Gov. Brad Henry (D)
Elected: 2002, term expires Jan. 2011, 2nd term.
Born: July 7, 1963, Shawnee .
Education: U. of OK, B.S. 1985, J.D. 1988.
Family: Married (Kim); 3 children.
Elected office: OK Senate, 1992-2002.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1989-2002; Atty., City of Shawnee, 1990-2002.
Brad Henry, a Democrat, was elected governor of Oklahoma in an upset in 2002, defeating Republican Steve Largent, a homegrown gridiron star and member of Congress. Henry grew up in Shawnee, one county east of Oklahoma City. As a boy, he built a tree house with multiple floors and once borrowed $10,500 from a bank to buy 15 crossbred cow-calf pairs for a Future Farmers of America project. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma and its law school and returned home to practice law. In 1992, at 29, he was elected to the state Senate. There, he achieved little statewide notice. So, at the beginning of the 2002 race for governor, Henry was not on anyone’s political radar. The candidate considered most likely to win was Republican U.S. Rep. Largent, a football standout at the University of Tulsa who later played professionally for the Seattle Seahawks. He resigned his House seat in February 2002 to campaign for governor. The favorite for the Democratic nomination was Oklahoma City restaurateur Vince Orza, a former Republican who came close to winning the 1990 GOP gubernatorial runoff. Henry was not even sure whether to run, and did not announce until the breathtakingly late date of June 24.
|Brad Henry (D)||616,135||(67%)|
|Ernest Istook (R)||310,327||(33%)|
|Brad Henry (D)||226,957||(86%)|
|Andrew Marr (D)||37,510||(14%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2002 (43%)
But he had a good campaign plan. Henry had one big issue—a state lottery to finance education; one big vehicle—an RV in which he traveled around the state; and one big supporter—former University of Oklahoma and Dallas Cowboys football coach Barry Switzer. Voters may not be much interested in meeting politicians, but Oklahoma voters are very interested in meeting football coaches. Henry’s folksy, aw-shucks manner appealed to rural voters; for them it was a gratifying contrast to the other major figures in gubernatorial politics: Gov. Frank Keating, Largent, and Orza, who are from Oklahoma’s two major cities. In the Democratic primary on August 27, two months and three days after Henry announced, Orza led with 44% of the vote, short of the 50% needed to avoid a runoff; Henry finished second with 29%, carrying only five counties. In the runoff campaign, Orza called for ending reliance on the state income tax, which presumably meant a higher sales tax. Henry backed the lottery as a solution to bolstering state revenues, and also touted a tax exemption on seniors’ retirement income. Henry had the support of the primary’s third-place finisher, state Sen. Kelly Haney, a full-blooded Seminole-Creek, and he took care to meet with tribal chiefs, who were conducting a big voter registration drive. Henry won the September runoff, 52%-48%.
In the general election campaign, there were clear contrasts with Largent. The Republican opposed the lottery and called for moving from the income tax to consumption taxes over 10 years; he also supported eliminating the sales tax on food. Henry backed across-the-board teacher salary increases and opposed merit pay—the teachers union positions—while Largent took the other side on both issues. Another important local issue set the candidates apart: a proposed ban on cockfighting. Largent endorsed the ban, a popular stand in urban Oklahoma. Henry came out against it, putting him on the side of Little Dixie in southeastern Oklahoma, where cockfighting is part of the local culture.
Also a factor in the race was the independent candidacy of businessman Gary Richardson, who spent $2 million of his own money on his campaign. Richardson called for eliminating a whole raft of taxes and replacing them with a levy on the gross revenues of all business operations. Polls showed Richardson with double-digit support, but his issue positions were less important than his ads attacking Largent. Congress was in session on September 11, 2001, but Largent was bow hunting in Idaho and couldn’t be reached by his staff, so he was unaware of the monumental events occurring. Richardson’s ads showed one of the World Trade Center towers collapsing, raised the issue of Largent’s whereabouts that day, and then showed Largent angrily responding to a reporter’s question about the situation. While all of this was working against Largent, Henry ran ads featuring his young family and showcasing his folksy style. October polls showed the race tightening. In November, Henry won by fewer than 7,000 votes out of more than 1 million cast, 43.3%-42.6%, with 14% for Richardson. Largent led 46%-40% in the Oklahoma City area and 45%-39% in the Tulsa area—far less than the usual Republican leads in those cities—while Henry carried the rest of Oklahoma, which cast 44% of the total vote, 48%-39%. This, in many ways, was a victory for rural Oklahoma over urban Oklahoma.
