Former Governor David Walters commented during the primary campaign, it was unusual for this state still to matter by the time Oklahoma’s presidential primaries rolled around on the election calendar.
All of the leading candidates for the presidency, from both parties, visited seeking votes or contributions. Former President Bill Clinton – no stranger hereabouts due to his ties to the National Memorial – twice barnstormed the area for his wife.
For Republicans, a Cuban-American named Marco Rubio carried the city, and all of Oklahoma County. Another Cuban-American, Ted Cruz, won the state primary last spring. Donald Trump ran third in Oklahoma, but won the Republican nomination.
Trump won the Sooner State easily in November, but was not the strongest GOP candidate here.
On the Democratic side, Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders visited the state – and won the primary in an upset, defeating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. While Clinton garnered only 28.93 percent statewide in the general election. However, she won 41.18 percent in Oklahoma County.
As for the grass roots, Republican strength remained a reality in northwest Oklahoma and many neighborhoods south of the river. Still, Democrats are hopeful about their future in the city due to recent gains. In our first edition last year, The City Sentinel reported on the election of Rep. Cyndi Munson. She replaced the late David Dank. Then, in November, she won reelection over a credible Republican opponent, Matt Jackson. Also reelected for Democrats was state Rep. George Young.
Democrat Collin Walke garnered the state House seat vacated by state Rep. Jason Nelson, a Republican.
On the southside of town, Mickey Dollens won a strong victory over state Rep. Mike Christian’s hand-picked successor, while Forrest Bennett retained the seat Richard Morrissette held for 12 years and Jason Lowe kept the old Mike Shelton job.
Libertarian candidates ran serious races in the city area, likely impacting some legislative races by pulling more from Republican hopesfuls than from Democrats. In one county-wide race, the Libertarian hopeful gained more than one-third of the votes cast. Thanks to the 5.75 percent statewide (and 7.14 in-county) support for presidential candidate Gary Johnson, the party has secured ballot status at least through 2018.
As the second top story of the year, effective and impactful local progressive activism is resulting in a shifting policy dynamic within the state’s capital city.
The year began with City Council affirmation of protections for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) residents. That is no longer a surprise, nor even a source of deep controversy.
The Sierra Club has focused increasing attention on the state Capitol, as has the American Civil Liberties Union under former state Rep. Ryan Kiesel.
After a series of law-enforcement shootings of black Americans across the nation, local activists pulled together a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest that began at the historic Calvary Baptist Church. From there, thousands marched south over the Walnut Avenue bridge and into Bricktown.
Speakers made strong points at the event, even as scores of marchers and BLM leaders went out of their way to embrace police officers and thank them for providing security.
At year’s end, while statewide conservatives were applauding Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s selection to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a wide range of leaders from progressive circles (including Nathaniel Batchelder of the Peace House) decried Pruitt as a puppet of oil and gas interests.
The third top story is the continuing tale of Oklahoma’s troubled death penalty. Last summer, A scathing grand jury report focused on massive systemic problems in the process, which came under broad scrutiny after Corrections officials halted the scheduled (for the fourth time) execution of Richard Glossip in 2015.
Members of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP) praised the grand jury for bringing a range of troubling details to light, and argued the state should halt executions, once and for all. The City Sentinel’s readers responded with thousands of words of commentary on botched executions, exoneration of dozens convicted of capital crimes in other states, carelessness by Corrections officials, assertions of Glossip’s actual innocence, and other aspects of the issue.
Bi-partisan heft in focusing on manifest problems for the death penalty came with formation of an independent citizens commission, sponsored by The Constitution Project, a national group, and under the leadership of former Governor Brad Henry. That group will present its findings this year, possibly as early as February.
State opinion polls have for the first time found a plurality would (or could) support life without parole rather than executions.
For all this, voters gave 2-1 approval to State Question 776, a legislatively-referred proposition aiming to lock executions into the state constitution.
State education issues such as teacher pay raises and administrative inefficiency aside, schools in the Oklahoma City area had good news and bad news this past year. This is our fourth top story of the year.
Local voters approved important bond issues (endorsed by The City Sentinel) in November, garnering a passionate “thank you” from the new public school superintendent.
There were pockets of strength in the city, including the football prowess of the John Marshall High School Bears and Millwood’s periennieal success.
However, declining performance and low morale among teachers and administrators continued to challenge the local system.
Charter public schools offset much of the negative picture. KIPP Academy turns out top scholars who reside in the state’s poorest zipcodes and ASTEC Charter is advancing with plans for relocation and expansion to additional educational services Harding Fine Arts and Harding Charter Prep, as well as Santa Fe South, are achieving success with students who live in economically challenging areas.
And then, there’s Oklahoma City University – OCU or OKCU, depending on the source of information. Education students there are learning how to meet the needs of youth in poverty, the law school’s Innocence Project is nationally acclaimed, and more creative alliances are being formed under President Robert Henry.
Our fifth top story is the local arts scene. OCU is again in the picture, having secured national honors for its recent opera season. The annual trio of holiday performances at OCU are among the brightest jewels in the heart of the city.
As for opera, the recently-formed Painted Sky Opera, the state’s first professional opera company, had successful openings in 2016. As the New Year emerges, plans are under way for February performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s classic, ‘La Traviata’.
As for professionals – The City Sentinel is proud of its long-standing affiliation with CityRep, our local theatre troupe affiliated with Actors’ Equity. Their fifteenth anniversary secured strong affirmation, in the form of a proclamation from the union’s national leadership, at the recent opening night performance of “A Tuna Christmas.”
