Sen. Tom Coburn (R)
Elected: 2004, term expires 2010, 1st term.
Born: March 14, 1948, Casper, WY .
Education: OK St. U., B.S. 1970, OK U., M.D. 1983.
Religion: Southern Baptist.
Family: Married (Carolyn); 3 children.
Elected office: U.S. House of Reps., 1994-2000.
Professional Career: Mgr., Coburn Optical Industries, 1970–78; Practicing physician, 1983–present.
Tom Coburn, a Republican who previously served six years in the House, was elected Oklahoma’s junior senator in 2004. Coburn grew up in Muskogee, where his father started Coburn Optical Services, which became the town’s biggest employer. Coburn graduated from Oklahoma State, and while there, married his childhood sweetheart, who was Miss Oklahoma 1967. His father moved his company to Virginia, and Coburn followed to join the business. These were years of campus and youth rebellions, but not for Coburn. “I was focused on business, kind of driven. I was sort of aloof to the counterculture. I never even heard of marijuana,” he says. Coburn took over the lens division of the company and increased sales from $100,000 to $40 million. In 1975, the company was sold to Revlon. After being stricken with melanoma, Coburn decided to go to the University of Oklahoma Medical School. He graduated at age 35, moved to Muskogee, Okla., and opened Maternal and Family Practice Associates. In addition to running his practice, he went on medical missions around the world. In 1994, he read in his local newspaper that Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Synar from Oklahoma’s 2nd District was talking about a greater role for the government in running the health care system, and decided to run against him. As it turned out, Synar lost to a 71-year-old retired middle school teacher in the Democratic primary, and Coburn went on to prevail in the general election, 52%-48%.
|Tom Coburn (R)||763,433||(53%)||($5,078,647)|
|Brad Carson (D)||596,750||(41%)||($6,172,076)|
|Sheila Bilyeu (I)||86,663||(6%)|
|Tom Coburn (R)||145,974||(61%)|
|Kirk Humphreys (R)||59,877||(25%)|
|Bob Anthony (R)||29,596||(12%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 1998 House (58%), 1996 House (55%), 1994 House (52%)
Coburn was an outspoken member of “revolutionary” class of Republicans who came to power with House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995 determined to make big changes in Washington. He regularly angered appropriators by opposing their bills and offering multiple amendments. A strong opponent of abortion rights, Coburn sponsored bills requiring AIDS counseling for pregnant women and labels on condoms disclosing that they don’t prevent infections that lead to cervical cancer. He became known around the Capitol for conducting somewhat graphic slide shows for lawmakers and staff about the effects of sexually transmitted diseases. Eventually, Coburn and a small band of similarly radicalized Republicans got fed up with Gingrich, whom they faulted for poor judgment and for being too accommodating to the Clinton administration. The group tried to oust Gingrich in July 1997, and although the attempt failed, it spelled the beginning of the end for Gingrich, who did not seek re-election as Speaker in 1998. In 2000, Coburn kept his campaign promise to serve only three terms, and did not run for re-election. He went home to his medical practice in Muskogee. He also wrote a book, Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders into Insiders, in which he called members of Congress “Pharisees” and attacked Republican leaders by name.
In 2003, when Republican Sen. Don Nickles announced that he would not seek a fifth term, several politicians lined up to succeed him—Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys and state Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony, both Republicans, and Rep. Brad Carson, a Democrat who had been elected to Coburn’s old House seat in 2000. Coburn was urged by many to run, but declined because of health concerns; he had been treated for colon cancer that year. But Coburn changed his mind, saying he had “an impression in my spiritual life that I was supposed to do this.” He observed: “Politically, it’s stupid to get into a race six to nine months after everyone’s already into it. But it’s kind of been one of those things that’s marked my life. I learned to be obedient to that still inner voice.” (In 2007, Coburn had surgery for the removal of a benign pituitary tumor.)
Leading Republicans already had gotten behind Humphreys, including endorsements from Sens. Nickles and James Inhofe, and Reps. John Sullivan and Tom Cole. Polls showed a close race, with Coburn slightly ahead of Humphreys. Humphreys attacked Coburn for attending a Las Vegas fundraiser, prompting Coburn to return contributions from gambling figures, and also ran an ad attacking Coburn for voting against intelligence and airport spending bills. The anti-tax group Club for Growth, supporting Coburn, replied with ads claiming the bills were loaded with pork barrel spending. Coburn’s cultural and fiscal conservatism, his opposition to Washington insiders and his adherence to his House term-limit pledge had earned him fans across the state, and he won the primary with 61% to 25% for Humphreys and 12% for Anthony. Coburn carried 76 of 77 counties.
The winner of the Democratic nomination, with 79% of the primary vote, was Carson, who was part Cherokee and a Southern Baptist and had a sterling resume. He was an honors graduate at Baylor University, a Rhodes Scholar, graduated from law school at Oklahoma, was a White House Fellow, then practiced with a big firm in Oklahoma City before settling in eastern Oklahoma. After replacing Coburn in the 2nd Congressional District, he had one of the most moderate voting records of any House Democrat; he favored gun rights, the death penalty and the war in Iraq. Happy to have a politically adept candidate with a chance in a heavily Republican state, national Democrats eagerly supported him, and Carson raised more money than Coburn.
