By Patrick B. McGuigan
Despite higher turnout, comparatively large campaign spending – including independent expenditures – and much more news media coverage than normal, two of the 2011 city council races ultimately followed the pattern of recent decades.
Two incumbents won rather easily, while one lost. The most competitive race was for an open seat vacated by a popular incumbent.
No incumbents got a “free pass” this year, and the election process led to unusually polarized debates and advertising themes, controversial news coverage in some local media, and at least two independent expenditures targeting one side or the other in the contested races.
In the end, two incumbents supportive of the direction the city is going – Meg Salyer in Ward 6 and Patrick Ryan in Ward 8 – were easily reelected. The only incumbent who quarreled with city leaders over MAPS 3 programs and other issues, Ward 5’s Brian Walters, was defeated.
Salyer’s victory gives her a full term in her own right. Salyer had nearly two of every three votes cast, with 1,440 (63.75%) to 611 (27.05%) for Adrian Van Manen, and 209 (9.21%) for Jessica Holstein. Salyer has been on the Council since November 2008, when she replaced Ann Simank.
Ryan was first elected in 2005, then unopposed in 2007. He framed his joust with an outspoken conservative opponent, Cliff Hearron, as a referendum on the city’s direction. Hearron garnered 1,794 votes (27.35%), the most of any losing candidate in the March 1 contests.
It was more than the number of votes cast for Salyer in Ward 6, and more than either of the runoff candidates in Ward 2. Ryan still won overwhelmingly, getting 4,766 votes (72.65%) in the highest turnout of any city council race.
In Ward 5, challenger David Greenwell scored a close win over incumbent Walters, who had been elected in April 2007. Greenwell explicitly aligned himself with current city leadership. He gained 2,872 votes (54.22% of the total) to Walters’ 2,425 (45.78%).
In Ward 2, the runoff between Charlie Swinton and Ed Shadid will be April 5, with early voting beginning the prior week. The runoff contest is expected to be highly competitive.
Swinton led the field of six candidates with 1,803 (42.78% of the total), to Dr. Shadid’s 1,401 (34.55%). Of the remaining hopefuls, only Janis Powers, who had the support of departing incumbent Sam Bowman, had significant support, getting 681 votes (16.6%). The other three running – John Milner, Jeffrey Stark and Sam Tichenor – gained little backing. It is not yet known of any of the losing four will express a preference in the final race.
The Oklahoman, the state’s largest newspaper, endorsed all three victors – Salyer, Ryan and Greenwell – and the frontrunner in Ward 2, Swinton.
In editorials, The Oklahoman was critical of Hearron and Van Manen, conservatives who are members of Windsor Hills Baptist Church on the west side. The paper also jabbed at Dr. Shadid, who is a progressive candidate.
News stories in The Oklahoman, and some other local news reports, scrutinzed ties between Hearron and Van Manen and the “Tea Party” movement, and also critically examined the Church’s strong support for gun rights and some past activities in the congregation.
Political philosophy aside, labor unions for police and firefighters backed the Hearron, Van Manen and Shadid candidacies. The trio have been critical of MAPS 3 and supportive of the police and fire unions. However, other than a few issues and their shared willingness to offer voters a choice, Dr. Shadid has little in common with the two Windsor Hills churchmen.
Throughout the city, the independent “Better Local Government PAC” sent out mailers and other communications critical of the status quo in Oklahoma City, and inclined toward non-incumbents. Some mailers tagged incumbents as “irresponsible” for MAPS 3 implementation and “insider” decision-making. Those communications said the city had neglected roads and bridges, and public safety concerns.
On the other side of the independent expenditure ledger, the Committee for Oklahoma City Momentum was very active. The group was apparently a means for Chamber of Commerce members to advance support for incumbents other than Walters, and boost Swinton in Ward 2.
The City Sentinel covered the council races, but did not endorse in any contest. Before the March 1 election, The City Sentinel afforded every candidate an opportunity to address readers in their own words. A majority of those running (including five of the six hopefuls in Ward 2) availed themselves of that offer. This will repeat in coming weeks for the runoff candidates, Swinton and Dr. Shadid.
This writer wrote a personal commentary, published after the election, saying all 13 candidates who “ran for City Council should be honored for their willingness to serve, not denigrated for their religious beliefs.” The commentary concluded, “To whatever extent these words of mine are heard and read, I encourage civility by all parties, and generosity about the motivations of those with contrasting points of view.”
When the dust settles, the City will swear in the four victors at the Tuesday, April 12 meeting of the council. The current council consists of these members: Gary Marrs, Ward 1; Sam Bowman, Ward 2; Larry McAtee, Ward 3; Pete White, Ward 4; Brian Walters, Ward 5; Meg Salyer, Ward 6; Ronald “Skip” Kelly, Ward 7 and Patrick Ryan, Ward 8.
Bowman will be replaced by the runoff winner in Ward 2, while Greenwell will assume the position now held by Walters. The Ward 1, Ward 3, Ward 4 and Ward 7 positions will be up for voter scrutiny in 2013. Over the next year, discussion about reapportionment of Ward lines is certain, and reflections over possible expansion of council membership are likely.