The new governor rolled out his program: A cigarette-tax increase to pay for health care, a statewide lottery to raise teachers’ salaries to levels competitive with surrounding states, expansion of tribal casinos, plus a permanent cut in the top income-tax rate from 7% to 6.65% and zero capital-gains tax on the sale of Oklahoma property. In May 2004, Henry achieved major victories on his platform. Most legislators may have been unwilling to vote for his proposals outright, but they voted to put them on the November ballot. All passed, most of them by handsome margins.
But Henry also suffered a major setback in 2004. Republicans captured the state House, only the second time since statehood that Democrats failed to win control of that chamber. His job was suddenly more difficult. His plan to reduce the cost of prescription drugs failed, and his tort reform proposal died in the Democratic-controlled Senate when all 22 Republicans and a handful of Democrats opposed it. However, Henry did win a permanent reduction in the top income-tax rate. In 2006, high oil and gas prices gave the state a $1 billion surplus, but the warring House and Senate were unable to agree on the budget and were forced to hold a special session. A budget accord, reached in June, reduced personal income-tax rates from 6.25% to 5.25% over four years, eliminated the estate tax, granted pay raises to state workers and teachers, and gave an additional $130 million to higher education.
Going into the 2006 election campaign, Henry was in remarkably good shape for a Democratic governor elected with just 43.3% of the vote in a Republican state. His approval ratings were high, and he could point to a record that seemed in line with Oklahoma values. Henry had opposed a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages, but he firmly backed Oklahoma’s state ban and signed a bill barring adoption by same-sex couples. He also signed a bill authorizing the death penalty for repeat offenders in sex crimes involving children, and approved several abortion-related measures, including one that required parental consent before a minor could have an abortion.
Republican Ernest Istook, a U.S. House member, was the Republican nominee after winning 55% of the vote against three competitors. A conservative who considered running for the Senate in 2004, Istook had hit a wall in Congress. As chairman of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, and thus a member of the so-called College of Cardinals, he had angered his Republican colleagues in 2004 when, without notice, he cut funds from transportation projects sought by 21 House Republicans who had signed a letter calling for increased Amtrak funding, which Istook opposed. The same year, Republicans were embarrassed by the disclosure of an Istook provision allowing the Appropriations chairman and designated staff to inspect individual tax returns. The following year, Republican leaders stripped Istook of his cardinalship when the number of subcommittees was reduced from 13 to 10.
Istook hammered Henry over illegal immigration, criticizing him for not doing enough to stop the influx and for signing a bill that made Oklahoma high school graduates eligible for in-state college tuition as long as they were working toward legal immigrant status. Istook insisted he would repeal the law, and he ran a radio ad that included a Western-style jingle with the lyrics, “If you sneak across the border, there’s some help that you can get in a place called Oklahoma.… If you re-elect Brad Henry, he’ll never take a stand. Illegal immigration will continue in your land.”
Henry defended himself with ads emphasizing that he had instructed the state highway patrol to apprehend illegal immigrants. He maintained that illegal immigration was a federal issue that Congress had failed to address. The two candidates clashed over education, with Istook calling for merit pay for teachers and Henry asserting that teachers’ salaries were rising on his watch. Henry outspent Istook and won in a landslide, 67%-33%, making him just the third governor in state history to capture back-to-back terms. He won all but the three Panhandle counties. His rousing victory immediately sparked speculation that Henry would run for the Senate in 2008 against Republican incumbent James Inhofe. But in late 2006, a spokesman for the governor said, “He does not plan to run for the Senate in two years or four years.”
In his second term, Henry seemed to get the hang of divided government. He racked up a string of successes in the Legislature, and was given a fair measure of credit for attracting a professional basketball team to the state. In 2008 the Sonics took up his offer of lucrative tax credits, renamed themselves the Thunder and moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City. Henry applied the veto pen smartly. When the Legislature failed to produce a budget to his liking in 2007, he withheld his signature from a tax bill sought by Republican lawmakers until they agreed to some of his budget priorities. Henry won a $1,000-a-year pay increase for teachers and $5 million for programs for children, and he expanded Medicaid eligibility for 42,000 uninsured youngsters. He also secured $10 million for a new biofuels research center as part of his quest to reduce the state’s reliance on oil and natural gas as economic mainstays. However, he failed to get the Legislature to agree to an increase in the minimum wage, long on Henry’s wish list. And perhaps as a result of the criticism he suffered at Istook’s hands in his re-election campaign, Henry signed a Republican bill setting stiff penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.