Angela Monson, Special to The City Sentinel
Many individuals across the state are mourning the recent death of Senator Bob Cullison, a statesman extraordinaire.
His passing affords those of us who knew him and worked with him an opportunity to remember and reflect upon his tenacity, his style, his demeanor and his friendship. I am one of the fortunate folks who had an opportunity to work with Cullison for many years and in several capacities, and I am pleased to share thoughts about his life and his contributions to the State Senate – and to Oklahoma.
I met Sen. Cullison in 1981 when I started a job — a newly created position for the Oklahoma Legislature.
As one of only two joint employees (the Legislative Service Bureau had recently been reorganized and the House of Representatives and the Senate employed their own individual staff), I had the good fortune to work with members of both Houses.
It was also the first time I worked with Sen. Cullison. Although his participation on the Joint Committee on Federal Funds (the committee I staffed) was limited, he clearly knew and understood the implications of the substantial loss of federal funding for state and community-based services. He chose to be an advocate for programs dependent upon federal dollars, encouraging and debating in favor of the replacement of lost federal funds with state dollars. As a result, many services, such as those provided by community health centers, continued without major disruption.
In the late 1980s, I began working for a small not-for-profit focused on expanding health care coverage in Oklahoma. Sen. Cullison had not yet become President Pro Tempore, but he was definitely a leader in the state Senate.
We became close allies, advocating for children and mothers who had very limited access to health care services. I am not sure what might have occurred in his life before entering the Legislature, but Bob Cullison had a heart and compassion for those who were in need; and he was willing to use his influence to make life better for them.
In 1988, shortly after Sen. Cullison was elected President Pro Tempore, for the first time in any substantial way, Oklahoma made a substantial expansion of enrollees in the Medicaid program. Coverage was extended to children and pregnant women. It is possible that such a dramatic change could have occurred under other Senate leadership, but resistance from several members on the other side of the aisle was quickly put to bed by Sen. Cullison. I am grateful to him and his leadership to ensure the passage of a key policy reform.
As President Pro Tempore, Senator Cullison served with three different House Speakers: Jim Barker, Steve Lewis and finally, Glen Johnson. As I observed his interactions with leaders of the “Lower House”, Sen. Cullison always seemed to be somewhat reserved, soft spoken, always much more willing to listen than to speak.
However, it did not take long to realize, as the old saying goes, “still water runs deep”. By no means was he a wimp (please excuse the use of such jargon, but there is no better descriptive word that I can use here)! Throughout his term as President of the Senate, Sen. Cullison was the constant.
As leadership in the House changed rather rapidly (three Speakers in about 3 years (1989-91), I contend that the progress made by the Legislature, including House Bill 1017, the legendary education reform bill, occurred largely because of the stability provided by Cullison.
In 1993, I became a member of the Oklahoma State Senate.
Sen. Cullison was President of the Senate when I was elected. After serving for three years as a member of the Oklahoma House, I knew first-hand the importance of the Leader.
During the few years Sen. Cullison and I served together, my respect and admiration for him grew. My earlier assessment of his demeanor and style still held true. His door was open to everyone, he listened, he sought input, he encouraged. Without question, Bob Cullison was a Senator’s Senator.
A few years after Sen. Cullison departed the Oklahoma Legislature to become a member of the Oklahoma Tax Commission, I became chair of the Senate Finance Committee. That is the panel that heard the bills that impacted the collection of state tax revenue in Oklahoma and other bills guiding the Commission as an agency.
Both of us were then in new roles, and quite different in the dynamics of the positions, yet nothing changed: His willingness to help, candor and genuine desire to make things better was as clear as ever.
He and the other Commissioners made great strides to improve Oklahoma tax systems, and to advocate for a tax structure that was fair and equitable – especially for working families in Oklahoma.
Sen. Cullison will be missed by many. The things that he accomplished in Oklahoma will impact the lives of those who live here for many generations to come, if not for all times.
I cannot end these brief reflections without also expressing appreciation to Sen. Bernice Shedrick, Sen. Cullison’s partner for many years. Their collective desire to improve education in Oklahoma, and their recognition of the value and worth of Oklahoma’s working families, strengthened their individual influence.
Many shared many things with Sen. Cullison – including a great love for the State of Oklahoma. I am fortunate to be included in that number.
Angela Monson, a former state Senator, served with Robert V. Cullison, who died in late May.