Tulsa’s Sue Tibbs: tough lady, criminal justice reformer, loyal friend

 After 12 years at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, serving Tulsa’s District 23, Sue Tibbs is optimistic about the state’s future because “I believe in the people of Oklahoma. I believe we’re a strong people, with good ideas and good judgment.”

Chairwoman of Public Safety and a key player on the Appropriations & Budget Human Services subcommittee, as well as General Government and Judiciary, she has been a trailblazer for other Republican women, and women in general.

A friend and fellow legislator, Pam Peterson, was her roommate during legislative sessions for seven years. Peterson reflects, “She is an amazingly loyal person. When she’s with you, she’s with you.

“When she speaks on the floor, everybody listens. She is greatly respected. She’s not flashy. She speaks very intentionally. She has power and influence because of who she is.

“The tenacity of the woman is just incredible. She’s not the youngest member but she could run circles around many of the others, including younger members.”

Peterson insists Tibbs is “as tough as any male,” yet gentle as a dove in matters of faith. A committed Christian and a member of Tulsa’s Grace Church, she hosts a Tuesday noon hour devotional at the Capitol, an event she inherited from former Rep. Joan Greenwood.

In her first race, back in 2000, Tibbs defeated a popular Democratic incumbent, Betty Boyd. Eventually, the Republican made the district her own, winning reelection easily in both 2008 and 2010.

In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, Tibbs was asked to list her most significant achievements in public life. She replied, “My most significant achievement, I believe, is being able to serve my constituents on a daily basis.”

Another success is a long marriage to Milton Homer Tibbs. They have two children: Debra West and Elli Dodd.

She continued with reflections on priority issues, saying she is intensely focused on “the prison reform area. Being able to recognize that some people have made mistakes and wish to have a second chance, giving them that opportunity and truly seeing these programs work, changing lives for whole generations.”

Concerned with the Sooner State’s high rates of female incarceration, Tibbs early on became an advocate of criminal justice reform. She was one of the first elected officials to study Tulsa’s acclaimed Women in Recovery (WIR) program, an effective example of the potential for what is now known as “justice reinvestment.”

Last August, Tibbs was a featured speaker at the summer graduation for WIR, congratulating women who had turned their lives around after struggles with addiction, crime and dysfunction. She’s a heroine to the staff and supporters of WIR.

Tibbs introduced a young Methodist minister from Shawnee, a fellow legislator named Kris Steele, to the Tulsa program. After he became speaker, Steele championed the drive to make Oklahoma’s policies “right on crime” – wise, judicious, compassionate, cost effective and reform-oriented.

Her work on voter ID issues made her a hero to fellow conservatives. She comments, “I started working on voter ID my first year at the Capitol, and was thrilled to present my driver’s license to be able to vote in the presidential primary on Saturday, March 3.” Oklahoma Eagle Forum named her a legislator of the year for her work in that arena.
A graduate of Tulsa Central who also attended Tulsa Junior College, Tibbs is part of the last group of Republicans to have served in the minority at the state House.

One friend is a leading Democrat, Senator Jerry Ellis of Valliant. He told CapitolBeatOK, “She was so easy to work with in the House, and we did so for six years. I was in the majority there for two years, and then in the minority for four years, before I came to the Senate.

“She is one of those people for whom party affiliation did not enter into it. It was always just the issue with Sue Tibbs.”

Ellis, remembering his House years with Tibbs, concluded, “I still have, as a keepsake, a note she wrote me. She thanked me for working with her on one of those early issues when we were in the House. She is a dedicated public servant, a wonderful person.”

Tibbs says important work remains undone in Oklahoma City. She reasons, “I believe one of the most important issues facing Oklahoma is becoming and remaining a business-friendly state. We are finally moving in that direction. We finally have a governor who is willing to step up to the plate and make those hard decisions, then stick with them to cause this to come about.

“I do believe we can successfully eliminate the taxes necessary to accomplish this over a 10-year period. I hope the Legislature will also remain positive in this area, and move ahead with this plan.

“Oklahoma has the opportunity to grow our tax base by attracting companies to our Great State. Our work force is second to none. Now is our opportunity to provide them with good paying jobs.

“Another very important issue is consolidating some agencies – making sure duplication of services [is] stopped, which of course will save the taxpayers’ dollars and, in the long run, provide more service to more people.”

Her greatest concern remains, “Our prison system. I truly believe Oklahoma needs to rewrite our criminal code. Kansas compares in population with Oklahoma and, a few years ago, decided they needed to rewrite their code. Their prison population dropped, saving Kansas taxpayers an incredible amount of money.  This money was then able to spent on other services, or returned to the taxpayers.

“Oklahoma spends about $500 million a year on Corrections funding, believing we were getting smarter on crime, when in fact we weren’t. We live in the Bible Belt where we believe in forgiveness and second chances. We must continue to work toward that end, not re-election.”

Peterson’s face lights up when a reporter asks her about Tibbs. She says, “She is the strongest woman I’ve ever met. Her spirit and determination, her strong will have impressed me.”

On a busy day at the state Capitol, when asked about Sue Tibbs, Speaker Steele told CapitolBeatOK she "is the epitome of dedication, courage and determination. She is a true public servant who understands the issues facing our state and cares deeply about the needs of her constituents. It is an honor to serve alongside her in the state Legislature."