Term limits could tip balance of power in Oklahoma Legislature

Sunday, October 17th 2004, 6:35 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The impact of legislative term limits could tip the balance of power in the Oklahoma Legislature as Democrats and Republicans battle for an unprecedented number of open seats in the House and Senate.

More than one-third of the 101-member House and almost one-third of the 48-member Senate is up for grabs in the Nov. 2 general election as lawmakers are forced from office due to 12-year term limits authorized by voters in 1990.

Democrats held a slim 53-48 majority in the House and a 28-20 majority in the Senate at the start of the 2004 legislative session. Republicans believe a record number of open seats offers the best chance in decades to take control of both chambers for the first time in state history.

``I think there is a tremendous opportunity because of term limits,'' state Republican Party chairman Gary Jones said. ``We were knocking at the door in 2002 and didn't quite get there.''

Democrats held a 52-49 advantage in the state House in 2002 and gained a seat in legislative elections that year, spoiling the GOP's chance to take control of the House for the first time since 1922.

``There are lots of opportunities with the open seats,'' said Rep. Susan Winchester, R-Chickasha, assistant minority leader. ``The numbers trend Republican. Every time there have been open seats, we have made inroads.''

Jones said the coattail effect of President Bush's popularity in the state could give Republican legislative candidates an additional springboard to the House and Senate.

To take political control, Republicans need 51 House members and 24 in the Senate, with Republican Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin, the president of the Senate, as a tie breaker.

``People are energized. They're ready for a change,'' Jones said. ``With President Bush on the top of the ticket, Republicans and conservative Democrats are going to be voting in record numbers.''

In spite of term limits, Democratic state leaders expect to stay in control although they concede the numbers will be tight.

``The numbers will be very close to what they are now,'' said House Speaker Designate Jari Askins, D-Duncan.

There are 37 open seats in the House, 28 of them due to term limits. The remaining nine House members are leaving due to retirement or election to other offices. Eighteen of the term-limited House members are Democrats.

In the Senate, there are 15 open seats, 14 due to term limits. Nine of the term-limited lawmakers are Democrats.

Winchester, who faces Democrat Angie Jeffries of Chickasha in the general election, said Republicans are concentrating efforts to wrest control of the Legislature in rural areas of the state traditionally controlled by Democrats.

``We have good candidates, strong candidates. The opportunities look like they're there,'' she said.

Askins, who is unopposed for re-election, said Democrats hope to counter the GOP's fund-raising success with grass-roots campaigns geared toward their candidate's understanding of local values and concerns.

``We have to be more targeted in how the money is spent,'' she said. ``Knocking on more doors can make up for not having enough dollars.

``The closer you get to the local level in an elective office, the more important personal contact becomes.''

Jones said the GOP has a ``legitimate shot'' at winning seven open seats in the Senate _ enough to gain majority status providing incumbent Republicans win re-election.

They include District 33 in Tulsa, where Democrat Tom Adelson, former state Secretary of Health, faces Dewey Bartlett Jr., son of former state senator, governor and U.S. Sen. Dewey Bartlett, for the seat being vacated by term-limited Sen. Penny Williams, D-Tulsa.

The contest is expected to be the most expensive legislative race in state history with expenses exceeding $1 million, Jones said.

In District 23, Republican Ron Justice of Chickasha is opposing Democrat Marilyn Feaver, also of Chickasha, for the seat vacated by term-limited Sen. Bruce Price, D-Hinton.

Republican Kenneth Easton is running against Democrat Randy Bass for the District 32 seat being vacated by term-limited Sen. Jim Maddux, D-Lawton.

In Muskogee, Democrat Earl Garrison is opposed by Republican Penny Kampf for the District 9 seat of term-limited Sen. Ben Robinson, D-Muskogee.

In the House, Republican John English of Cordell, son of former Democratic congressman Glenn English, is campaigning against Democrat Ryan McMullen of Burns Flat for the District 55 seat of term-limited Rep. Jack Bonny, D-Burns Flat.

In District 5, Republican Doug Cox of Grove is running against Democrat LeRoy Hendren of Jay for the seat of term-limited Rep. Joe Hutchinson, D-Jay.

Republican Bill Kendrick of Pryor is opposed by Democrat Ben Sherrer of Chouteau in the race for the District 8 seat of term-limited Majority Floor Leader Larry Rice, D-Pryor.