What’s The Guv Going To Do?

Carrie the waitress was just pouring coffee into our cups when the Republican political consultant posed his first question: What, he asked, is the guv going to do?

It’s the coffee shop, water-cooler question of 2010 as Governor Brad Henry’s second and concluding term in office begins its final year.

Oklahoma’s overwhelmingly popular (67 percent approval rating after 7+ years in office) young Democratic governor has made it clear he has no desire to relocate to Washington as would be required if he accepted a position in the Obama Administration, an often-expressed opinion given his early and ardent endorsement of Obama, or if he ran for the U. S. Senate and won, or if he (ala Frank Keating) took a position with an association or corporation in Washington.

Forget those scenarios, Henry insiders assure.

Henry’s future is the hot topic in some circles. He’s made it clear, in public and private statements, that he has no desire to return to the practice of law.

So if Henry’s ruled out relocation to Washington and returning to the practice of law, what’s left?

I’ve said in the past that his public service will continue; that remains my opinion. Henry’s popularity is not lost on those in position to help him find that perfect niche come 2011, when he and his family vacate the Governor’s Mansion for Private Life.

Figuring prominently in discussions of Henry’s future is University of Oklahoma President David Boren, a former governor (and U. S. Senator) who quit the Senate to take his dream job as scholar/administrator at the state’s premier institution of higher education.

There are two Henry’s-Future scenarios that involve Boren.

First is that Boren wants Henry to become dean of the OU School of Law, following the distinguished tenure of Andy Coats. And if that happened, this scenario goes, Henry then would be ideally situated to succeed Boren as president of OU when Boren decides to step down, a move most see unlikely in the foreseeable future. Giving credence to this scenario is the 2009 employment of First Lady Kim Henry as administrator of the Sarkey’s Foundation in Norman. "They could commute together," said my GOP consultant friend.

Second is that Boren is working with the Obama Administration (like Henry, Boren endorsed Obama early) and others to secure for Henry the federal appellate court post that’s being vacated by Henry’s cousin, Robert, the former Oklahoma attorney general who is leaving the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals post in Denver for the presidency of Oklahoma City University. But wouldn’t that mean he’d have to move to Denver? some ask. No. Robert Henry continued to live here and officed in the federal building. Judge Brad Henry could do the same.

There’s a third scenario, one in which Henry takes a high-profile job in business.

Mind readers we’re not, so getting inside the governor’s head isn’t possible. It is possible, however, to observe what he’s doing and what his closest friends, staffers and allies are saying. Right now, Henry is totally preoccupied with the state’s huge budget shortfall and how to handle it. Those close to him insist that is his almost-sole focus these days and he’s not even contemplating his own future outside the governor’s office.

A Henry confidant shares this thought: "Several people, including David Boren, are in favor of Brad pursuing the 10th Circuit post. Problem is, he might not want to. Hasn’t decided yet. Right now, most of his waking hours are spent on thinking about how to solve this horrible budget problem. Although time marches quickly, Robert has another few months in the saddle, and Brad needs to get his head clear on what he thinks about this possibility."

The history of modern-era Oklahoma governors and what they’ve done after leaving office shows there are all sorts of possibilities. Following his 1970 reelection defeat, Republican Dewey Bartlett began a successful two-year campaign for the U. S. Senate. In 1975, Democrat David Hall, who defeated Bartlett in the 1970 upset and then lost his 1974 reelection bid, went to federal prison and eventually wound up in California. In 1978, then-Governor David Boren successfully ran for the U. S. Senate. Republican Henry Bellmon went back to the Billings farm, Democrat George Nigh became president of the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond and the disgraced Democrat David Walters used the international political connections of the Clinton Administration to build Walters Power International. And Frank Keating became the head of the American Council of Life Insurers in Washington.

Henry’s future likely will continue to be a coffee shop topic at least until the legislative session is over, and even more likely, we’ll still be asking the question come the summer: "What’s the guv going to do?"

About the author: For 30 years, Mike McCarville has covered Oklahoma politics and government with The McCarville Report Online, located here.