Gizzi on Politics May 18, 2009

Standing Against Stimulus In Sooner State

A number of Republican governors have made it clear they will decline parts of the federal stimulus package passed by Congress and signed by the President. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, for example, told me during the National Governors Association meeting earlier this year that “we’re declining those [stimulus] funds under what they [the Obama Administration] call ‘The Unemployment Insurance Modernization Act.” He added that “to accept them would necessarily lead to a tax increase of about $16 million a year. It would be a tax increase on employment… We fund unemployment insurance through an unemployment insurance tax on every employee of every private business in this state. We would have to raise that tax by about 20% after the federal money runs out in a couple of years.”  

The case for declining parts of the $787 billion stimulus package has been made by other GOP executives, notably Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. The grounds are the same: that the portions they are declining are unfunded mandates that will lead to tax increases in their respective states.  

So far, no governor has made the case for declining the entire package earmarked for his or her state and done so on constitutional grounds: that the federal government is telling a state government how to spend the money and that violates the 10th Amendment.  

But now, one leading Republican candidate for governor of Oklahoma says just that.  

“Yes, if I were governor, I would decline the entire $2.6 billion that is earmarked for Oklahoma,” State Sen. Randy Brogdon of Owasso told me. “And I would do so because it is plainly unconstitutional.” Brogdon, who has spent 30 years running his own heating and air-conditioning business, warned that “forcing the stimulus package down the throats of the states will enhance the roles of Obama and Congress in telling state agencies what to do. And when it comes to what we will have to come up with to pay for Medicaid and public education by the next budget cycle [2011], we will be marked for disaster.”  

Self-styled “constitutional conservative” Brogdon has vowed to “make tough decisions not to rob our children’s future” if he wins the GOP nomination and succeeds lame-duck Democratic Gov. Brad Henry next year. Brogdon calls for major across-the-board cuts in state spending and warns that “we have to make hard decisions today to avoid disaster tomorrow.”  

During his seven years in the state senate, Brogdon has been in the forefront of every major conservative cause, from fighting commitments for long-term spending to opposing public-private partnerships for projects built by business with tax dollars, which Ronald Reagan once described as “government coercion, political favoritism, collectivist industrial policy, and old-fashioned federal boondoggles.”  

“I don’t believe in public-private partnerships,” says Brogdon, “I just believe in free enterprise and capitalism.”  

Henry Out, Fallin In, And What’s With Watts?

With Gov. Henry forced to leave office after two terms, the betting in Oklahoma City is strong that the Republican nominee for governor will be a heavy favorite over the probable Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Jeri Haskins. There are rumors that longtime State Atty. Gen. Drew Edmondson, son of the late Rep. (1952-72) Ed Edmondson (D.-Okla.), will finally make a bid for the statehouse. But those rumors have surfaced quadrennially, and, as has always been the case, the politician known as “the eternal general” will probably opt for re-election once again and thus leave the nomination for governor to the more liberal Haskins.  

Brogdon’s leading opponent for the GOP nomination is two-term U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin, who also served in the state legislature and was lieutenant governor under still-popular Republican Gov. (1994-2002) Frank Keating.

Although Fallin has a strong conservative voting record in Congress (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 96%), Brogdon pointed out that she also “voted for financial bailouts last year and, while opposing the stimulus package, has also said that Oklahoma should get earmarks in the package.” Brogdon added that he looks forward “to contrasting our respective records in the state legislature.”  

The big question among Sooner State Republicans at this time is what will former GOP Rep. (1994-2002) J. C. Watts do. Recent appearances at party events by the last Republican member of Congress who was African-American have fueled speculation that the magnetic Watts will make the political comeback his supporters have long hoped for. But other Watts-watchers point out that Watts is a resident of the Washington, D.C., area, has been out of Oklahoma politics for seven years, and may have to spend more time in the state before he runs again.  

In laying out his own candidacy to me, Brogdon recalled how “[former Republican Sen.] Don Nickles was a one-term state legislator before he won the primary for senator in 1980 over two opponents with much more money and Frank Keating had lost a race for Congress before he beat a crowded field for the nomination for governor in ’94. We Oklahoma Republicans love our guys who come from behind and are conservative.”  

The Last Hurrahs

In races for mayor of Austin, Tex., and Omaha, Neb., held last week, two venerable politicians attempting comebacks both went down in what were likely their last hurrahs.
In Texas politics, it was often said jokingly that Carole McClellan Strayhorn has “bolted more often than an old maid’s door.” Austin’s first female mayor was a Democrat until she switched to the Republican Party in 1985 and ran for Congress unsuccessfully the following year. The mother of onetime Bush White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan was later elected state railroad commissioner and then state comptroller as a Republican. In ’06, she left the GOP to run for governor as an independent, but placed third in the four-candidate race won by incumbent Republican Rick Perry.  

Last week, Strayhorn placed third in the race for her old job as mayor, with arch-liberal city council members Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken running one-two in the race. McCracken declined to pursue a run-off, so Leffingwell becomes mayor of the capital city.  

Former Rep. (1980-88) and two-time Republican Senate hopeful Hal Daub (R.-Neb.) managed a comeback in 1995 by winning election as mayor of Omaha. Now, eight years after he was defeated for re-election in ’01 and at age 69, the conservative Daub staged another comeback bid for his old job at City Hall.  

But it was not to be. Democrat and former Omaha Public Works Director Jim Suttle narrowly beat Daub, 51% to 49%. Just as dramatic was the Democratic capture of the city council for the first time since the 1980s.  

Daub’s confrontational style and knack for saying aloud what he thinks about people who disagree with him fueled Suttle’s hard-hitting TV broadsides featuring the slogan: “Why would we ever go back?”  

But what was particularly noteworthy was that Omaha, long considered a Republican bastion, now has a Democratic registration edge of 20,000 voters. “For the first time in many years,” city councilman (and former) GOP chairman Chuck Sigerson said, “our opponents actually had stickers and posters saying “Vote Democrat.” Coupled with Democratic control of the Douglas County Board, Democrats are flexing political muscle and likely to wage an all-out effort to unseat Republican Rep. Lee Terry in 2010. Sources in the Cornhusker State tell me that their most likely candidate against Terry will be State Sen. Tom White.