For the Legislature at mid-cycle, the times, they are a-changin’

Deaths and resignations of sitting legislators are resulting in a cluster of special elections, inevitably triggering change at the state Capitol. Two deaths and three resignations have led to two special elections already. Three more are now likely, and it is not crystal clear whether those will be held in the old (2000 reapportionment) districts or the new (2010) ones.

Other shifts are occurring at mid-point in the 2011-12 legislative cycle, due to several changes in House and Senate leadership.

The shifts come after a year of eventful transformation of Oklahoma state government, dating to the historic 2010 elections that brought an all-Republican group to statewide elective offices for the first time in history.

The change sequence began with the resignation of Jim Reynolds in Senate District 43. The 11-year veteran left to become a county assessor. That set off a scramble to replace him for the last year of his four-year term in Senate District 43.

Complicating the process is the fact that the district change completely next year, as a result of reapportionment, moving far south and away from the south Oklahoma City/Moore/Del City area it has included (and where the recent contest was held).

In the October 11 election held to fill the vacancy, Republican Greg Childers easily prevailed over Democratic nominee Kenneth Meadow. On October 19, Childers took the oath as Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, president of the Senate, presided. Childers promised in the campaign, and in his remarks after swearing-in, to work on job creation, economic opportunity and “a great quality of life” for his constituents. Given residency and other requirements, it seems likely Childers will serve only one-year and be replaced in the new district. 

In House District 1, nominees for the two major parties have been selected after certification of primary results. The vacancy resulted from the July 4 death of Rusty Farley, the first Republican in history elected to represent the area that anchors what was once a Democratic bastion in “Little Dixie” – far southeast Oklahoma. 

Republican Joe Silk of Hochatown secured a majority (although runoffs are not required in special elections) in the primary to secure the Grand Old Party’s nomination last week. On the Democratic side, Curtis McDaniel of Smithville garnered 68.1 to become the nominee for the Feb. 14 special election.

For other legislative vacancies now “in play,” the picture is murky as to just where the elections will be held. State Election Board Chairman Paul Ziriax told CapitolBeatOK several weeks ago that the language of legislative reapportionment led him to believe any vacancies created after October 31 (official date the old districts lapsed) should be held in the new district lines

While not seeking a formal attorney general’s opinion, the election board has asked the office (which provides legal counsel to the board) for a legal analysis of the challenging question. Today (Wednesday, November 16), Ziriax told CapitolBeatOK he expects some movement this week. 

As a result of Sen. Andrew Rice’s announced intention to resign effective January 15, 2012, a change in Democratic leadership has already occurred, and an election will be held to choose his District 46 (Midtown Oklahoma City) successor. 

State Rep. Al McAffrey, incumbent in House 88, is heavily favored to nail down the Democratic nomination for the Rice seat, whenever and wherever the election is held. However, Republican Jason Reese – an unsuccessful candidate for state Labor Commissioner last year – is also looking at the race.

If McAffrey is elected to the Senate post early in the 2012 legislative session, that will create what would likely be a highly competitive contest for the Democratic nomination in what is now his district, an arguably more Democratic seat than in the past decade. 

The death of Sen. David Myers of Ponca City last week means voters will consider his replacement in District 20 some time next year, while the session is ongoing. 

Returning to the House of Representatives, the departure of Majority Floor Leader Dan Sullivan (who has taken the top job at the Grand River Dam Authority) will yield a vacancy in House District 71. Sullivan timed his departure for November 30.

A number of changes have occurred in the cast of leading actors and actresses in the Legisture itself. 

Although he won’t vacate his post until Jan. 15, Sen. Rice’s replacement as Senate Democratic Leader will be Sean Burrage of Claremore. Currently assistant floor leader, he served on the Appropriations, Energy and Transportation and Health and Human Services committees. He has been active in both reapportionment and the pension reform select committee.

Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman of Sapulpa will eventually name a successor to Sen. Myers as leader of the budget and appropriations panel. 

Just days ago, Speaker of the House Kris Steele, a Shawnee Republican, put state Rep. Lisa J. Billy of Purcell on the Water Committee, filling the slot held previously by Rep. Sullivan. Rep. Billy is a member of the Chickasaw Nation. Steele described her as “a tenacious, dedicated legislator whose skills will be a big help as we work on the highly important and complex issue of water policy.”

In an intriguing development, steele tapped Richard Morrissette, a south Oklahoma City Democrat, to fill the Appropriations Subcommittee (Human Services) job held this past year by state Rep. Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City. 

Nelson is assuming chairmanship of the committee. Steele said the pair will make a “dynamic team” as the Legislature tackles reforms of the troubled Department of Human Services (DHS). 

Steele said, in comments sent to CapitolBeatOK, “I know Representative Morrissette won’t be shy about putting forth bold ideas. When it comes to DHS, that’s precisely what we need.”

Early this month, Steele asked Rep. Dale DeWitt of Braman to become majority floor leader, replacing Sullivan upon his departure at month’s end. While a strong conservative, DeWitt garnered positive reviews from both sides of the aisle for guiding reapportionment of the House. 

The majority leader assigns bills to committees and schedules bills for floor debate. He also runs floor business during the legisaltsive session. Steele announced DeWitt will retain his varied committee assignments, as well. 

State Rep. Harold Wright of Weaatherford was elevated to deputy floor leader. State Rep. Ron Peters of Tulsa was pegged to become chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Utility Regulation.

That change displaced state Rep. John Trebilcock, also of Tulsa, from the top job on the panel. 

The McCarville Report Online reported the change before it was officially disclosed, noting a “scathing attack on Steele” that Trebilcock posted on his facebook page. Trebilcock asserted the change was made after he supported T.W. Shannon of Lawton in the speaker’s race, rather than Steele’s right-hand man, Jeff Hickman. 

However, McCarville reported (based on “several sources”) that “Steele took the action because of Trebilcock’s recent behavior, including his apparent inattention to the work of the committee.”