Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Personal observations from the Oklahoma Senate Opening Session
by Steve Fair
Milestone: An important event, as in a person's career, the history of a nation, or the advancement of knowledge in a field; a turning point.
Goal: The finish line of a race.

Forty-eight identical desks in eight neat rows grace the Oklahoma Senate Chamber as I enter the gallery at 11:30am on Tuesday January 6, 2009. The Chamber is completely empty and reveals nothing about the historic event about to take place. Not since the crack of a rifle signaled the start of The Run of the Cherokee Strip has Oklahoma experienced something so dramatic. The Cherokee Strip run opened seven million acres to homesteaders. Over one hundred and five years later Republicans are about to control both chambers of the Oklahoma legislature. January 6, 2009 marked the first time in Oklahoma state history the State Senate would be controlled by Republicans.

In the gallery a red/white/blue ribbon designated a section for Senator Coffee’s friends and family. The “Coffee” entourage filed in around 11:45am filling up nearly two full rows. About the same time, fellow blogger and videographer John Angiers set up his video camera in the designated media broadcast section to record the historic event. Angiers blog is http://okiecampaigns.blogspot.com/

Paul Ziriax, the secretary of the Senate, makes his way into the chamber and begins preparation for the session. Ziriax was recently appointed Oklahoma Election Board Secretary. The Election Board secretary also has historically served as secretary of the Senate. A longhaired young man named Craig begins to place what I assume is the agenda on each of the desks. At 11:55am, Lt. Governor Jari Askins enters the chambers. Wearing a mid calf length black dress, she shakes hands with everyone on the rostrum. As Lt. Governor, she presides over the State Senate. Askins is smiling and cordial. She glances at her watch several times, possibly wondering why the Senate chamber is not filling up with members.

At straight up noon, Senator Jay Paul Gumm, D-Durant, arrives in the chamber. A large fellow with a big smile, Gumm shakes hands with everyone in sight as he strolls throughout the chamber. Gumm is an ambitious legislator with a reputation of being able to work across the aisle, but his motives seem suspect to me.

As the chamber and gallery begin to fill up, at 12:10pm, Senator Andrew Rice, D-OKC, makes his way into the chamber. Rice and Gumm seem to be the two Senators most intent on shaking hands and slapping every Senator's back before the session begins. Rice seemed to be accepting condolences from his fellow legislators on his US Senate race loss to Jim Inhofe. Rice nods as colleagues speak and grabs their forehands as he shakes their hand. Experience tells me Rice is either the most compassionate, caring member of the Senate or he is working to build alliances for the next rung on the ladder. Good judgment tells me it’s the later.

Like the midafternoon American Airlines flight from O’Hare to Will Rogers, the State Senate runs on its own schedule. The proceedings were scheduled for noon, but at 12:15pm, Askins calls the session to order. She calls on Chris Lowery from the Baptist General Convention to open in prayer. Paul Ziriax calls the role on the returning Senators- those who did not face reelection in 2008. He then calls the role for those who were certified by the Oklahoma State Election Board as winners of the 2008 races. All Senators answered present with the exception of Senator Mike Mazzei, R-Tulsa, who is recuperating from an automobile accident.

Senator Todd Lamb, R- OKC, nominated Senator Glenn Coffee, R-OKC, for the position of President Pro Tempore. Askins recognized Senator Charles Laster, D-Shawnee, the Minority Leader. Laster was relected in 2008 and is serving in the same seat that Governor Henry used to hold. Laster said he wanted to make the motion that Coffee be elected as President Pro Tempore of the Senate by acclamation. He added the Democrats wanted to “reinstate” the traditions of the Senate and implied recent Republican leaders in the Senate had ignored the “longstanding traditions of the body.” Laster missed a golden opportunity to be gracious—instead he took a poke at Coffee and the Republicans. This was a defining moment for Laster and he blew it—or maybe he didn’t. Perhaps he just revealed his true character or lack of it.

Lamb's motion was passed unanimously on a voice vote and Askins turned the rostrum over to the newly elected President Pro Tempore. After introducing his wife, Lisa, his four children, his parents, in-laws and friends, Coffee began his remarks by saying, “my being in this position is a testimony that you can’t out give God.” Saying he did not plan to be in this position ten years ago when he first came to the State Senate, Coffee called the Republican takeover of the State Senate “a milestone, not a goal.” Using an illustration from his upbringing, Coffee said his dad would often tell him to look in the pantry for a “coffee can’t.” “Of course, there were none," said Coffee, “ there were only coffee cans.” The persistence his parents instilled in Coffee made him have the attitude to “go out there and do it.”

Turning to the Democrats in the chamber, Coffee said he could respect and appreciate the view of the opposition. “This body will be about ideas,” he said. Wishing Senator Ivester a Happy Birthday, Coffee joked the takeover of the State Senate by Republicans was probably not what the Senator had wished for on his birthday. Outlining several important issues the Senate has pledged to take on, including tort reform, workers compensation reform, and establishment of an energy policy, Coffee concluded his remarks with the simple message, “At the end of the day, it’s about getting things done.”

Oklahoma voters have provided Republicans in the Oklahoma legislation with a great opportunity. The opportunity to govern as a majority—to put forward the agenda and to better the state. Will Republicans do better than the Democrats have the first century of our state’s history? They can’t do worse—Oklahoma is mired in the bottom five states in virtually every significant economic category and near the top in all the bad categories when compared with other states in the country. Democrats have provided no leadership to our state. But as seen at the federal level, when Republicans start to act like Democrats, the voters will respond accordingly.

After Coffee’s speech, Senator Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, came to the gallery to escort me to the reception. I shook hands with Senator Coffee and wished him the best—he’s going to need it. I hugged Lt. Governor Jari Askins, a gracious lady from Duncan that has announced her intentions to run for Governor in 2010. I seldom agree with Askins, but she is one of the most gracious elected officials I know. I ate a couple of cookies and had a glass of punch—some mixture of cranberry juice and ginger ale, got my photo taken with Senator Sykes (Watch this guy- he has ability) in front of the Senate chamber and headed back to work. Today I witnessed history in Oklahoma- a milestone—I hope it’s the beginning of a new era of true leadership in Oklahoma. I’ve worked for years in the trenches to see this day—both as a candidate and as a party official. I've distributed literature, put up signs, helped raise money, made phone calls, gave money and done countless other things to see this day. Don’t let us down—do what you said you would do!

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