As I return to the pre-Pandemic custom of developing an annual listing of Top Ten Stories, a couple of introductory notes: This year’s list is entirely my own.
I wouldn’t want anyone to take the blame for my reflections.
I am both a commentator – leaning conservative – and a news reporter who seeks not “objectivity” – a polite fiction – but fairness in news stories, and clarity and issue engagement (not avoidance) in commentaries.
The top story for 2023 is “Frank Lucas, Tom Cole and the death of Oklahoma.”
While the list of those blameworthy for not acting to retain Oklahoma as a state in the federal Republic of the United States is lengthy, I deem these two men – after the departure of former Senator Jim Inhofe – the most powerful members of the Oklahoma delegation.
Not long after the McGirt v. Oklahoma decision in 2020 re-designated 42 to 47 percent of the state as “reservations,” I wondered why I believe many Oklahoma leaders, past and present, had decided to move in such ways as to make state governance difficult, perhaps impossible in some areas of jurisdiction.
That 5-4 decision against Oklahoma has been ameliorated in part, but only in part.
Tom Cole, I believed then and now, was and is the leader (formally or informally) of the group of state leaders whose actions (including legal briefs and argumentation in the public square) seeking to accommodate the Big Tribes and their allies. This drive to make state government an administrative arm of recreated reservation country is an objective that does not benefit most Oklahomans and most tribal members.
It has become clear that Lucas is Cole’s ally to achieve “the death of Oklahoma.”
A search of this newspaper’s online archives will provide plenty of news stories and commentaries detailing my reasoning.
More recently, I explained why and how I believe U.S. Representative Lucas is moving to prevent fulfillment of the aspirations of the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. The Two Tribes have long sought fulfillment of a promise made by two U.S. Presidents long before statehood, that land at and around Fort Reno would return to them once it was no longer needed for military purposes.
A bi-partisan consensus has long existed among Oklahoma’s power players to accommodate the Big Tribes and marginalize the small ones. Retaining the status quo against the C&As is part of achieving they accommodation and marginalization, even as western Oklahoma business and community leaders seek ways to forge economic links with the C&As.
Some people I know to be intelligent and well-meaning have said they had never heard of a connection between C&A aspirations to get some modest portion of that land back, and the actions of the congressional delegation to prevent that.
They were not aware of the effort (beginning after World War II) to prevent that restoration.
Since early in the present century, the means to do so has been (quoting from long-standing statutory provisions crafted by both Democrats and Republicans) carried forward in these words:
“Except as otherwise specifically authorized by law and notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Federal land and facilities at El Reno, Oklahoma, administered by the Secretary (as of the date of this enactment), as the Grazinglands Research Laboratory, shall not at any time, in whole or in part, be declared to be excess or surplus federal property under Chapter 5 of subtitle I of title 40, United States Code, or otherwise be conveyed or transferred, in whole or in part, for the 5-year period beginning on the date of enactment of this act.”
All of which means: Justice for one of the small tribes will not be achieved on the watch of Frank Lucas, or Tom Cole, or anyone serving in D.C. who agrees with them in this matter.
In a stroke of genius, Lucas wants to tie his agenda to that of climate alarmists in the U.S. House. In an amazing Machiavellian maneuver, he would “finance” climate change for the Left, using oil and gas and other natural resource revenues. All while denying new economic opportunities to born and bred Oklahomans who are also western Oklahoma Native Americans.
#2 School Choice is now real in Oklahoma
On a more positive note, the second most significant Oklahoma story of the past year was the achievement of success in the drive for more robust forms of school choice in Oklahoma. Credit for this goes to Governor Kevin Stitt, who made it a priority from day one of his tenure.
Sharing the credit are the legislative leadership, the Superintendent of Public Instruction – and a generation of leaders who fought uphill battles to establish public charter schools, options for parents of children with special needs – and – incrementally, over the past few legislation sessions — many more Oklahomans.
(https://www.citynewsokc.com/education/oklahoma-s and – incrementally, over the past few legislation sessions — many more Oklahomans.chool-choice-law-hailed-as-national-model/article_491e9058-8666-11ee-aee3-f364f2e4e637.html )
Of those no longer in public office, I credit former state Representative Jason Nelson for advocating a broad vision of parental choice, former Governor Brad Henry for backing an early school choice compromise for those with special needs, and former Superintendent Sandy Garrett, whose advocacy was crucial in making Oklahoma charter schools a reality.
