By Patrick B. McGuigan
Oklahoma is one of three states where the Commissioner of Labor is elected. The position is among the eight statewide non-federal positions voters will consider in the November 2 election.
After the agency functioned as an extension of the state’s labor unions for most of its history, in 1994 Brenda Reneau of Fort Gibson, a Republican who had served as an executive with the “open shop” Associated Builders and Contractors, was elected. She held the job for three terms, the first woman (and only Republican) ever elected to the post.
In the Democratic surge of 2006, Reneau lost the closest statewide election, to former state Rep. Lloyd Fields, who is seeking reelection this year.
In the 2010 campaign, businessman Mark Costello, the Republican nominee, is leading in public opinion surveys. He has a huge spending advantage over the incumbent. Reneau supported Oklahoma City attorney Jason Reese in the GOP primary, and has remained silent since then.
In a recent interview, Reneau told CapitolBeatOK she had “cordial” conversations with Costello earlier this year. However, she asked him about “scuttlebutt” in Republican circles indicating that Jim Marshall, a former aide, was in charge of the Costello campaign.
In reply, Reneau said Costello told her Marshall was “a good friend” but was not playing a role in his campaign, save as a personal advisor.
Marshall left the Labor Department during Reneau’s tenure, and later went to work for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brent Rinehart. Marshall also is an ally of Randy Terrill, now a controversial Republican state representative embroiled in a corruption investigation by the Oklahoma County District Attorney. Terrill supported Fields in the 2006 campaign.
Reneau is concerned that Marshall’s return to the agency could negatively effect morale and further erode what she calls “the important work” there.
Separately from Reneau, CapitolBeatOK asked Costello last spring about Marshall’s rumored involvement. Costello said Marshall had no daily role in the campaign.
However, CapitolBeatOK has learned that one of the most respected and experienced radio advertising brokers in the state was ousted from the Costello campaign this summer – and that the message was delivered by Jim Marshall, on Costello’s behalf.
Jon Nickens’ credentials in Oklahoma media advertising are unassailable. His first client was the late, great Henry Bellmon, long-time U.S. Senator and twice governor of the state.
Nickens worked for Don Nickles three times, and the same for J.C. Watts and Frank Lucas. Frank Keating twice had the benefit of Nickens’ fact-driven but intuitive approach to radio “buys.” Other clients have included Jim Inhofe and occasionally leading Democrats, including former U.S. Rep. Glenn English, and the late Mike Synar.
Nickens told CapitolBeatOK, “My reputation in serving the client is the most important thing to me. I get my clients radio interviews and ask for the best placement of ads on each station. Since I send the stations their money, unlike other networks, they respond to my request.”
For purposes of this report, however, Nickens’ best credential might be his proven ability to make deft radio ad purchases for former Labor Commissioner Reneau, who used him in her campaigns. Nickens was also mastermind of radio strategies for the late 1990s drive promoting right to work, which passed as a state constitutional amendment in 2001.
CapitolBeatOK has learned that in his conversations with Reneau and this writer, Costello understated Marshall’s role in his campaign.
In interviews and a written description, Nickens described in some detail his relations with Costello, and Marshall’s role as campaign manager in all but name.
“In March of this year, I was contacted by Jim Marshall to put together a buy for Mark Costello.” As Nickens explained, that’s “the Jim Marshall, of the Rinehart and Tim Pope group. As a matter of fact, Tim Pope, before his death, convinced Mark to seek the post of Labor Commissioner.”
Rinehart, the former county commissioner, and Pope, a former state representative who opposed Reneau in the 2002 Republican primaries, were both subjects of investigations for violation of state laws.
Costello, working with Marshall, engaged Nickens to arrange his radio advertising purchases. At the campaign’s request, Nickens says he “contracted a friend to produce the ad. Mr. Costello wanted a second voice on the ad but did not want Jim Marshall’s voice. He was concerned that the stigma of Marshall would be a hindrance to his campaign.”
Nickens “contracted Gary Owens to be the second voice. I paid, out of my pocket, $100 for the talent. I told Mark that that was my donation to the campaign. I am sure this was not listed in his campaign donations to the authorities.”
Then, Nickens ran “another schedule for Mark and was asked to put together a very complex schedule that would coincide with his speeches. After hours of work, this was cancelled and I was out of time and effort and long distance calls.
“In the meantime, Jim Marshall told me that Mark had been contacted by an ad agency, Beals and Cunningham, to produce TV and Print Ads. I asked Jim if I was being replaced and was told in no way would he let that happen.”
But that was before things changed: “On July 8, Jim called and left a message that I was to call him regarding an update. I was sure it was in regards to the pending schedule that had been cancelled. Not! Jim advised me that the agency had made a donation of $2,500 in return for the radio account.”
Marshall was the one to deliver the farewell from the Costello campaign, even though Marshall’s role was described by the candidate as “merely advisory” and that of “a friend.”
Nickens told CapitolBeatOK that he had “never been released from a campaign.”
His conclusions are blunt, and not complimentary to the Republican: “In my brief association with Mark Costello, I am convinced he asked for the donation in return for the radio account.”