Requiem for a little giant: Remembering Brenda Reneau

OKLAHOMA CITY – At a small community cemetery, after a service in Muskogee, family and friends said farewell to former Oklahoma Commissioner of Labor Brenda Reneau on Dec. 13.

From the final place of rest for her earthly remains, the hills of eastern Oklahoma glimmered whenever the sun peaked from behind gray clouds. Flecks of snow were reminders of a blizzard that blanketed the Sooner State when she died in Oklahoma City eight days before.

In 12 years and three terms in office, she was nationally acclaimed for development of a voluntary workplace safety program, which saw labor-related accidents decline steadily.

Years before, after beginning as staff secretary for Oklahoma’s Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), Reneau rose to become executive director of the “open shop” trade association.

After beating a union sycophant in the 1994 election, her legacy, as recounted by Republican National Committeeman Steve Fair, included what Samuel Cook deemed “uncommon courage” in a 2005 book, “ Freedom in the Workplace.”

When she took office at a Capitol still dominated by Democrats, Reneau the Republican – shortest of all elected officials — railed against the state’s “little Davis-Bacon” (prevailing wage) Act. Among other things, she pointed out how such strictures froze out African-Americans and Hispanics from construction and manufacturing job opportunities.

A Wall Street Journal editorial in 2006, looking back a decade into her tenure, credited her for documenting how “many of the [prevailing] wage survey forms submitted to the US Department of Labor to calculate federal wage rates in her state were simply wrong. In one instance, records show that an underground storage tank was built using 20 plumbers and pipefitters making $21.05 per hour, however no such project was ever built.

“In another case several asphalt machine operators were reported to have constructed a parking lot at an IRS building and they had been paid $15 an hour, when in reality no asphalt operators were used to build the concrete lot.” 

At the peak of the wage fury, she told friends about threats she faced, with unwelcome intermediaries telling Reneau her “life is worth about 1,000,” but that her legs could be broken “for $500.”

Once the dam broke against in-state prevailing wage fraud, she focused on the right to work. She emphasized the morality of personal freedom, rather than business costs.

Although allied with Gov. Frank Keating, she pressed him to keep that issue front-and-center. He obliged, calling in every one of his State of the State addresses for the Legislature to slate a voter referendum. After hesitating to disrupt custom in the state Senate – still controlled by Democrats — then-Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin ultimately seized the gavel to preside and force a vote, using a rarely-exercised constitutional power as Reneau had encouraged for years.

Right to work lost in that 2000 session, but in the November election, three key swing-vote Democrats lost to pro-right-to-work Republicans.

The rest is Oklahoma history, a prelude to recent history in places like Indiana and Michigan.

Marc Nuttle, a national political consultant from Norman, came home from Washington to lead the 2001 campaign to get a referendum scheduled and then approved by the people. Reneau stepped back a bit as Keating, Fallin and others became the faces of the campaign. In the highest turnout special election in state history, right to work won by eight percent.

After her death, Nuttle said Reneau “had a lion’s heart for righteousness and a Churchillian commitment to the ideal that our state and nation must do the right thing. She never thought of herself first, always others. Her purpose in life was to see that everyone had the ultimate opportunity to be all they could be.”

Nuttle said, “When a giant like Brenda Reneau leaves the scene, a hole is left in the fabric of society that can only be filled by the legacy she established, allowing for those who remain to finish the work.”

Other tributes came from friends like former Corporation Commissioner Denise Bode, old foes like two-term Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, and a loving tribute from another Democrat, former Schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett, who found and forwarded to CapitolBeatOK a photo from the 1995 swearing-in for state officials.

As for Fallin, the state’s current chief executive wrote to Brenda’s family to call her “a kindred spirit.” 

Reneau “made a difference. The state is more prosperous, our workers safer and our laws are better because of her.”

At her Dec 13 service, Reneau’s casket was covered with a state flag that Fallin directed be flown over the state Capitol two days before.
Brenda the little giant forgave her enemies, converting some into fellow advocates for market-oriented policies.

Far better than me at forgive and forget, she was a mystery in many ways, although I worked with her for four years. Still, I related to her love of nature, in which she had gifts of discernment like St. Francis of Assisi.

French writer Fabrice Hadjadj perceives natural signs of higher truth usually masked here below. Hadjadj once wrote, “Where do we see things that are a sign? Take the three most striking cases: the experience of beauty, of truth, and of good.”

Brenda was a practical conservative who honored creation even in small things. She would have found a soul mate in Hadjadj, for whom even a blade of grass captures “the mystery of the whole cosmos.”

At farewell, Hadjadj’s words rolled in my mind: “The whole of being is a sign of the Mystery, and the more I go toward heaven, the more heaven, in its turn, reminds me of earth.”

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