#3 Adding it UP: Doubts about the Death Penalty have intensified
Capital punishment is permitted under both the U.S. Constitution and the laws of Oklahoma. But support for the Ultimate Sanction has steadily eroded. The state now is home to several exonorees – convicted and sentenced to death but ultimately cleared of the charges. The Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission gave attention to detailed problems (too gentle a word, perhaps) a few years ago.
The Commission’s report, and subsequent research and litigation makes it uncomfortably clear that innocent people have probably been executed in our state, for crimes they did not commit.
In-depth study of the cases of Julius Jones of Edmond and Richard Glossip of Oklahoma City contributed mightily to my shift away from support for the death penalty, in slow motion over several years.
Over the past few years, a bi-partisan group of legislators, a pro bono analysis of the Glossip case by a prominent Texas law firm, documentation of the role of weak legal counsel in many cases, and selective steps taken by Attorney General Gentner Drummond have all combined to create the present circumstances — where discussion is meaningful and an end to capital punishment or serious limits on its use could be in sight.
The sum of all this constitutes Oklahoma’s third most important story of 2023.
#4 Voters approve New Arena for local National Basketball Association team
The fourth top story can be succinctly summed up: The Thunder Rolls.
Despite the move by city leaders and the ownership to craft one of the worst financial deals between ownership and the community in the history of the National Basketball Association, voters overwhelmingly approved paying for more than 95 percent of the costs associated with construction of a new arena – one year after significant expenditures to upgrade the existing tax-financed facility.
Hizzoner Mayor David Holt contended, and voters responded, that continued subsidy of the massively profitable private business of professional basketball was a good idea.
With a high sales tax rate already in place, and a range of identified needs not met in the opinions of conflicting interest groups, even higher taxes seem assured for Oklahoma City.
Holt won with the support of even the identified fiscal conservatives on the City Council. It did not hurt that the public face of the ownership was Clay Bennett, a respected community leader. If the city government was willing to propose, and voters were willing to accept, such a one-sided deal, the owners can hardly be blamed for embracing it and promoting it
#5 Woke Rules on key Oklahoma Campuses … and the GOP has its own brand of polarization
Oklahoma’s system of higher education has deferred maintenance and created a liberal infrastructure of thought and policy advocacy from top to bottom.
GOP divisions, many driven by ‘woke’ sensitivities, are a top story of the year — it is driven by the same dynamic as what is eroding support for higher education. So, either one can be fifth, and either one can be sixth.
This is the sixth top story of 2023 — and to keep my formal list to ten, I combined the state of Higher Education with the overall polarization of American life. This is the year’s fifth top story.
The strongest state homes of allegedly Progressive “woke” philosophy are on Oklahoma college campuses, particularly at the University of Oklahoma, and increasingly at my alma mater, Oklahoma State. Meanwhile, tuition rates have accelerated, and the percentage of Oklahoma youths aiming to attend OU is declining.
All this while the institution’s leaders are aggressively seeking new professors and administrators who despise the moral, economic and cultural beliefs of a majority of Oklahomans.
Harsh polarization has entered most of public life, and many private relationships, around the world, the nation, the state of Oklahoma, and most of our largest communities. When I taught in the College of Education at OSU in my last two years of graduate school, I (a Reagan conservative) was hired by Dr. Dan Selakovich, a traditional liberal Democrat. We established a cordial working relationship over our two years of working together, and he supported (never opposed) my leavening curriculum instruction with both old and new ideas.
Things have changed. A well-qualified friend of mine, after being drummed out of a community college over his blend of conservative and libertarian philosophy, sought a job out of state. He landed one. But in one case, he was invited to campus for a visit with the hiring panel for a position he sought. He endured a lengthy interrogation from the liberal majority on the panel.
After the meeting, one person on the committee sought him out, smiled sweetly and said, “I wanted to say hello at the end of this, your last visit to our campus.” Insulting and deliberately denigrating, of course, but nothing compared to the destruction of careers, livelihoods and opportunities for intelligent persons who believe in “values” mirroring my own.
