'Throw 'em all out': Oklahoma vs. officeholders

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MUSKOGEE, Okla. -- For a look at an angry voter, meet Gary Armstrong.

"In eight years, I've taken two weeks' vacation to keep this business going while Congress is buying $700 toilet seats," fumed Mr. Armstrong, who owns the Lunch Box, a mom-and-pop restaurant popular with the courthouse crowd in this one-time frontier town that was a favored haven of outlaws. "We're being taxed to death, chipped away at year after year, and people are sick of it.

"It don't take an Okie from Muskogee to tell you something's wrong with the system," he said. "I've lost my faith. On our ballots I'd like to see a box for 'Throw 'em all out, check here.' I just wonder how many checks it would get?"

In Oklahoma -- perhaps a lot.

Last month, Oklahoma -- whose residents have long been known for their feistiness -- became the first state in the nation to register official discontent with "them damn rascals," a polite term for politicians around here. By a 2-to-1 margin, voters backed a 12-year limit on the tenure of state legislators.

They probably won't be the last.

Other states, most notably California and Colorado, are expected to follow Oklahoma's lead as voters like Mr. Armstrong express their dissatisfaction with career politicians at the ballot box.

"Oklahoma has a history of good-old-boy politics," said Carl Woods, who's in the oil business in Muskogee, a struggling working-class community that fewer people move to than leave. "Once you get elected, you're in for life."

"There's a lot of 'you owe me this' and 'you owe me that.' The people of Oklahoma have suddenly realized that this problem has grown to such proportions that it has taken away the people's right to free elections," he said. "Once they're in, you can't get them out."

Angry voters aren't hard to come by in this prairie town of 40,000, where $7 an hour is considered quite good pay. Once larger than metropolitan Tulsa, 50 miles to the north, Muskogee enjoys a proud past rich with Indian lore, but it is the present -- and worries over the future -- that have humbled residents here.

Times have been tough for so long that the Chamber of Commerce recently pasted "Business Is Good" stickers on storefronts downtown in a bid to boost morale. The trouble is that no one believes it.

"What you're hearing is a collective cry of frustration on the part of the people," noted Don Betz, a professor of politics at Northeastern State University in nearby Tahlequah. "It's the cry of a state that's in the process of examining its options and finding them none too great.

"People are hurting, and they're trying to fix the hurt," he added. "In a way, people are seeking a kind of self-therapy. This makes the individual, isolated voter feel a sense of power over a system that makes one feel powerless."

Oklahoman Carl Albert, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, wrote recently that everything in Oklahoma is political except for politics. "They're personal," he said.

There are many here who would agree:

* At the 7-Eleven where 19-year-old Tammy Sampson works, three motorists gassed up last week and then sped away without paying. "Run-offs," she calls them.

"It's kind of hard to blame them," she said. "They need it and can't afford it. Gas is up to $1.41. I've had people get a dollar, or 75 cents or 52 cents, counting out their pennies. It's sad. I'm eating cheap, buying day-old bread and hoping the bill collectors don't call. I work hard. I go to college. What are those politicians doing for the hard-working people?"

* Motorcycle dealer Bo Stanfill, 39, said, "A lot of people are asking why when they're making $4 and $5 an hour are they bailing out the savings and loan crisis? We have a lot of plain, working-class people here, and we need help.

"What we don't need is career politicians. People want someone who's worked construction, maybe done a little bit of farming, someone who can relate to them when they get to the Capitol," he said. "They get there, and all of a sudden they forget who put them there."

* At Republican Party headquarters, which doesn't get a lot of walk-ins in a region where Democrats outnumber Republicans 4 to 1, Committeewoman Kit Stewart noted: "Everybody's just sick of the whole schmear: national, state and local politics. The more Congress tries to cram this tax bit down everybody's throat, the worse it gets. People around here believe they can spend their money better than Ted Kennedy can."

* Finishing off a piece of peach pie at Kelley's, semiretired plumberHazel Staggs, 76, said, "I went through the Depression in the '30s, and it was trouble. But if you had a dollar, it meant something. You have to have a hundred now for it to buy anything. Me -- I worry about my kids and my grandkids. This damn country's in sad shape."

Retired farmer Charles Harnage, another Kelley's regular, added: Washington closed down and they sent them all home, and they never came back, it would be all right with me."

Imposition of the 12-year limit on terms was widely viewed as a slap at career politicians, but there has been an interesting footnote: Of the 56 state legislative races that were determined in the September primary, only seven incumbents met defeat. But the discontent may be more clearly defined when the outcome of 69 remaining legislative races is determined in November.

While the legislature's performance has been historically maligned in opinion polls, the public always seems to come back for more.

A July poll by Oklahoma City political analyst Tom Kielhorn showed that 80 percent of voters did not approve of the job state lawmakers were doing, and 57 percent said they thought Oklahoma was headed in the wrong direction.

Traditionally, incumbents have enjoyed a re-election rate of 80 percent to 85 percent in Oklahoma, a state weighted with conservative Democrats.

"I think we're going to see some changes," said Mr. Kielhorn. "Voters are pretty well irritated by what's going on in state government. Folks want to see some turnover."

Oklahomans have endured several sizable tax increases over the past few years at a time the economy, battered by the oil bust, has been in the gutter. To make matters worse, many voters resent the rather handsome salary lawmakers receive -- $32,000 for a three-month legislative session.

"There's a lot of voter anger out there," said Gene Wallace, assistant to U.S. Representative Mike Synar, a Muskogee resident who fended off a worrisome primary bid by attorney Jack Ross. It was the toughest race that Mr. Synar, a Democrat completing his sixth term, has had to face.

"They're mad at state government; they're mad at Congress. Everyone is bleeding right now," said Mr. Wallace.

Not everyone believes that limits on legislative terms are a good idea. "What if you have Abraham Lincoln in there?" asked Mr. Betz. "You going to let him go after 12 years?"

But clearly, most are tired of a system that they truly believe has failed them.

"We don't need people in there who are after a retirement plan. We want people who can make tough decisions," said 30-year-old Steve Orr, a store manager. "It used to be an honor to work for the government -- no so anymore."

Back at the Lunch Box, the 47-year-old Mr. Armstrong serves up coffee with a stream of opinion that's echoed all over Muskogee.

"We're all having to work a little harder, work a little longer, and you keep hoping it will get a little bit easier," he said. "But each year, it gets harder just to keep your head up. I'm not very hopeful that things are going to get much better. Sometimes, I guess, we all feel forgotten."

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