updated 7/15/2008 7:22:32 PM ET 2008-07-15T23:22:32

Oklahoma, our fifth-newest state, celebrating its centennial in 2007, is proud of its history of rising from humble beginnings, but not sure whether it is keeping pace with the growth and growing sophistication of the American economy. The fact that it is one of only five states admitted to the Union in the 20th century may come as a surprise to most Americans, but not to Oklahomans; the Capitol dome, left unconstructed when the Capitol was opened in 1917, was finally finished in 2002. But all of Oklahoma’s history has been a story of stops and sudden starts. Oklahoma was settled in a rush, first by the Five Civilized Tribes driven west by Andrew Jackson’s troops over the Cherokees’ Trail of Tears in the 1830s. Then came white settlers one morning in April 1889 when, in the great land rush memorialized in an Edna Ferber novel and half a dozen Hollywood movies, thousands of would-be homesteaders drove their wagons across the territorial line at the sound of a gunshot, the most adventurous or unscrupulous of them literally jumping the gun—the Sooners. In 1905, a convention of the Civilized Nations, as they became known, sought to have eastern Oklahoma admitted as a separate state of Sequoyah. Washington instead ended the tribal government and admitted what had been the Indian and Oklahoma Territories as a single state.

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The heritage of these rushes remains. Oklahoma has the second-largest Indian population in the country, after California—273,000 in the 2000 Census—though there is just one reservation and the status of many other tribal entities is often disputed. Some Indian tribes here have unsuccessfully sought a return of native lands and face high unemployment rates. But there has been much intermarriage over the years, and many Oklahomans—and not a few of its politicians—proudly claim Indian blood. Assimilation into everyday life, plus commemoration of historic traditions and efforts to keep the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole languages from dying out—you can see street signs in the Cherokee alphabet in Tahlequah—seem to have provided a better life for most Native Americans here than other approaches have elsewhere. The counties with a large Indian heritage in the eastern part of the state have been growing smartly, even as the Great Plains farm and oil counties west of Oklahoma City and Tulsa have lost population, and Indians own 6% of businesses in Oklahoma, about equal to their 7% share of the popualtion.

The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical recalled an Oklahoma on the brink of statehood—an event that came late, in 1907, at which point the territory filled up with farmers, rising from 1.5 million people in 1907 to 2.4 million in 1930. Oil helped: The first well was drilled here in 1897 and by 1920, Tulsa was an oil boom town. Then in the 1930s came a decade of bust—or dust—as soil loosened by erosion was whipped into giant swirling clouds: The Dust Bowl. “On a single day, I heard, 50 million tons of soil were blown away,” John Gunther reported later. “People sat in Oklahoma City, with the sky invisible for three days in a row, holding dust masks over their faces and wet towels to protect their mouths at night, while the farms blew by.” Okies headed in droves west on U.S. 66 to the green land of California, and Oklahoma’s population sank to 2.3 million in 1940 and 2.2 million in 1950, not to reach its 1930 level again until 1970.

Then oil brought another boom: As the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 sent oil prices up, Oklahoma’s population rose from 2.5 million in 1970 to 3 million in 1980 and 3.3 million in 1983. Then, with the collapse of oil prices and of Oklahoma’s farm economy as well, it was bust again. A giddy rise was followed by a giddier fall: The rig count fell from 882 in January 1982 to 232 in February 1983 and was just 186 in May 2007. The 1990 Census reported just 3.1 million Oklahomans, after more than a decade of population increases. But in the 1990s, Oklahoma began building a more diversified economy, with high-tech employers as well as oil and gas firms. Population rose 10% in the decade, to 3.45 million in 2000, and another 4% to 3.58 million in 2006. High oil prices made it worthwhile to squeeze more of its marginal wells, and Oklahoma’s natural gas—it’s the second state in production, after Texas—has commanded high prices given strong demand. Oklahoma continues to have above-average rates of divorce, teenage pregnancy and crime, and a low rate of college graduates, but unemployment has been low and a Chinese company is building a plant to produce British-style MGs near Ardmore. Oklahoma knows it has risen far, but still has some distance to go.

In federal elections, Oklahoma is a safely Republican state—George W. Bush carried all 77 counties in 2004—but in state politics there is vigorous two-party competition and Democrats still have an edge in party registration. But they are conservative Democrats: the NEP exit poll showed Republicans leading Democrats by only 43%-40% in party identification, but conservatives outnumbered liberals 43%-13%. The state’s congressional delegation includes only one Democrat, Congressman Dan Boren, son of former Governor David Boren, the only Democrat elected here to the U.S. Senate since 1966. Democratic Governor Brad Henry was reelected in 2006 by a 67%-33% margin, and Democrats won all but one statewide race that year. Republicans captured a 57–44 majority in the state House in 2004 and held it in 2006; they gained two seats the latter year in the state Senate for a 24–24 tie. The parties agreed to share control, with equal numbers on each committee, but the tie-breaking vote will be cast by Democratic Lieutenant Governor Jari Askins.

For many years Oklahoma politics was a struggle between Oklahoma City and Tulsa Republicans and rural Democrats, and that was the dynamic between 1994 and 2002, when Tulsa-based Republican Frank Keating was governor and the legislature was run by rural-based Democrats. Keating prevailed on many issues and got voters to pass a right-to-work law, long opposed by the legislature, by a 54%-46% margin in September 2001. But another, quite different ballot proposition helped to elect Democrat Brad Henry governor in November 2002. The issue was cockfighting: Oklahoma was one of three states that allowed it (the others, Louisiana and New Mexico, banned the practice in 2007); the issue split voters not on party, but on urban/rural lines. Keating favored the ban; rural Democrats opposed it. It passed by 2–1 in metro Oklahoma City and Tulsa and by a 56%-44% margin statewide. But rural areas voted against, 55%-45%, and in Little Dixie (southeast and east central Oklahoma), where cockfighting is part of local culture, voters turned out in large numbers to oppose it. These are, as it happens, counties with an historic Democratic tradition, the home of U.S. House Speaker (1971–76) Carl Albert, a tradition that still carries over into state politics. Increased Democratic turnout in anti-cockfighting counties was probably responsible for Henry’s 6,866-vote victory.


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