The Republican Party in Oklahoma, particularly members of the State Legislature, have developed and fine-tuned what was once upon a time jokingly referred to as “a circular firing squad” to destroy colleagues in governance with whom they disagree.
Some of this is driven by the spending habits of The Big Tribes, who have become masters at rewarding friends and punishing enemies (once upon a time, it was OK to describe people with whom you disagreed as “opponents” but enemies is now a more favored word).
GOP divisions, many driven by ‘woke’ sensitivities, are a top story of the year.
#7 Big Utilities provoke unusual agreements
The abusive powers enjoyed by Oklahoma’s Big Utilities have reached the point that it triggered agreement (more on less) on important issues between the longest serving statewide elected official – Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony — and the state’s conservative “think tank”, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. That makes the list as the seventh most significant story of the year.
#8 The Dilemma of the Democrats
In eighth place rests the dilemma of the Democrats. Despite enclaves of strength in the state’s larger municipalities, state Democrats have weakened in elections as the leftward tilt of the national party came to dominate even within this state. Pro-life Democrats were long ago marginalized in a state known, once upon a time, for electing such folk.
It’s difficult to see a path back to majority status for local and state Democratic parties who are treading the route to irrelevance. But when the national choice for next year may be Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump, who knows what another election cycle or two will bring – perhaps even some form of corrective voter decisions and a resurgence toward something resembling the Democrats of the past.
#9 Fed Up with activism, conservatives begin explicit efforts to change judicial selection process
The Oklahoma State Supreme Court’s willingness to create a right to abortion found nowhere in the state’s founding documents – and explicitly rebuffed in recent state elections and in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision — is the clearest example of the ability of the Oklahoma Bar Association and its judicial allies to keep at bay important conservative reforms.
Conservatives have begun an explicit effort to change Oklahoma’s methods of judicial selection to give more power to the people, and take some away from the organized bar. This is the ninth top story of 2023 in the state.
Conservatives formerly reluctant to change the state’s processes for selection of judges and justices are now supporting major changes to the Judicial Nominating Commission and other aspects of state tradition that have kept the development of law and interpretations of law in the hands of the Oklahoma Bar Association.
#10 Resilient Oklahomans – newsmakers and opinion-shapers — get a tip of the hat
Competition for tenth top story was fierce, but I settled on offering words of respect and appreciation to individuals who embody the Oklahoma spirit of optimism and hope, regardless of their underlying philosophy. Each of them is a newsmaker and opinion-shaper in his or her own way.
In the field of journalism, I lift my glass to David Arnett of Tulsa and Gary Reid of Kingfisher, with whom I share an underlying conservative world view and commitment to old school standards, whether in news reporting or commentary.
On the local left, I admire the resilience of Sonja Martinez and Mary Arbuckle, whose support for persons suffering from AIDS has been demonstrated in self-sacrificial generosity for many years.
Then, there’s my idealistic and sometimes frustrating (to me) pal Nathaniel Batchelder, who runs the Oklahoma City Peace House, the annual Peace Festival, and sends me notes he knows I will not agree with (except on certain issues). Batch just turned 78, and I hope we get to “exchange ideas” for many more years.
There are certain persons I deeply admire in Oklahoma’s Indian Country, persons strong enough and secure in their positions to survive blowback of the Big Tribes and their allies.
One is the long-suffering leader of the United Keeotowah Band of Cherokee Indians, Joe Bunch. He’s had the foresight to bring along younger people to carry on the fight to secure the exercise of rights the UKB have won in legal proceedings, but been denied through the power of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and bureaucratic lethargy (and perhaps corruption) at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington.
Another is Reggie Wassana, governor of the Cheyenne & Arapaho, who has patiently labored, within the system, to make the case for fulfillment of those promises made by Ulysses S. Grant and Chester A. Arthur – that land no longer needed for military purposes at and around Fort Reno would be returned to them.
There are others, but those are the few I am naming here.
Beyond the top ten, tumult in local and worldwide communities of faith, health care challenges that persist, the collapse of profitable journalism models and more could be addressed, but are not in this narrative.
Humbly submitted, one man’s opinions on the top Oklahoma Stories of 2023.
Editor’s Note: This commentary is expanded slightly from McGuigan’s analysis appearing in the January 2023 print edition of CityNewsOKC, (formerly The City Sentinel) as published in City News OKC.com here.