Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Oklahoma Grocers, Wholesale Marketers and Petroleum Marketers hold their annual convention/trade show every year in late July. I seldom attend the show, because I am usually out of town. It’s always a time to see old friends- independent grocers/food brokers/manufacturer reps- from years gone by. In years past, this show was huge and drew every independent grocer from across the state. I saw Alan Mills, President of Reasor’s Foods, and Les Wease at the show. Even though it has been ten years and I have added several pounds since I saw them, they both recognized me.
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I’ve been in Chicago the last five days at a Federated Foods show and after arriving late last night and spending the night in OKC; I thought I would drop by the trade show before I went to the office. I had no idea the trade associations had already set up the first candidate forum for the winning gubernatorial nominees from last night.
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As I entered the hall, I saw Lt. Governor Jari Askins, (D-Duncan). She hugged me and I congratulated her on her upset victory last night. Jari Askins is one of the most gracious people in politics- no matter what your party affiliation is. That demeanor has served her well in Stephens County and across the state. It will get her some ‘swing’ votes in the upcoming general election. She softens her liberal views with a sweet dispensation. She ain't Nancy Pelosi!
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When I got to the MIO (Made in Oklahoma) booth, I was told that Askins and Congresswoman Mary Fallin, (R-OK) were going to speak to the group at 9am. I found the room and a chair. I saw Fallin enter the room, went over and greeted her. She told me she needed our (SCGOP) support and I pledged it. Fallin would be an infinitely better Governor than Askins would be.
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The trade associations had scheduled this event months ago, stating they wanted to introduce the two nominees to the Oklahoma food industry immediately after the primary. Since this was the first candidate forum, the press was well represented. I sat next the AP reporter, Michael McNutt from The Oklahoman was there and a half dozen other notebook toters along with several videographers.
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Beginning his remarks by saying, “we have the two best candidates in the state,” State Representative R.C. Pruitt, (D-Antlers), an independent grocer who has four stores in SE Oklahoma, served as monitor. He introduced Fallin first and they politely shook hands as she approached the podium. Wearing a royal blue dress suit, Fallin had obviously done her research on the audience. She touted her business background and said she got into politics because she was frustrated by government regulations. She reminded the mostly independent business owners when she was Lt. Governor that she had taken the chair to help get the Right to Work issue on the ballot in Oklahoma. Fallin said Oklahoma government needs to do several things to help independent small businesses. (1) Lower taxes, (2) Limit Government regulation, (3) Reform Workers Compensation (4) Work toward a fair legal system and (5) Educate our children more effectively. “We are not doing a good enough job in education, Fallin said. Not being specific, Fallin rattled off a list of issues like an auctioneer at a sale barn- Cap and Trade, Cardcheck, health care was just some of them. She closed by asking for the group’s consideration and support. It was a good stump speech and she did 'ask for the order.'

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Pruett then introduced Askins and hugged her as she ascended up the stairs to the stage. “I may be one of your biggest consumers,” Askins said. She was referring to the amount of gasoline she has burned crisscrossing the state since she has been running for Governor. But as Lt. Governor she has been criticized for campaigning at taxpayer expense while Lt. Governor, so while it was a great opening line- was it true? Is Askins campaign reimbursing the state for the gasoline she burns going to campaign events? If not, then the taxpayer may be picking up the tab, not Askins.

