Fully aware that his two mayoral opponents — Mayor Mick Cornett and Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid — have more financial backing, Nelson isn’t betting on himself to win the March 4 mayor’s election.
“I know it’s far from happening, but I do have people who take me seriously, even if the people on the council don’t,” he said. “They dismiss me for one reason. I don’t have any money to make things happen. Mr. Shadid has his personal money, and Cornett has his big-time supporters who need him there as mayor.”
Despite the insurmountable odds, Nelson is a believer in the election process and the ability to convey critical messages, even if it’s in a losing effort.
“This means a lot to me,” said Nelson, 76, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam era. “Even if I don’t get elected, I want to show people what these guys are all about. They’re smart, really smart, but they’re not delivering what they’ve promised.”
Nelson ran against former Mayor Kirk Humphries in 2002 and is in his third election against Cornett.
A supporter of MAPS 3 in principle, Nelson opposes the modern streetcar and the proposed route while using phrases like “going nowhere” and “useless.” He’s also not fond of the proposed convention center or the idea that taxpayers may wind up paying for a headquarters hotel in downtown OKC.
“They (city leaders) aren’t telling the public the full truth of what it (MAPS 3) will cost. Every time they come up with a project, then they turn around and say they don’t have the money to do this or that. Show me one project that’s been completed,” he said.
Actually, the MAPS 3 timeline shows the eight projects that have or will begin construction at different times ranging from 2012 to 2020. At this point, none of the projects are finished, according to City Hall spokeswoman Kristy Yager.
No political plans
Politics was never part of Nelson’s life plan until he retired as a general contractor in 1998. Since that time, he has become an outspoken critic of city administrators, OKC’s elected officials and most of their plans.
Nelson smiles when asked if he considers himself a thorn in the side of city leadership.
“I hope I am,” he said. “I’m one of a few people who is not afraid to fight them on their own turf. I don’t apologize for anything I’ve ever said because what I’m doing is centered on the people of Oklahoma City, not the men and women on that horseshoe (the city council).”
However, Ward 4 Councilman Pete White doesn’t take offense to Nelson’s comments.
“I think he’s well-intentioned and he cares a great deal about Oklahoma City. I wouldn’t give him a lot of style points, but I don’t think he says it out of malice. He’s been an equal-opportunity attacker the last three or four years, commenting directly to one of us or certainly as a group,” he said.
White, the longest tenured councilman, acknowledged that Nelson raises issues the council “would have a hard time doing” or simply ignores.
Nelson, who claims to have spent “thousands of dollars” obtaining public records, is a visible and vocal figure at City Hall, especially during council meetings. Almost without exception, he’s ready to comment during the public part of the agenda on issues dear to him, oftentimes to the annoyance of city officials. In some instances, he has made conspiracy allegations against Cornett, City Manager Jim Couch and other council members.
“It takes someone nuts or crazy to get what the real information is,” he said.
At a meeting in December, Nelson may have crossed the line when he quizzed council members about their sexual orientation. His question received no replies.
“They don’t answer questions that might get them in trouble,” he said.
Recently, Nelson was denied the opportunity to speak at a council meeting because he announced his intention to run for the mayor’s seat.
“They said I was going to be campaigning, but all I wanted to do was talk about one of the agenda items,” he said.
Still, the longtime OKC resident doesn’t see himself as a naysayer or troublemaker.
“I love City Hall,” he said. “There are a lot of people who are really trying to make a difference. I like city government when it’s run correctly.”
Before starting his fight against city leadership, Nelson made it his life’s mission to be involved in community projects and helping others. His former office at NW 39th Street and Portland Avenue was filled with photographs showing him and high-ranking Oklahoma politicos and sports and entertainment celebrities.
Because of personal family reasons, he has been an avid supporter of St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., and in the past organized large-scale events and fundraisers that benefited OKC residents and charities, including the annual Red Andrews Christmas Dinner.
“I’m old-fashioned. I just want to make a difference,” Nelson said.
On September 11, 2002, Nelson did exactly that when he revived a man who suffered a heart attack and stopped breathing. For that reason and others, then-Gov. Frank Keating proclaimed Oct. 23, 2002, as Joe Nelson Day throughout the state.
The proclamation cited Nelson’s work with elderly residents and young people. Keating also commended Nelson for his fundraising efforts to build a park for handicapped children.