By all reliable accounts, former District 1 Oklahoma County Commissioner Jim Roth brought integrity and wisdom to county government.
Roth, who was appointed recently to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission by Gov. Brad Henry, defied stereotypes and political punditry. He was elected county commissioner in a state viewed as close-minded to diverse lifestyles. Oklahoma voters recently voted overwhelmingly to ban same-sex marriage, but Roth, a gay man in one of the reddest of red states, won election to his position in 2002 and 2006. He won despite attacks on his sexual orientation. The individual trumped the ideology.
But, perhaps Roth’s most important accomplishment was even more symbolic. Roth challenged the ingrained symbol of the corrupt Oklahoma commissioner accepting kickbacks from suppliers and playing backroom politics. He brought logical, businesslike professionalism to a government position once synonymous with rampant corruption. Roth received acclaim from both the state’s conservative corporate media and progressives because he became the antithesis of good-old-boy politics.
It isn’t an easy task to change perceptions about county government given Oklahoma’s history. More than 200 state county commissioners were convicted in a major kickback scandal in the early Eighties. Today, Oklahoma County Commissioner Brent Rinehart, Roth’s former colleague, faces political corruption charges. But Roth did change perceptions.
Roth’s achievement makes the upcoming special election for his former position extremely important to OklahomaCounty residents. Forget the upcoming 2008 elections for a minute. This special election is the most important election in Central Oklahoma since Roth first was elected in 2002. Will OklahomaCounty residents continue to build on Roth’s legacy?
The primary election for the position is Aug. 14. The general election is Sept. 11. Seven candidates are running for the position. They include these five Democrats: Bart Bates, Fannie Bates (they’re not related), Debbie Blackburn, Willa Johnson and Ann Simank. The two Republicans running are Forrest Claunch and Bill K. “Jack” Hoag.
The new commissioner will face issues as diverse as the potential for light-rail transportation in Central Oklahoma to the chronic problem of jail overcrowding.
But the important question to ask all these candidates is this: Will you continue to push like Roth for allowing citizen input into establishing a new form of OklahomaCounty government, even if it limits the power of county commissioners? In a March 1, 2006, press release, Roth remarked, “The powers of county government are wonderfully broad if you have a good official, and disastrously broad if you don’t.”
Some political observers and officials ” Democrats and Republicans ” believe the current form of county government in Oklahoma is archaic and leads to contentious and sometimes corrupt politics. It’s time to consider consolidating the day-to-day operations of the state’s largest urban counties. It would save taxpayers money and eliminate political infighting, as well. This idea deserves real debate among Central Oklahomans. This dialogue should be led by the newly elected commissioner. OklahomaCounty voters should not vote for any candidate who will not seek citizen input into long-term reform of the county commissioner system.
Low voter turnout is the consistent hallmark of local elections throughout America. But Roth showed one person still can defy odds, challenge the system and make a difference. That alone gives District 1 voters a compelling reason to learn about the candidates and vote in the upcoming election.
Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and author of the progressive blog Okie Funk: Notes From the Outback, http://www.okiefunk.com.