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Askins said in the sixth grade, her late father Ollie Askins paid her a dollar an hour to post credits and debits in his checkbook. “If I was one penny off, I had to find it- I had to make it balance,” Askins said. “I found out how important that one penny was,” she said.
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Dressed in a black dress with a light blue coat, Askins said she understands the ‘small business attitude.’ “I understand competition,” Askins said. She then related a story of how her brother- Marty Askins- called her when the roof on their abstract company building had collapsed. “It was difficult to convince people we were open when there was crime scene tape around the building and the competition down the street was saying come on over,” Askins said.
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Askins said she wants to see surgical cuts in state government that would be permanent. “I’ve been around long enough to know that reform doesn’t happen when times get flush again,” Askins said. The problem is Askins had twelve(12) years in the legislature to institute cuts. She served in leadership and was the Speaker designate when Republicans took control of the State House in 2004. On Oklahoma being ready to elect a woman governor, Askins said that Oklahomans proved yesterday they were ready. She never directly asked for the group’s vote or support.
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Both candidates spoke about ten minutes and the atmosphere was not contentious or controversial. They even posed for pictures together. After they spoke, they went to a VIP area where the two gubernatorial nominees granted press access. I went in, but didn’t wait to interview either of the candidates. After the press conference, Fallin shook hands with a half dozen people and left. Askins hung around for three hours, getting pictures made with exhibitors in the MIO booth and other booths and several retailers.
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Here are four observations about the first FALLIN-ASKINS candidate forum:
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NO SUBSTANCE! Neither candidate presented any meaty solutions to our state’s budget crisis. Pruitt mentioned during his remarks the retailers at the convention were there because they were products of the ‘survival of the fittest.’ Sorry RC, but that’s not the case. Most of the retailers in the room were C-store and Mom/Pop operations. The independent grocer of twenty years ago is gone and they are continuing to die because of government regulation, an unlevel playing field against big box retailers, and an unwillingness of the next generation to step up and take over the business. Some of the best merchants are gone because of the three factors cited, not because they weren't 'fit.'
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If Fallin or Askins had researched this group, they would have known the history of the associations they were speaking to. In 1980, the OGA was one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Oklahoma. Every Oklahoma city or town had an independent grocer that provided jobs, tax revenue, and the profits stayed in the community. Now Bentonville, AR benefits from those profits. Short sighted thinking by politicans by unleveling the playing field for independent business created that dynamic- creative solutions on 'leveling the field' will.
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Making broad general speeches on how we will change things in Oklahoma sounds good, but we need a specific PLAN OF ACTION to move Oklahoma forward by helping Oklahoma businesses. Pruitt mentioned these small business owners only wanted a 'level playing field.' He's referring to tax concessions that are often made to large big box retailers that are not available to the small business owner. Neither of the two candidates addressed specificially HOW they were going to help small business.
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ASKINS WILL NOT BE A PUSHOVER- In an obvious Republican year, many are already crowning Fallin Governor. Careful! Askins is a shrewd, tireless politico and said in her acceptance speech last night- “I’ve already started campaigning.” She wasn’t exaggerating! Fallin should have stayed at the show and met the ‘regular folks.’ That gets votes, it's fundamental and it’s also the right thing to do. Askins interacts with people well! Several “R”s in the MIO booth remarked how much they liked Askins. VIRTUALLY EVERY PERSON IN THE MIO BOOTH HAD THEIR PICTURE MADE WITH HER! She will get consideration from people that Fallin should have locked up. Many Stephens County Republicans will vote for Askins in November, not because of her politics, but because of her gracious nature. Fallin should soften her image, not hurry through campaign stops and discuss more than issues with those she meets on the campaign trail.
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IT’S FALLIN’S RACE TO LOSE! In 2002, former Congressman Steve Largent was running for Governor. Hale Halsell, a Tulsa grocery wholesaler, was having a food show at Shangri la in NE Oklahoma. I invited Largent to come to the show and meet the grocers, exhibitors and manufacturers at the show. Largent came, addressed the crowd and left just like Fallin. He didn’t engage anyone and unless I took him around to each booth and introduced him, he just stood around. I remarked to a friend that had Frank Keating been in that room, EVERYONE WOULD HAVE KNOWN HIM. Keating is engaging- he has great interpersonal skills. Fallin is not Largent, but on the first day after her nomination, she made a strategic error reminiscent of Largent’s Graff.
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RC PRUETT SHOULD BE A REPUBLICAN! When I ran for State Senate in 2000, RC and his wife Barbara contributed to my campaign. We have dined together at National Grocers Conventions and Shurfine conventions. When Pruett filed for State Representative in 2004, RC sent me an invitation to one of his fundraisers. I was excited, called then GOP Chairman Gary Jones and said, “I have a good friend running for state legislature in SE Oklahoma- a Republican named RC Pruett (Pruett was a Republican in 2000)." Gary told me Pruett was running, but as a Democrat. I called him and asked why. “Steve, I can’t win as a Republican down here,” Pruett said. Registration in Pruett’s district is about 85% Democrat. He is a ‘conservative’ Democrat, but it’s time RC aligned with his values and changed his Party affiliation back to Republican. Come on RC- you know you should do it!

2 comments:

Jack said...

Several comments - One, you have been Fair during the primary. One of the few bloggers who didn't trash the candidate I supported.

Two, your friend who ran as a democrat, while believing as a republican, would get hammered for being a party switcher by those same bloggers.

Three, you are not the first person who has stated that Jari Askins has such a lovable personality. Maybe I have been unlucky to be around her on bad days, but she has never seemed anything other than overbearingly rude in my experience.

Four, you are right about Mary Fallin coming late and leaving early at campaign events. I like Mary, but she does come off as too busy to visit with the folks she expects to vote for her.

LD Jackson said...

Great observations, Steve. I don't know either candidate personally, but I have heard the same things about Mary Fallin before. Maybe she just needs to slow things down a bit and talk to the citizens of Oklahoma. Let them know she realizes they do exist.