Patrick B. McGuigan, for The Southwest Ledger
State Senator Lonnie Paxton was elected to the District 23 seat in and around Tuttle (southeast of Oklahoma City) in 2016.
That year, he almost won the GOP nomination outright in the primary, garnering 49.5 percent of the voter support. He then won the general election easily. Last fall, Paxton won his second four-year term without having an opponent in either party. He is accumulating a record of achievement for his work, as we gray-haired scribes used to say, “under the Capitol Dome.”
Last winter, Paxton was put in charge of the Senate portion of all aspects of redistricting. Every 10 years, the Oklahoma Legislature is constitutionally required to redraw legislative and congressional district boundaries using the latest U.S. Census data. The requirement is stated in the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 2, Clause 3.
Paxton served as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting. The process seemed wider open and ultimately more collegial than any in this observer’s memory. As the process wound down, he wrote in a Senate staff press release, “At the outset, we pledged to have an open and transparent redistricting process, and we delivered. At every turn, we engaged with the public and sought their input in the redistricting process as part of our commitment to transparency. The results were maps that are more compact and better than the current legislative boundaries.”
Paxton and state Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, shepherded a process that included town halls (18 in-person and four virtual) across the state. Paxton told Southwest Ledger, “We worked extremely hard at being transparent and open. We would end up having 18 town halls across the state, trying to touch every corner and all parts of that issue. Members had open access to the sixth-floor work area where we had the redistricting office. “We sought all the members and we accepted and listened to comments all the way through the process. Members felt as if they were involved. It was important to let everybody participate, and that’s what happened.
“Re-apportionment for Congressional seats and redistricting of the legislative seats is important. We did not grow enough to get another congressional seat, but we grew and that meant many legislative districts will be different this next election.” Some parts of the discussion before final votes on the new legislative lines took longer than others. Paxton reflected, “One of the things I’ve learned is that different cities have different views on how to draw the lines.”
While many communities want to have a single senator, that is not a universal preference: “In Lawton, they like to have two seats and that stayed in place.” The result? Well, in a year when kind words across partisan lines were rare (but not completely missing), Senate Democratic Leader Kay Floyd, of Oklahoma City, said in a staff release: “Oklahoma Senate Democrats continue to believe the redrawing of legislative districts should be handled by an independent redistricting commission. Since this option is not currently possible, we chose to engage with the existing process led by the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting.…
“While the new map produced by the committee and approved by the Senate today is not perfect, members of our caucus were able to vote for it because the redistricting process included input from our caucus and from the communities we represent. The redistricting bill passed by the Senate Tuesday also includes an amendment authored by Sen. (Julia) Kirt, which will ensure the district lines are adjusted, if necessary, when final population data is received from the United States Census Bureau later this year.”
Still ahead will be tinkering with congressional district lines once a final, revised Census count is released. Even with that in mind, the comity of the process seems a lot like a compliment to the conservative Senator Paxton. In a discussion of other pro-active achievements or issues of importance, Paxton pointed to his efforts to rein in renewing gaps between available resources expected costs in state pension systems, with recent approval of Cost-of-Living-Adjustments (COLAs) beyond anticipated growth.
After getting to the Capitol, “I quickly immersed myself in those issues. I think (departing state Treasurer) Randy McDaniel and (former state Senator) Mike Mazzei saved the state from an economic disaster in the work they did a decade ago. I learned all these years later how difficult that reform was.
“Today, I think we’ve lost some ground or the momentum we had then. I’m a volunteer firefighter and I understand how important, for example, the firefighter pension is. But it remains the poorest funded of all the systems. The firefighter unions are pressing back against making that more sound. In the final bill that passed so overwhelmingly last year I voted no. To some extent we have suspended the reforms achieved in earlier years. I am going to keep working on that.”
As challenging as it is to discuss pensions – even, or perhaps especially, with fellow firefighters – Paxton has stuck to the goals he articulated in a 2019 press release: “For decades, Democrats raided the state pension funds to balance the budget or pay for political pet projects. That left state systems severely underfunded and the state with billions in unfunded liabilities.”
The issue is one on which Paxton remains laser-focused, even as he rises in the Capitol power structure.
In our interview, Paxton continued, “Another area – one I sort of stumbled into – is the medical marijuana issue. I have become one of the thorns in the sides of the big producers. I have become sympathetic to the craft producers, the smaller businesses.
“I think that a community, a city, should be able to treat every industry, every business the same in terms of inspections and other requirements. But much of the medical marijuana business is Big Business. There are outsiders coming in with big investors in publicly traded companies that feel as if they are exempt (from laws and regulations) and want to stay that way.
“My position, an important area of work for me, is to protect small owners and consumers, and be attentive about those bigger companies.” A legislative success (gratifying to Paxton) this year was a reform that “took three tries to achieve. We’ve made our rules more rational when it comes to replacing a U.S. Senator who leaves office early. We were one of only a few states that had “built in” a requirement that it was a nine-month minimum process to get a new senator elected.”
He commented, “I don’t think a governor should get to be an incumbent-maker, but we figured out that what we first sought: to require that a person appointed promise not to seek the office, we were bumping up against U.S. constitutional provisions.
“So now, the final version of the bill only requires that a person appointed (so the position gets filled and Oklahoma has representation in the Senate) would submit a sworn affidavit that they won’t run. That was accomplished on the last day of the legislation session.”
The governor signed the change.
In life outside the Legislature, Paxton is an insurance agent, property company owner and a farmer/rancher. Having completed five full sessions at the State Capitol, he has stuck to his rhetorical guns, despite his demonstrated ability (in the redistricting process) to work with every legislative element.
So, what, I asked, is Oklahoma’s greatest challenge?
He replied, “Without a doubt, our greatest challenge as a state is the McGirt issue.”
The matter he chose reflected the pervasive and growing impact of “McGirt v. Oklahoma,” issued in July 2020. After the decision recreating the Muscogee Nation of pre-statehood days was promulgated, this writer soon tagged it the most important legal outcome in Oklahoma history. Initial rhetorical efforts to downplay its significance (generally from fans of the 5-4 Court edict) have been quietly abandoned in recent weeks.
Just days ago, the Biden administration terminated state government powers to administer surface land issues in much of eastern Oklahoma.
Last week, the federal government announced a projected $82 million in new spending to oppose efforts of the state and local jurisdictions to retain important areas of jurisdiction. And yet, opposition has intensified to a proposed “land fix” crafted to benefit primarily two of the five biggest tribes – with little of substance for the smaller Indian nations.
Paxton said the aftermath of McGirt is and will likely remain, “a challenge. Nobody has come up with a solution. It will probably take another, fresh U.S. Supreme Court decision.”
We wrapped up discussing the greatest challenge facing our county in the near term. Paxton thought it over briefly, then replied, “It’s easy to say the greatest challenge is we are so harshly divided. That is, itself, the result of the failure of national news organizations.
“I should not get a break just because I am an R (Republican); and they (Democrats) shouldn’t get a break because they are a D (Democrat).”
Paxton concluded, “The free press is the ultimate of all the checks and balances. They are important to our entire system. Good reporters should be looking at all of us to assure corruption is found and rooted out. I don’t believe that is happening.”
NOTE: This profile first appeared in The Southwest Ledger – Southwest Ledger, 7602 US Highway 277, Elgin, OK 73538, (580) 350-1111. It is reposted here with permission.