Oklahoma, our fifth-newest state, is approaching its centennial in 2007 proud of its history of rising from humble beginnings, but not sure whether it is keeping pace with the growth and growing sophistication of the American economy. The fact that it is one of only five states admitted to the Union in the 20th century may come as a surprise to most Americans, but not to Oklahomans; the Capitol dome, left unconstructed when the Capitol was opened in 1917, was finally finished in 2002. But all of Oklahoma's history has been a story of stops and sudden starts. Oklahoma was settled in a rush, first by the Five Civilized Tribes driven west by Andrew Jackson's troops over the Cherokees' Trail of Tears in the 1830s. Then came white settlers one morning in April 1889 when, in the great land rush memorialized in an Edna Ferber novel, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and half a dozen Hollywood movies, thousands of would-be homesteaders drove their wagons across the territorial line at the sound of a gunshot, the most adventurous or unscrupulous of them literally jumping the gun--the Sooners.
The heritage of these rushes remains. Oklahoma has the second-largest Indian population in the country, after California--273,000 in the 2000 Census--though there is just one reservation and the status of many other tribal entities is often disputed. Some Indian tribes here have unsuccessfully sought a return of native lands and face high unemployment rates. But there has been much intermarriage over the years, and many Oklahomans--and not a few of its politicians--proudly claim Indian blood. Assimilation into everyday life, plus commemoration of historic traditions and efforts to keep the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole languages from dying out--you can see street signs in the Cherokee alphabet in Tahlequah--seem to have provided a better life for most Native Americans here than other approaches have elsewhere. The counties with a large Indian heritage in the eastern part of the state have been growing smartly, even as the Great Plains farm and oil counties west of Oklahoma City and Tulsa have lost population.
Statehood came to Oklahoma late, in 1907, at which point it filled up with farmers, rising from 1.5 million people in 1907 to 2.4 million in 1930. Oil helped: The first well was drilled here in 1897 and by 1920, Tulsa was an oil boom town. Then in the 1930s came a decade of bust--or dust--as soil loosened by erosion was whipped into giant swirling clouds: The Dust Bowl. ''On a single day, I heard, 50 million tons of soil were blown away,'' John Gunther reported later. ''People sat in Oklahoma City, with the sky invisible for three days in a row, holding dust masks over their faces and wet towels to protect their mouths at night, while the farms blew by.'' Okies headed in droves west on U.S. 66 to the green land of California, and Oklahoma's population sank to 2.3 million in 1940 and 2.2 million in 1950, not to reach its 1930 level again until 1970.
Then oil brought another boom: As the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 sent oil prices up, Oklahoma's population rose from 2.5 million in 1970 to 3 million in 1980 and 3.3 million in 1983. Then, with the collapse of oil prices and of Oklahoma's farm economy as well, it was bust again. A giddy rise was followed by a giddier fall: The rig count fell from 882 in January 1982 to 232 in February 1983 and was just 153 in April 2005. Just as the dust cloud symbolized Oklahoma's 1930s bust, so the auction of oil drilling equipment was a symbol of the 1980s calamity. The 1990 Census reported just 3.1 million Oklahomans, after more than a decade of population increases. But in the 1990s, Oklahoma began building a more diversified economy, with high-tech employers as well as oil and gas firms. Population rose 10% in the decade, to 3.45 million in 2000, and another 2% to 3.52 million in 2004. But incomes have not risen much, and Oklahoma continues to have above-average rates of divorce, teenage pregnancy and crime, and a low rate of college graduates. Oklahoma knows it has risen far, but still has some distance to go.
In federal elections, Oklahoma is a safely Republican state--George W. Bush carried all 77 counties in 2004--but in state politics there is vigorous two-party competition and Democrats still have an edge in party registration. But they are conservative Democrats: the NEP exit poll showed Republicans leading Democrats by only 43%-40% in party identification, but conservatives outnumbered liberals 43%-13%. The state's House delegation was transformed from 4-2 Democratic to 6-0 Republican between 1991 to 1994, and now, with the loss of a seat in the 2000 Census, is 4-1 Republican; since Senator David Boren retired in 1994, both Senate seats have been held by Republicans.
For many years Oklahoma politics was a struggle between Oklahoma City and Tulsa Republicans and rural Democrats, and that was the dynamic between 1994 and 2002, when Tulsa-based Republican Frank Keating was governor and the legislature was run by rural-based Democrats. Keating prevailed on many issues and got voters to pass a right-to-work law, long opposed by the legislature, by a 54%-46% margin in September 2001. But another, quite different ballot proposition helped to elect Democrat Brad Henry governor in November 2002. The issue was cockfighting: Oklahoma was one of three states that allowed it (the others are Louisiana and New Mexico); the issue split voters not on party, but on urban/rural lines. Keating favored the ban; rural Democrats opposed it. It passed by 2-1 in metro Oklahoma City and Tulsa and by a 56%-44% margin statewide. But rural areas voted against, 55%-45%, and in Little Dixie (southeast and east central Oklahoma), where cockfighting is part of local culture, voters turned out in large numbers to oppose it. These are, as it happens, counties with an historic Democratic tradition, the home of U.S. House Speaker (1971-76) Carl Albert, a tradition that still carries over into state politics. Increased Democratic turnout in anti-cockfighting counties was probably responsible for the 6,866-vote defeat of the Republican candidate for governor, former Tulsa Congressman Steve Largent, by rural-based Democrat Brad Henry. Once in office, Henry has proved popular. His platform--a higher cigarette tax for health programs, a lottery for education, racetrack gambling machines--was put on the ballot by the legislature in spring 2004 and approved by the voters in November.