Wayne Greene: Oklahoma state legislative Democrats dwindling
BY WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer
Thursday, November 08, 2012
11/08/12 at 8:20 AM
Here's a joke for you: What's the difference between a pay phone and an Oklahoma legislative Democrat?
Next May, when the important decisions are being made at the state Capitol, if you try hard, you can imagine a scenario where someone might need a pay phone.
A lot of local Democrats went to bed happy Tuesday night. President Barack Obama was re-elected by a wide electoral margin and the U.S. Senate remained safe from the control of Mitch McConnell.
Sleep tight, little Democrats.
But if they thought about the situation a little closer to home, their sleep should have been restless. The state party's rapid decline into irrelevance reached a new nadir with Tuesday's election, which brought a net loss of four seats in the state Senate and four more in the House.
The emblem of the Democrats' decline is the loss of Senate District 7, the seat once held by Gene Stipe, kingpin of the party and poster boy for Republican hatred of the good ol' boy system. Not only is that seat to be held by a Republican next year, but also it won't even be held by a resident of Pittsburg County.
The Republicans erased Democrats from the executive branch of state government in 2010. Tuesday's election extended that process to wiping out the last vestige of the party in the Congressional delegation, with little reason to think it will be otherwise anytime soon.
Who's the highest-ranking Oklahoma Democrat in federal government after the election? I think it's one of the U.S. attorneys.
And it could get worse.
Some Democrats in the Legislature are "safe." When Republicans redistricted in 2000 - the coup de gras in the decline of the Oklahoma Democratic Party that started with the passage of legislative term limits in 1990 - they had to find something to do with enclaves of dedicated Democrats.
So they packed them all in a handful of overwhelmingly Democratic districts, which turned out two-to-one to protect their legislators last week.
With little to worry about in elections and no real deal-making power, there's no reason for those lawmakers not to go feral - adopt radical stances that will play to their constituencies but make them even less viable on a statewide basis.
At least that's what Republican strategists must be hoping for.
But there are a handful of other Democrats in the Capitol who remain exposed: rural moderates who now have four more years during which they must defend a brand name led by a president who is intensely unpopular in the state. Tea party insurgents can pick them off or the mainstream GOP can wait for them to term-limit out or just tire of the whole situation and walk away.
It's not hard to imagine a state Senate with fewer than 10 Democrats in the future, maybe fewer.
If Oklahoma Democrats want to turn that around, there is some reason for hope in history.
In 1991, when I worked at the state Capitol, there were only 11 Republicans in the Senate - not enough to organize a rugby team. They tried to scrum, but it didn't amount to much.
But through a well-organized, well-funded strategy helped along in no small part by the good luck of having Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Barack Obama as the national standard-bearers for the opposition, they built a juggernaut.
Democrats could do the same thing ... although there's little evidence at the moment that they're doing so.
If they don't do something, eventually the remaining Oklahoma Democrats in the Capitol will be able to hold their caucuses in a phone booth.
Hey, there's a reason to have a phone booth. There used to be one of those in the state Capitol, too.
Balance of power
Note: There were three vacant seats in the House.
Source: Associated Press
Original Print Headline: State legislative Democrats dwindling
Wayne Greene 918-581-8308
Tulsa residents cast their votes Tuesday at Patrick Henry Elementary School on East 41st Street in Tulsa. JOHN CLANTON/Tulsa World