Sen. Harry Coates as Senate President Pro Temp

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Maneuvering is under way to determine future leadership of the state Senate, with at least one source telling this reporter a “coup” in time for the 2010 session is possible.

State Sen. Harry Coates of Seminole said in an interview last week with The Tulsa World he has the support needed to become President Pro Temp of the state Senate, a position now held by fellow Republican Sen. Glenn Coffee of Oklahoma City.

Given the close partisan division in the state Legislature’s upper chamber, Coates’ route to the top job may be clouded, whether he is aiming to unseat Coffee this winter or, more likely, hoping to become the top Senator in 2011.

Coates told The World he believes he can settle the race within the GOP caucus, but he already has the support of Charlie Laster, the Senate Democrat (minority) leader. Republicans presently have a 26-22 edge in the Senate.

Sen. Coates said “a lot of things can change” in the coming weeks. He reiterated he expects the next election for Pro Temp to be settled among GOP senators, but expressed appreciation for Laster’s supportive comments. Coates stressed repeatedly that he is running for election as Pro Temp in 2011.

Candidates seeking to run the upper chamber beginning in 14 months include Coates, Brian Bingman of Sapulpa, Brian Crain of Tulsa and Cliff Aldridge of Midwest City. The situation may be clearer by Wednesday of this week, after GOP caucus meetings on Monday and Tuesday.

Last month, Capitol sources told this reporter there may be three Republican Senators inclined for varied reasons support an effort to unseat Coffee in time for the 2010 legislative session. Although such a dramatic turn seems unlikely, it is not inconceivable.

The source named the senators as Aldridge of Midwest City, Jim Reynolds of Oklahoma City, and Anthony Sykes of Moore. (As The World’s Barbara Hoberock reported, Aldridge is also a candidate for the Pro Temp’s position.)

However, in an interview on Sunday, Reynolds flatly declared there has been “absolutely no discussion” with him about a 2010 “coup” and that he has no intention to abandoning Coffee.

As for Sen. Coffee, whose tenure in the Senate will end next year due to term limits, he was contacted for a comment but customarily does not discuss publicly internal Republican Senate caucus issues.

As Coates noted in our interview, the final decision on leadership does not rest with the caucus of either political party, but with the membership of the Senate as a whole.

Coalition legislative majorities are rare, but not unprecedented. If any three Republicans bolted to join Laster and the 22 Democratic senators in a bipartisan coalition, Coates could prevail in time for the 2010 session. But if they stayed with the current Pro Temp and the remainder of the caucus, even in the event of Coates’ shift away from fellow Republicans, Coffee would maintain a 25-23 edge and remain in control of the Senate.

The final complicating piece of the puzzle would be if any two Republicans bolted to join a unified Democratic caucus, the upper chamber would be tied as it was after the 2006 election. That might lead to another power sharing agreement such as that forged for two years between Coffee and former state Sen. Mike Morgan of Stillwater, a Democrat.