Dewey’s Not Making the Grade

March 14, 2013
Dan Keating

Former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil coined the phrase, “all politics is local,” which according to Wikipedia, encapsulates the principle that a politician’s success is directly tied to his ability to understand and influence the issues of his constituents.  Many times it is those personal issues, rather than the big ones of the day, that resonate with the voters. The principle goes that voters are not interested in sending messages.  They are interested in resolving problems involving local issues.

If you accept the premise, it is easy to see why the office of mayor is probably the hardest to manage in politics. Police corruption, helter-skelter garbage pickup and unmowed yards are each a symbol of a mayor’s effectiveness and attention to detail.

On February 25, Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett announced his intention of running again for mayor.

According to the Tulsa World, the mayor reminded those in attendance “that when he took office in 2009, the city was running out of cash, laying off workers, turning off expressway lights and grounding police helicopters.” All that is true and was a major factor in causing then Mayor Kathy Taylor not to seek re-election.  There was no way – according to City Hall insiders – that Mayor Taylor would win a second term.

Today, Mayor Taylor, who has been unable to obtain an Obama administration government appointment, would like her old job back.  She is hoping the public is in that old forgive-and-forget mode. Mayor Bartlett assumed office during the height of the recession.  Climbing out its depth has been slow, but revenues have returned.  It was a good time to focus on economic development and that was the mayor’s campaign promise to be the city’s “job-gettingness mayor.”

Today, since he has been unable to live up to that promise, his recollection is “our job was to become the job-gettingness city in America.”  Really?  Whose job might that be?  The mayor claims to have gained 15,000 jobs, but federal and state numbers show the gain more in the 7,000 area.

The City Council is pushing for a more effective marketing campaign.  The problem is neither the mayor nor Tulsa Regional Chamber, which receives $2,340,000 each year from the city for economic development, sees their top role in business recruitment. The Tulsa Regional Chamber is really about promoting itself, which they do a spectacular job at.  As a result some companies leave, some prospects come to look, but no one stays.  Thirty years ago the picture was quite different.  So, for job-gettingness the Mayor gets a D-plus. During Mayor Bartlett’s term, the city launched a new trash pickup program.  The previous trash haulers, who had done an outstanding job, were fired and $11.5 million of new color-coded containers purchased.  Was this really necessary?  Many think not, but it was obvious the trash board would have its way.

Another person having his way is the CEO of EMSA, Steve Williamson, who has run the authority as his own company.  With nearly an unlimited expense account, Mr. Williamson has lived a rich life.  Flower purchases, spas, charitable donations, first-class hotels and flights.  Nothing was too good for EMSA’s full-figured boss.  Like the trash board, the mayor was expected to be an attending member of the EMSA Board but he has not.  For lack of attention to detail, the mayor’s grade is F.

During the last four years, people have had to realign their lives to meet the prospect of less income while still covering education expenses, retirement and daily living. Limiting extravagant expenses and unnecessary taxes is paramount.  When Vision2 was proposed out of the blue (adding $748 million in new taxes), voters were leery.  When the tax package couldn’t be fully explained, the voters defeated it.  Mayor Bartlett supported Vision2 even though its passage might swamp completing the second streets package due in 2013.  For prioritization of tasks and vision, the mayor’s grade is C.

When Tulsa voters approved the city’s charter change, they placed extra powers in the mayor’s hands and fewer with the council.  In Oklahoma City, the case is the opposite.  How is it working out?  Oklahoma City has cleaned up Lincoln Boulevard and Reno Street.  There are a host of new venues from boating to dining to basketball.  For clean-up, Tulsa has taken the slow course as if the abandoned Bill White Chevrolet and Abundant Life buildings are destined for the national register.  The burned out Tulsa Club building and Jewish downtown Synagogue have proven too tough to fix for his honor, the mayor.  For long-term execution of plan, the mayor’s grade is D.

Politics is a local matter and what matters are actions.  If Mayor Bartlett is returned to office, don’t expect anything but minimal changes because that is what he can handle.  Having a vision and carrying it out is not what the Mayor is about.  He’s about playing it safe and not rocking the boat.  At the mayor’s pace, we should have 50,000 new jobs by at least 2063.  Utah gained 18,000 California jobs in one month. Tulsa needs  to shake its tolerance for mediocrity and elect someone up to the task.