Coburn described himself as a part-time lawmaker, determined to uphold principle and willing to take on his own party’s leadership. Carson described himself as a practical-minded lawmaker, committed to “fight[ing] for Oklahoma” and eager for bipartisanship. Carson was aided by Coburn’s penchant for impolitic statements, saying Coburn “already made us a laughingstock all across not only the country but the whole globe.” State Democratic Chairman Jay Parmley called Coburn “just flat crazy” and an “extremist.” Coburn sought to link Carson to high profile liberals in his party, saying: “Brad Carson is a vote for Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton to run the Senate.” The race was close going into September, when the most incendiary issue was raised. News broke of a lawsuit, long since settled, by a woman who claimed Coburn in 1990 sterilized her without her consent when operating on her ectopic pregnancy, and then filed a false Medicaid claim. Coburn said the woman gave oral consent and that he’d never sought reimbursement for the sterilization. A Carson ad said Coburn “sterilized an underage girl without her consent,” then committed Medicaid fraud “to get paid for the illegal procedure.” Coburn charged that Democrats had connived with reporters to raise the issue.
In spite of some negative fallout from the revelations, Coburn won by a solid 53%-41%. Carson carried all but two of the counties in his congressional district and won in some other rural, historically Democratic counties. But Coburn won in the major cities, 56%-37% in the Oklahoma City area and 55%-41% in the Tulsa area. Interestingly, exit polls showed that more voters considered Carson more extreme than Coburn.
In the Senate, Coburn resumed the belligerent politics honed during his House days. He was delighted to discover that Senate rules give any one individual the ability to obstruct proceedings far more than is the case in the House. Coburn said, “I’ll be sleeping every night” with the 1,500-page Riddick’s Senate Procedure. He was a quick study, turning his attention to the nation’s “unsustainable course financially,” and the need for accountability and transparency in federal spending. He vowed he would not seek earmarks, the special provisions that lawmakers insert into appropriations bills for their home districts and states. And he became a self-appointed taxpayers’ watchdog on the Senate floor, often criticizing the earmarks of fellow senators. More than once, he was the only senator opposing passage of an appropriations bill. When he tried to delete $453 million that had been added for two bridges in Alaska, Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska exploded in anger: “If the Senate decides to discriminate against our state ... I will resign from this body,” he said. Coburn lost that vote, 82-15, but he felt that he had made his point.
On dollars and cents issues, Coburn can be just as tough on members of his own party as he is on Democrats. He complained that the Bush administration’s handling of budget requests for the war in Iraq through “emergency” supplemental spending bills was a phony way to do business. He teamed with Illinois liberal Sen. Barack Obama in 2006 to win enactment of a proposal to create a central database for citizens to track federal grants and contracts. “This bill is a small but significant step toward changing the culture in Washington,” he said. Obama talked up their collaboration during his presidential campaign in 2008.
Coburn has established a solidly conservative voting record. Pursuing his interest in health care, he sponsored a bill to fund research of embryonic stem cells so long as the research would not harm a human embryo. He also unveiled a sweeping market-based health care reform package designed to provoke debate, including a malpractice court that would be similar to the workers’ compensation system. Coburn challenged the Senate rule that bars senators from earning money practicing medicine. When the Rules and Administration Committee directed him to stop practicing medicine because it was a conflict of interest with his Senate duties, Coburn adamantly objected and insisted that it “will make me a better senator” who understands real world problems. In 2005, on a procedural vote to permit him to see patients without making a profit, Coburn got 51 votes, but that was short of the 60 required to prevail. The result was “a moral victory,” he said, and he vowed to continue the fight. He prefers to be called Dr. Coburn.
But many Democrats call him Dr. No. After Democrats took the majority in January 2007, Coburn was aggressive in challenging Senate operations and repeatedly delayed routine measures, infuriating Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid. When Reid bundled them together in an attempt to pass them, Democrats sarcastically described it as the “Coburn Omnibus Bill.” Republicans complained Coburn was being unfairly targeted.
One of Coburn major efforts in recent years is an “A to Z” rewriting of the federal budget, and he joined other Senate Republicans on a “fiscal watch team.” He said in 2007, “My intention is not to create ill will. My intention is to follow my oath. … How are we affording the government that we have? The answer to that is, we’re borrowing from the next two generations. I’d much rather have the ill will of my peers here than place a much larger burden on the next generation.”
Democrats believe that they could give Coburn a stiff re-election contest in 2010, especially if popular Gov. Brad Henry runs. The senator also could be showing some vulnerability as a result of his minor role in the sex scandal enveloping Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. Coburn, who shares a Capitol Hill townhouse with Ensign, admitted to The New York Times that he served as an intermediary between Ensign and Doug Hampton, a former Ensign aide whose wife had an affair with Ensign. After the affair, the Hamptons received $96,000 from Ensign and also his help establishing Doug Hampton as a lobbyist, according to the newspaper’s October 2, 2009 account.