The Paseo Arts District continues to bloom as the home of creative spirits and excellent galleries. Their First Friday events also provide a welcome opportunity for entertainment and uplifting artistry in a neighborhood setting.
Finally, a special word of admiration goes to the Brightmusic chamber orchestra and its many musicians. The next evening of glorious live music (from “Lands Near and Far”) will be held January 17, at 7:30 p.m. in the worship space of St. Paul’s Cathedral, N.W. 7th at Robinson.
Our sixth top story is heartfelt – and personal to this writer, and that is the loss of two friends who supported this newspaper in countless ways. One is remembered as a conservative, the other was without a doubt a liberal. They each played singular roles in sustaining this news organization. They were men of means who understood that the free press needs resources.
In March, oil and gas giant Aubrey McClendon was killed in a fiery car crash on the north side of the city. Controversial to some, he was a long-standing supporter of advertising in our pages. He approached us through intermediaries, asking how he could help. He specifically said he admired this newspaper’s dedication to diversity in our pages.
From early discussions came a long-running series of advertisements. The ads ran for several years, and always featured local worthy causes. There was little to gain, financially, for McClendon or his companies from those ads.
McClendon supported The City Sentinel because he admired the newspaper’s dedication to serving the heart of the city. He never asked for a single thing in return, other than for us to sustain an independent approach to community-based journalism.
Then, in October, came the death of philanthropist Bob Lemon. He was remarkably generous to a wide range of local causes. In his long and productive life, Lemon demonstrated that he understood the role of news organizations in covering, and even promoting, organizations that comfort the afflicted and speak for the voiceless.
One time a few years back, this writer began to discuss with Mr. Lemon some forthcoming editorial endorsements with which we believed he would disagree. He listened for a few minutes, then put his hand up and said, “Pat, I support the free press. I support you and the way you cover the news. You keep doing what you think is right.”
The City Sentinel and staff will do its best to honor the memory of these men in our work product.
Our seventh top story is simply a distillation of a living reality: Oklahoma City’s remarkable communities of faith and/or faith-based organizations make life better, and challenge us to do better.
This includes the Interfaith Alliance’s varied endeavors – an annual awards dinner which this newspaper co-sponsored, an open letter to state leaders in wake of a controversial legislative interim hearing, a seminar focused on domestic violence (brought together by civic leader Mari Fagin), and much more.
The Oklahoma Conference of Churches cooperated with the Alliance on many issues, but brought its own distinctive voice (in the person of the Rev. Dr. William Tabbernee) on many issues, including capitol punishment. Emanuel Synagogue hosted notable community outreach, including the annual Jewish/Muslim Film Festival. The annual Muslim Day at the state Capitol is a powerful witness to First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion.
Timothy Tardibono is the guiding light behind the Family Policy Institute of Oklahoma (FPIO) which provides a conservative-leaning perspective on issues of human need, including the needs of children.
In August, Tardibono was the organization force behind the Unity Prayer Service & Walk, which he pulled together in response to a Satanist group’s renewed attacks on Catholic faith traditions. The march included a packed-house interfaith service at First Church (First United Methodist, downtown), and a walk from the “Jesus Wept” statue (on the north side of St. Joseph Old Cathedral, and west of the Murrah Bombing Memorial) and a subsequent march involving hundreds of people through the heart of Oklahoma City.
In addition to St. Joseph and First Church, the communities at First Baptist and St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, among others, bring spirit and light with their persistence witness in the heart of the city.
On a lighter, but still faithful, note, the Chabad Community Center for Jewish Life and Learning sponsored the December 26 lighting of the Bricktown outdoor Menorah at Mickey Mantle Plaza. The place where shopping carts and parking meters were invented in the twentieth century provided another example of Sooner innovation. Rabbi Ovadia Goldman’s Bible students unveiled the world’s first-ever “Drone-orah” – a drone-elevated traveling menorah, the debut of which went viral in recent days. Present at that historic moment was Edie Roodman, whose last day as executive director of the Jewish Federation came on Dec. 31.
Finally, the local impact of the Vatican’s determination that Father Stanley Francis Rother died as a martyr for the faith lays a firm basis for a remarkable event. Pope Francis determined that Rother was murdered because he was targeted by those who opposed his witness to the needs of his flock in rural Guatemala. Rother, ordained in 1963 was ordained a priest at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Oklahoma City, could soon be recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint. If so, the priest from Okarche taken from our midst too soon will be the first native-born male American so deemed.
Eighth and ninth, respectively, in our top ten: The municipal government budget for Oklahoma City faced a second year of serious stress, and county jail controversies continued. (Despite the latter, Sheriff John Whetsel won his reelection in November.)
Finally, in tenth place, is the local impact of Oklahoma’s unprecedented recent seismic activity. Despite the state Department of Insurance’s push to assure coverage for homeowners and the state Corporation Commission’s new regulations over deep-water injection wells, tremblers as far away as Pawnee and Chickasha were felt – powerfully – in the city area.
Major property damage has remained distant for city residents, but the issue is likely to intensify unless the state government’s steps toward amelioration of the unprecedented earthquake swarm are successful.
There are other issues, including the renewed growth for Indian Gaming revenues in the suburban counties, the NBA Thunder’s defeat in the playoffs and the loss of Kevin Durant to the left coast (but he still supports certain local causes). The foregoing is our assessment of the top local stories in the year that was – 2016. Stay tuned for the best, the worst and the in-between of the year ahead.