By Patrick B. McGuigan, Publisher
In the imperfect but popular color designations assigned to modern voting patterns, Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County now seem securely ensconced in the ranks of the “color purple” – a mixture of blue (liberal Democratic leaning) and red (conservative Republican leaning).
In this newspaper’s annual ranking of top 10 local stories, the election of Kendra Horn to the Fifth U.S. Congressional District seat comes in first. The Democratic candidate’s close but-crystal-clear victory, with 50.7 percent support, sustains a trend toward liberal/Progressive strength in the heart of the city, although some attribute U.S. Rep. Steve Russell’s loss to poor decision-making, including leaving money “on the table” in the form of unspent contributions.
Horn had an edge in grass roots enthusiasm from the start of her campaign, formally launched in summer 2017. Victory was forged in Oklahoma County, but Horn campaigned throughout central Oklahoma, reaching a diverse-enough base to grab a strong lead in the primary election, then winning decisively over past nominee Tom Guild in the runoff.
Emphasizing “practical idealist” themes in the the nominating and general election drives, Horn stressed health care access and moderate economic views. Her late hard-hitting television advertisements eroded Russell’s support, and she was effective in debating him and responding to questions from reporters.
While Republicans maintained (and in the state House, strengthened) their dominance of Oklahoma state government by holding every statewide elective position, but Democrats gained one seat in the Oklahoma state Senate.
The sub-text of that story, ranking second on our annual listing of local news, was the rise of Democrats in Oklahoma City/County, much of it driven by successful female candidates.
Julia Kirt, an educator, captured the state Senate previously held by new Mayor David Holt, a Republican. Another Democratic gain in the upper chamber of the Legislature was Carri Hicks, snagging the position held by Ervin Yen (who lost in the GOP primary). While Republicans held on to most county government jobs, former state Rep. Mike Shelton came within a hair’s-breadth of defeating Republican Larry Stein for county assessor. Carri Blumert held for Democrats the county commissioner’s seat held previously by Willa Johnson.
In statewide races, the GOP showing was significantly weaker than outside the metropolitan area. Republican Kevin Stitt won the governor’s race by more than 12 percent, but lost Oklahoma County by nearly 12 percent to Democratic nominee Drew Edmondson. No other statewide Democrats won the county, but each performed better in-county than statewide.
A steady-as-she-goes approach in local governance was reflected in the victory of David Holt. His win marked the end of the Mick Cornett era, and that is our third top story. Few voters were inclined to rock the boat at city hall as government revenues (fueled by a strong business sector) continued strong growth. However, some popular tax-financed incentives for businesses remain under scrutiny.
Education is the fourth top local story. Many local school boards continued to pay public school teachers who joined a widespread strike to demand higher state taxes in the midst of strong growth in government revenue.
The Oklahoma City Public schools continued to perform poorly in terms of educational achievement, fueling a push by the latest in a series of superintendents. A drive to identify school sites that might be shuttered to allow better use of taxpayer resources began as some district patrons expressed strong opposition to any closures. At year’s end the city district leadership released criteria data for “Pathway to Greatness,” the formal framework for improved student performance an cost efficiencies
The glum public school picture was leavened by continued positive achievement results in both public charter schools and many private schools.
The fifth story is the impact of criminal justice reform implementation at the local level. There were fewer intakes at the City/County jail in the wake of long-delayed implementation of legislative enacted at the state level. However, the local lock-up remains under critical federal, state and local scrutiny amid worries about inmate deaths — and further reforms are widely supported. The shifting sands on criminal justice were further reflected in a range of state and local developments, including the exoneration of Johnny Tallbear in June. Newly-examined DNA evidence did not support Tallbear’s 1992 murder conviction, leading to a judicial order for his release.
The sixth top story is the sustained decline in the legal position of the death penalty. The best-known local cases are, in truth, national cases. Julius Darius Jones and Richard Glossip remain on McAlester’s death row for their convictions in Oklahoma County murder cases. But both guilty verdicts have been the focus of international and national investigations, including a documentary this past year focused on Jones.
That documentary, “The Last Defense” broadcast on ABC, has been the focus of worldwide attention. Academy Award winner Viola Davis brought the documentary to fruition, helping increase pressure for new examination of evidence, including a previously unexamined red bandana.
In Oklahoma, a series of special screenings of the documentary this fall has sustained broad interest in the case.
After the bandana was at long last subjected to DNA testing, the local prosecutor, District Attorney David Prater, touted test results finding Jones’ DNA on it. However, under-reported was the presence of DNA residue from others. Defense attorneys and other voices, including this newspaper, continued to press “Justice for Julius.”
Our seventh top local story is increased voter turnout in Oklahoma County, related of course to higher statewide turnout. The increased participation included all sectors of the electorate – both major parties, Libertarians (who have locked in their ballot line for another few years) and the most rapidly increasing preference, Independents.
The eighth top story is the resilience of the local arts and charitable communities, reflected in a successful second year for Painted Sky Opera (the state’s first professional opera troupe), continued strength for the Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre (CityRep) the Brightmusic Society (chamber music), and the long-standing arts groups like Lyric, Canterbury Choral, and the Philharmonic. Related to the success of arts, and perhaps even more fundamental, is the strength of local charitable organizations such as the broadly-based United Way and comparative newcomers like the Santa Fe Family Life Center, supported by the Knights of Columbus Council No. 1038. The Center is the largest charitably based multi-sport facility in Oklahoma City.
It bears repeating that much of the above (tax revenue, support for the arts and charities and other necessary causes) is driven by the ninth top story — business successes, including the strong recovery of Oklahoma’s oil patch. However, intensifying opposition to the traditional energy industry is a danger sign for the business sector, both locally and nationally.
Our tenth top local story is the all-female victories in four contested local judicial elections. Heather Coyle easily won her race for District 7, Office 8; Natalie Mai garnered a comfortable victory in the Office 5 contest. Susan Stallings, with almost 55 percent backing, unseated incumbent Judge Bill Graves for Office 10.
In a fourth all-woman race, Kendra Coleman unseated incumbent Michelle D. McElwee for Office 9. McElwee and Graves were both honored at the annual Oklahoma County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association‘s Christmas party hosted by the Coyle Law Firm in downtown Oklahoma City.