Thursday, July 29, 2010

Oklahoma's First Lady

I used to live in Oklahoma. It's an interesting place — not nearly as backward or one–dimensional as some folks seem to think but, at the same time, most assuredly right wing in some of its political views.

Oh, sure, Oklahoma may seem a little stagnant politically. It has voted Republican in presidential elections 14 of the last 15 times, and far too many Oklahomans seem to share the opinions of their senior senator, a political Neanderthal who was first elected to the Senate when I was living there — in a special election to choose the successor for David Boren, who had resigned to become president of the University of Oklahoma.

And women and minorities have not been too successful in statewide races.

It's possible, given the fact that so many Oklahomans are full– or part–blooded native Americans, that Oklahoma has elected someone with at least a partial native American ancestry as its governor or one of its senators.

But all of the people who have been governor or senator from Oklahoma have been indisputably male — and, although one black Oklahoma politician in recent memory (J.C. Watts) has risen to national prominence, most of the winners of statewide races in Oklahoma have been (apparently) Caucasian.

Well, Oklahoma voters are going to make history of a sort this November.

The state's lieutenant governor, Jari Askins, a Democrat, was nominated by her party this week to run for governor. She will be opposed by Rep. Mary Fallin, who was the first woman elected lieutenant governor.

Thus, the stage is set for Oklahoma to elect a woman governor for the first time in its nearly 103–year history.

A couple of weeks before Oklahoma Democrats and Republicans held their primaries, the Rothenberg Political Report was calling the race to replace term–limited Democratic Gov. Brad Henry "safe" for the Republican nominee.

An Oklahoma Poll released shortly before the primaries seemed to support that conclusion, with Fallin leading Askins by six percentage points — but that finding was much closer than the double–digit advantages previous polls this year have shown.

Of course, that Oklahoma Poll also showed Askins trailing her primary opponent by 16 percentage points. But she pulled off an upset, winning by less than 1,500 votes, for which she has given considerable credit to former Oklahoma Sooners and Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer.

Switzer endorsed Askins last week — and, clearly, one should never underestimate the power of a Sooner coach to influence Oklahoma politics. Switzer, after all, endorsed Henry in 2002 — and helped propel him to the first of two gubernatorial victories.

I think Rothenberg probably is right. This is really looking like a Republican year nationally, and, in Oklahoma, that makes this election Fallin's to lose — but, with Switzer on her side, I wouldn't underestimate Askins in this campaign.

Sometimes, of course, elections are largely symbolic, demonstrating in a way that virtually nothing else can how we have either grown or regressed as a people.

I've always felt, for example, that the 1960 election was symbolic with a Catholic winning the presidency. In the historical context, the outcome was about America's willingness as a predominantly Protestant nation to trust a Catholic to be its leader. It was on a lesser level, really, that the battle between the nominees, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, was waged.

Forty–eight years later, with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battling for the Democratic presidential nomination, it was unavoidable that their duel would be regarded in the history books as symbolic — and then, when Obama won the presidency, the entire election earned, at the very least, recognition for its symbolic value.

The stakes aren't nearly so high in Oklahoma this year, but, even though there has been no discernible "plot" to deny women positions of authority there, circumstances have conspired to prevent women from governing the state — even though women have served as lieutenant governor for the last 15 years and could have become governor at any time if the incumbent had died or resigned.

This is an opportunity for Oklahoma to tear down that wall.

In 2010, nearly one–fifth of the U.S. Senate seats are held by women. If the current Supreme Court nominee is approved, one–third of the members of the highest court in the land (memorably referred to as "the Brethren" in Bob Woodward's 1979 book on the Court) will be women.

And Clinton, who came up short in her quest for the nomination, has risen to unexpected heights as the nation's secretary of state.

Having a woman in high office is not a new thing for most Americans. And Oklahoma will belatedly join that club in November.

Welcome to the 21st century.

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