TULSA, Okla. – “I don't say I am no better than anybody else but I’ll be damned if I ain’t just as good.”
That line from the iconic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical pretty much sums up the character of Oklahomans.
“It is quintessential frontier America,” said Frank Keating, the state’s Republican governor from 1995 until 2002. “That frontier work ethic has carried on in each generation, and so has a disdain for elites.”
Both political parties here strongly distrust anything “big” – government, money, regulations, egos. Although a reliably Republican state in national elections, Democrats’ registration tops the GOP’s – but Oklahoma Democrats are quick to say they are not “national” Dems.
“I think we are different, given our background and mix of cultures,” said Wallace Collins, chairman of the state’s Democrats.
Oklahoma Democrats have not changed much but the national political culture has, according to Eldon Eisenach, a retired Tulsa University political theorist.
“The Republican Party recognized the seismic shift. The Democratic Party, entrenched and isolated in liberal elite institutions, did not and they are paying the price,” he said.
“Can you imagine the electoral disaster if the Democratic Party embraced Occupy Wall Street? Worse than 1968 Chicago.”
Indeed, just 100 people attended an Occupy Tulsa protest.
Down the road, Olivia Roberts waits tables full-time at Andale’s, a South Tulsa family restaurant; she is finishing a college degree and has a three-month-old daughter. Juggling all three is “just normal,” she says, what she should do to provide for her daughter’s future.
Rob Allen is up at 5 a.m. daily to shuttle people from a Tulsa hotel to the airport; he also is a flight instructor and is finishing a degree, too. He’d like to become a corporate-jet pilot and laughs nervously over how President Obama uses that profession as an elitist symbol.
As president, Obama has not visited the Sooner State; as a candidate, he attended a fundraiser here hosted by Tulsa billionaire George Kaiser in 2007. Kaiser was thrust into the national spotlight for his role in Solyndra, the taxpayer-backed solar company that went bankrupt.
Vice President Joe Biden was here just weeks ago, also to raise cash. State party chairman Collins said Kaiser didn’t attend, although Federal Election Commission records show his son, Philip, donated $5,000 at that time.
While Oklahomans don't affect national Democrats in the voting booth, they do donate generously to them.
“We send far more money to Dem candidates than is spent in the state during the presidential campaign,” said Ronald Gaddie, a University of Oklahoma political science professor.
Sooners have not always loved Republicans; Democrats, starting with William Jennings Bryan, dominated here from 1908 until the mid-20th century.
Oklahoma Democrats were primarily border-state immigrants with Jacksonian-Democrat values. And Oklahoma politics always has been about populism and a form of moral conservatism, according to Gaddie: “This is the only state to ever come into the Union 'dry' and with half of the state population attending church at least weekly.”
The state continues to be a repository of conservative social thought. Keep government small and you keep it from encroaching on liberty, the typical Oklahoman believes.
So as Democrats gravitated away from providing federal dollars for state infrastructure and toward trying to “modernize” society, Oklahomans moved right.
Oklahoma – terminus of the “Trail of Tears” that forcibly relocated tribal nations such as the Cherokee and Chickasaw from southeastern states – maintains a rich, thriving Native American culture that is active in the state’s political character.
T.W. Shannon says he breaks just about every stereotype of an elected Republican: “Let’s see, I am African-American and Chickasaw.” He broke two more stereotypes last week when fellow state House members elected him as the state’s and the nation’s first black Republican legislative speaker.
Shannon started out as a Democrat but found himself more in sync with Republicans. Yet “no matter what party people are part of in this state,” he said, “everyone shares this unflinching work ethic.”
You can see that as Rob Allen, the airport-van driver, cheerfully unloads passengers who scurry to catch flights. One of them tips him, and he stares as she disappears into the terminal.
“I was just doing my job,” he says.