Democratic Governor Finds It's Good To Be Incumbent

Saturday, October 14th 2006, 6:54 pm
By: News On 6

DUNCAN, Okla. (AP) _ Democratic Gov. Brad Henry smiles and waves as he arrives at a tree-shrouded park, where he is greeted by clapping and cheering from a large crowd roused by the Duncan High School Band's rendition of ``Oklahoma.''

The governor and first lady Kim Henry are ushered to a pavilion, where they exchange handshakes and hugs with supporters and officials, including state Rep. Jari Askins, who is running to join Henry in the executive branch as lieutenant governor.

Henry, 43, who is seeking re-election against Republican U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook, then gives his stock campaign speech pointing to a growing state economy and enactment during his first term of record tax cuts and increased spending on roads and education.

``I think this is the most exciting time to live and work in Oklahoma in our entire state's history,'' Henry says. He says communities large and small ``are bustling'' as the state prepares to celebrate its 100th birthday.

Earlier, Henry chats with campaign staff over lunch at a nearby Mexican restaurant. Henry wants to tell a joke, but does not after the first lady kids him that he takes too long to get to the punch line.

The mood is upbeat as the Henrys begin a four-day tour of western and northwestern Oklahoma in the same recreational vehicle owned by friend Allen Jones of Shawnee that was used four years ago on the way to Henry's upset of Republican Rep. Steve Largent.

Almost everywhere Henry went on the early October campaign trip, he was greeted by supporters wearing blue-and-yellow Henry for Governor ball caps and T-shirts.

It's quite different, he says, from four years ago, when his campaign RV would roll into Wal-Mart parking lots, honking the horn ``and trying to create as much commotion as we could'' to get noticed.

With polls showing the incumbent governor having a big lead over his Republican challenger, it's easy to draw a crowd these days. In 2002, Henry was trying to convince voters he could win.

``People seemed to like me all right back then, they just weren't sure we could get there,'' he said.

So, it's good to be king?

``Well, I wouldn't put it quite that way, but it's good to be the incumbent,'' Henry grins.

The first stop on Henry's second RV tour of the general election campaign is in Chickasha, where sign-carrying supporters jam the lawn of the courthouse.

``We think you're doing a wonderful job,'' says Liz Craig, a retired teacher from the small nearby community of Ninnekah. ``We're trying. I've got a wonderful team around me,'' Henry replies.

Craig tells Henry she is donating $100 to his campaign. ``I'm poor,'' she says later. ``I'm on Social Security and working two part-time jobs.''

Kenneth Blalock, the 53-year-old captain of the all-volunteer Pioneer Fire Department, informs Henry that he went to school in Shawnee, the governor's home town.

``I want to thank you for all your help with the volunteer firefighters,'' he says as he shakes Henry's hand, remembering a spate of wildfires that raced through Grady County and much of Oklahoma several months ago.

``There's a lot of people who have been involved. I'm just one of them,'' said the governor, who supported emergency funding for fire units that lost equipment fighting the fires.

Inside the courthouse, Henry shakes hands and banters with citizens and workers outside the Grady County treasurer's office.

Employee Betty Spies leaves the enclosed office to talk to the governor. ``I think you've got the best ads on television,'' Spies says. ``Those three little girls are just absolutely gorgeous.''

She referred to a commercial in which the Henrys' three daughters talk about their father's support of education programs. It is one of five television commercials Henry has run in the last several weeks.

Henry had $2.5 million cash on hand in August to $29,000 for Istook, who has not run any television advertising for the general election as of this week.

On the campaign trail, Henry never mentions his opponent's name. Istook mainly has criticized Henry over illegal immigration and says the incumbent is taking too much credit for an oil-fed economy that enabled extra spending and tax reductions.

Before heading for Duncan and then on to Lawton, Henry stops by ``Mama Carol's Kitchen,'' where all but a few of the cafe's customers and employees are wearing Henry for governor caps and shirts.

One of the customers is Eleanor Edmondson. She says she always campaigns for Democratic Attorney General Drew Edmondson, although she is not related to the official, a member of one of Oklahoma's most famous political families.

``Drew is a wonderful person, a very good friend,'' Henry says as he makes his way to other tables and booths in the small cafe.

In Duncan, Askins' introduces Henry and tells how she came into the Legislature with him and worked with him on difficult issues. She said she quickly discovered that Henry was ``one of the brightest, the most hard working, the most compassionate persons at the Capitol.''

``I'm kind of hoping for the next four years that we can have that type of teamwork,'' she says.

``I'm not making any presumptions here, but I'm going to work hard to make that happen,'' Henry said.