The Oklahoma Guide to Getting Along
OKLAHOMA CITY — This is a state that knows what it’s like to recover from a disaster.
From the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, to the destruction wreaked by two of the largest tornadoes ever recorded tearing through its suburbs, there has been a thread running through the tragedies: Oklahomans pull together.
Revisiting the areas most devastated by the deadly Moore tornado in 2013, it’s clear rubble is not the only thing that’s lingered. At the busy intersection of Telephone Road and Southwest Fourth Street in Moore, signs of rebuilding are slowly starting to appear. The tornado leveled part of the neighborhood and a gas station, ripped through a medical complex and crumpled cars from the nearby highway, tossing them in another direction.
More than a year later, slabs of concrete are all that remain of large buildings. Wreaths and crosses still dot the ground where some didn’t survive. But new shops and buildings have opened, presenting physical evidence of Oklahomans’ resilience in times of disaster.
The sense of community here goes far beyond the usual camaraderie in which any state could express pride. The Oklahoma congressional delegation likes to express that pride, and some have given the deep bonds within the community a name.
“Oklahoma has a respect for our neighbors,” Rep. Markwayne Mullin told CQ Roll Call in an interview. “That’s the Oklahoma standard.”
After the tornado in Moore killed 24 people, including nine children, there were so many volunteers they were being turned away from the damage sites. Cars lined up for miles outside of news stations to offer their donations to the relief effort.
Lankford’s likely replacement, former state Sen. Steve Russell, considers it a mindset. “Oklahomans, . . . they don’t think about anything else. It’s, ‘This is an emergency and we’re going to help one other,’” Russell said.
They also think bringing that spirit to Congress might not be the worst idea.
“It’s also treating each other like people, not like enemies,” Lankford said. “Even people that you disagree with — in Oklahoma you know we’re going to help each other at some point. And while we disagree on key issues, we’re also going to work together for things that matter to both of us.”
Mullin told CQ Roll Call civility should be present, regardless of party. “You’ve got to quit judging people just because they have an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ in front of their name. We don’t do that in Oklahoma,” Mullin said. “People look at us as being a red state, but we haven’t been a red state that long.”
Mullin said the key is getting to know your neighbors, both in the literal and political sense. “You’ve got to build a relationship,” he said. “You can’t just deal with people when it’s business. If it is, then you always have to assume that they have an angle when they come at you.”
Rep. Tom Cole, whose district was in the center of the tornado devastation, and who served as secretary of State during the 1995 bombing, attributes the sentiment to the Sooner State’s “hard” history.
“We are in some ways almost a frontier culture,” he said. “Life on the plains is not easy. As a consequence of that we have a pretty tough people. In times of crisis they cooperate, they work together well.”
He said election year attitudes can be “corrosive” because politicians are “scared to say anything good out of fear that it will make them look naïve or weak,” or anything positive about their opponents.
Still, the all-Republican delegation, which is unlikely to change after the November elections, didn’t waste time complaining about the Democratic Senate.
“Congress is a very divided body,” said Rep. Frank D. Lucas. He said the “very conservative” House must contend with what many Oklahomans consider “a liberal president.” Of the Senate, Lucas said, “under their rules, in fact, no one really has control. That’s a complicated situation.
“In my tenure, these kind of circumstances are as frustrating for members of Congress, just as they are for folks on the outside,” Lucas said. He stressed a need for working together in a civil manner.
Lankford contends the GOP doesn’t run its chamber the same way. “People have the right to be heard,” he said. “[Texas Democrat] Sheila Jackson Lee has had more of her amendments voted on, on the House floor then all of the Republicans combined have in the Senate in the past year.”
While Mullin said Democrats are trying to make Republicans look bad, he admitted his own party “is guilty of it, too.”
But the delegation stressed the stakes of Senate control come January.
“There’s a big difference when [Sen. James M.] Inhofe is the chair of Environment and Public Works in the Senate, versus being a member of that committee,” Lankford said. “That’s a pretty significant change in terms of how we handle transportation policy and how we’re handling environmental oversight.”
Inhofe wouldn’t speculate on the changes a possible Republican majority would make, saying only, “Let’s win the majority first.”
The Sooner State members had plenty to say about President Barack Obama, as well.
“I’ve now served under three presidents,” Lucas said. President Bill Clinton, “made the decision to co-exist with the new majority. . . . We didn’t have exactly the warmest relationship, but we had a functioning relationship.
“Barack Obama is as philosophical, as principled as George W. Bush was, but he’s not quite as pragmatic, . . . not as skilled politically as Bill Clinton,” Lucas added. “I’m very concerned that even if you have a Republican Senate next year, and keep a Republican House, he will not learn to work with us, co-exist with us. . . . I just don’t know if he will.”
Cole believes there’s reason to be hopeful about what’s ahead, even with the current makeup of Congress.
“I’m not going to tell you that this is the most productive Congress. But the idea that nothing gets done or we never work together, you know, we’re 55 days from an election right now. So everybody is telling you that everything is terrible . . . but they’re not at fault, but the other guy certainly is.”
He described the chaotic July finish ahead of the August recess. “We’re passing a bill and the Senate can’t do anything and the president is saying he’s going to veto our bill. So it looks pretty fractious, and it is, but that very same week you saw us pass the largest overhaul in veterans healthcare in a generation,” Cole said. “That was a huge bicameral and bipartisan compromise to do that.”
“It’s an amazing system and it’s still functional,” Cole said. “If we’ve got a problem it’s with the players, not with the system.”
Mullin concluded that getting to know the other side is key in moving beyond the political obstacles both sides of the Capitol faces. “You’ve got to respect people, you’ve got to understand where they come from. We know where people in Oklahoma come from, that’s why we get along.”