McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

December 23, 2010

Henry reflects on bipartisanship, challenges

By Trevor Brown
CNHI

OKLAHOMA CITY — By Trevor Brown/CNHI Capital Bureau

tbrown@cnhi.com

OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Brad Henry worked with just about every combination of legislature during his eight years in office.

Henry entered office with Democrats holding control of the state House of Representatives and Senate and ended his term with Republicans in power of both chambers. In between, the two parties split control of the legislative bodies. A power-sharing agreement was even needed at one point when the Senate was evenly divided.

But Henry, a Democrat, said his leadership and negotiating styles remained constant through the changes.

"I don't treat the leader of the Senate or the House as a Democrat or a Republican," he said. "They are my coequals. And we sit down as Oklahomans and speak as people. So I can't tell you there is a big difference between the way I deal with Democrats or Republicans."

Reflecting on his successes and pitfalls during his tenure, Henry said finding bipartisan support and working with lawmakers across the aisle was critical to making real changes in the state. And he urged the next round of lawmakers to set aside party differences and to find ways to include groups that are in the minority.

Different legislatures, same strategies

Henry's first two years in office was the only time he led the state with Democrats in power of both chambers.

Republican reclaimed the House for the first time in more than eight decades after the 2004 elections. The GOP would continue to control the House for the rest of Henry's terms. Republicans also made incremental strides in the Senate until they gained control of the chamber in 2009.

Henry said he is leaving office with few unfinished legislative goals that were blocked because of Republican opposition. He said he would have liked to see the state increase teacher pay to the regional average and increase funding for the Economic Development Generating Excellence research program.

But Henry acknowledged budget constraints also played a role in stopping short some of the goals. He said he hopes members of both parties can come together to achieve the tasks, such as increasing teacher pay.

"Most of the big initiatives we set out to pass were successful," he said. "And there are some that are just not completed."

Gary Jones, who served as chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party from 2003 until he successfully ran for state auditor and inspector this fall, said Henry was not an overly partisan leader. Although Henry was known to veto conservative bills, such as ones that anti-abortion lawmakers supported, Jones said Henry had the ability to find compromises on many fiscal policies.

"He would even seek out bipartisan support at times," Jones said. "I remember early on, he worked with Republicans with some of the things on the budget."

Former Sen. Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, who served as the president pro tempore of the Senate beginning in 2006, said Henry would even cross party lines at the dismay of his fellow Democrats. Morgan noted that in 2006 Henry sided with Republicans on a budget debate during a special session against the wishes of many Democrats, such as Morgan.

"It was troubling because Governor Henry is a dear friend of mine, and I had to publicly criticize him," Morgan said. "But I know it was hard for him too, but we both had a job to do."

Advice to the next leaders

When Gov.-elect Mary Fallin takes over for Henry in January it will mark the first time in state history that Republicans control both legislative chambers and the governorship.

Henry said Democrats still can make sure their voices are heard despite being in the minority. He said the lawmakers need to look for compromises and focus on issue-based legislation.

"They are not going to control things, but Democrats and Republicans alike need to work together," Henry said. "Just because one party has a substantial majority, it doesn't mean the other party becomes irrelevant. If either party treats the other that way it will cause great problems and difficulties for our state."

Henry said he doesn't plan to be outspoken on advising politicians on policy issues after he leaves office. But he said he encourages lawmakers to avoid making decisions that solely benefit a particular special interest or political party.

"I really believe that Oklahomans and Americans, for that matter, are fed up with the partisan bickering that occurs in our nation's capitol and state capitols around the country," he said. "It is about time for strong people in the legislature and the governor's office to stand up — just as I tried to — and say we've got to put the partisan pettiness behind us. We've got to find common ground, build a consensus and do what is best for Oklahoma."

Trevor Brown covers the Oklahoma statehouse for CNHI. He can be reached at tbrown@cnhi.com.



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Party control of the statehouse during Henry's tenure

2003-2004: Democrats control House and Senate

2005-2006: Republicans control House, Democrats control Senate

2007-2008: Republicans control House, Senate split

2009-2010: Republicans control House and Senate



---sidebar---

sug hed: Henry still deciding future plans

By Trevor Brown

CNHI Capital Bureau

OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Brad Henry said he remains undecided regarding his next move after he leaves office Jan. 10.

"I wish I knew, and believe me, my wife, Kim, wishes I knew," he said. "You'll just have to stay tuned, but I plan to figure it out sooner than later hopefully."

After eight years as governor and 10 years as a state senator, this will be the first time since 1992 he will not be an elected official. Previous to his political career, Henry practiced law in Shawnee.

Although he is vague on the specifics, Henry said he would like to move forward with the goals and initiatives he set out to accomplish during his years in the governor's office. But Henry said one thing is for sure: He will continue calling the Sooner State his home.

"I'm staying in Oklahoma," he said. "I love Oklahoma and I'm going to continue to do what I can to improve the quality of life in our state."