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What makes a good governor?

Written by Dick Pryor on Friday July 9, 2010


Who is Oklahoma's best governor?  That's a question posed by Oklahoma Gazette staff writer Scott Cooper last year, as he gathered a group of political and historical experts to discuss and evaluate Oklahoma's 24 chief executives for a Gazette cover story published on November 25, 2009.

It's an interesting question, and the results were fascinating, although not entirely unpredictable.  With Oklahoma voters going to the polls this year to choose the next governor, we thought this would be a good time to discuss the rankings with three members of the blue-ribbon panel:  Oklahoma City lawyer Lee Slater, former Secretary of the Oklahoma State Election Board; Scott Cooper; and Dr. Kenny Brown, Professor of History and Geography at the University of Central Oklahoma.  Our goal was not only to discuss the top governors, but to analyze those skills and accomplishments that make a governor good.

If there was a common denominator for the top governors, it would be courage and the willingness to do what is right in the face of political opposition, even defeat.  Lee Slater's first experience with a governor was in 1960, with J. Howard Edmondson, when Slater was in high school.  So, he's had personal experience with four of the top five on the list.  Slater said that something that separates the best from the rest is their efforts at bringing about change.  Edmondson not only was effective on television, but he supported the end of prohibition,  created the state central purchasing system and championed merit pay for state employees.  Edmondson was chosen number three on the best governors list. 

The others in the top five each had distinctive contributions to the state.  George Nigh, at number five, was considered Oklahoma's greatest cheerleader.  Nigh sat in the governor's chair on four different occasions: after being appointed in 1963 and 1979, and following his election in 1978 and 1982.  He helped guide the state through one of its worst financial crises during the oil bust of the early 80's.

The panel picked David Boren as the fourth-best governor in state history.  The consummate politican, Boren got high marks for delivering on his promises to clean up corruption.  He also modernized the state Constitution and went on to become one of the state's greatest U.S. Senators before becoming president of the University of Oklahoma in 1994.

Number was Raymond Gary, which our panel said was a bit of a surprise.  The surprise was that after looking at Gary's contributions to the state in just one term, he shot up the list.  Gary was a champion for civil rights, and led the move to integrate Oklahoma schools, without the violence that plauged other states at the time.  In addition, Gary improved the state's roads, created the Department of Commerce and Oklahoma Today magazine, and improved the state's mental health system.  Voters did not elect Gary to another term, or to a seat in the U.S. Senate, but his mark on the state was unmistakable. 

Scott Cooper said the easy winner as the best governor in state history was Henry Bellmon, the unassuming farmer from Billings.  After a stint in the U.S. Marines during World War II, Bellmon got involved in politics and became the father of the modern Oklahoma Republican Party.  He rose to prominence as chair of the party (in a time when Republicans were in a distinct minority in Oklahoma) and won the gubernatorial election of 1962 on the strength of his message of "no new taxes" and the need for two viable parties in the state.   Lee Slater said Bellmon might have made the top five based on his first term alone, but it was Bellmon's second term (following a stint in the U.S. Senate) that clinched his place in history.  Dr. Kenny Brown pointed out that Bellmon was not afraid to buck his own party and did what he thought was best for the state.  Bellmon fought a big fight over education reform, and won, cementing his reputation as one of Oklahoma's most courageous and effective governors.

I hope that voters gain some insight from this program about what makes a governor great, so they can be better informed when they go to the polls on day of the Oklahoma primary election, July 27, and again on general election day, November 2.

By the way, in case you are wondering, the second five governors were, from six to ten:  Robert S. Kerr, Brad Henry, Alfalfa Bill Murray, Charles Haskell, and Leon Phillips.  What do you think?  Let us know how YOU would rate the governors.  Thanks for reading.

Until next time,

Dick Pryor

(Pictured above, left to right:  Host Dick Pryor, Lee Slater, Scott Cooper, Dr. Kenny Brown)


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