David Holt

Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt. (Ben Felder / The Frontier)

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum found himself in an unenviable position as a politician last year as the COVID-19 pandemic was unfolding worldwide and had finally reached Oklahoma.

Bynum, a Republican mayor in a right-leaning city, was navigating the difficult early stages of the pandemic when solid information on the virus was scarce and many conservatives across the country were questioning just how dangerous the coronavirus actually was.

He also was running for re-election.

Bynum issued an executive order to close restaurants and many other businesses in March 2020 and then signed off on a city council-approved mask mandate in Tulsa in July 2020.

“I can tell you, we put our mask order in place a month before my reelection and my numbers immediately dropped 20 points,” Bynum said.

Bynum’s stiffest Republican opponent in the election ended up being Ken Reddick, a Republican whose platform consisted mainly of opposition to mask mandates and government shutdowns.

“He picked up a ton of support that was based on opposition to masks, not about his dynamic ideas for Tulsa,” Bynum said.

Bynum won with 51.9% of the vote, narrowly avoiding a runoff after Reddick cut deeply into his support among conservatives.

“I pushed for (the mandate) and signed it knowing of the political consequences of doing it,” he said.

Oklahoma never enacted a statewide mask mandate, leaving much of the responsibility for the state’s COVID-19 response to local governments. Mayors, city councils and county governments were left to determine which safety measures were put in place and deal with the political consequences.

The Frontier asked mayors from the state’s three largest cities to reflect on the political fallout of their decisions during the pandemic.

NormanThere have been dozens of moments during the pandemic that stand out to Norman Mayor Breea Clark, but perhaps none more so than when she was notified of the first COVID-19 related death in the city.

“I’ll never forget that feeling I had,” she said. “You knew it would happen at some point, but it was still so heart-breaking.”

Norman was the first of Oklahoma’s three largest cities to issue a mask mandate, which Clark says was enabled by the city being “a little more progressive than the rest of Oklahoma.”

Cleveland County still leans decisively Republican, according to Cleveland County Election Board figures. But Norman is a college town, and in 2019 Clark, a Democrat, was elected by nearly 1,000 more votes than her opponent.

Before Oklahoma reported the first COVID-19 case in the state, Clark said she spent weeks watching news coverage as the virus spread in other countries and inched closer to home.

“That was helpful for me because we were able to see it before it really got here and we prepared for it as much as we could,” she said. “We were the first city (in Oklahoma) to declare a state of emergency and we did our mask mandate first. We are a city that values education so we moved forward quickly.”

Clark said she received “lots of awful emails and threats and comments” about the mask mandate, but she also got supportive notes from Norman residents before and after the mandate went into effect.

“It helped me make the tough decisions,” she said of that support. “They reached out urging me to follow the science. I knew the majority of people here would support me.”

In October, a local political activist named Sassan Moghadam sued the city of Norman, over the city’s requirement on indoor masking inside private residences where 25 or more people were present. It did not succeed.

Clark became a popular target online for conservatives.

Moghadam also attempted to force a recall election of Clark and several city councilors following the mask mandate order and a lower than anticipated bump in the Norman Police Department’s budget. Moghadam’s Unite Norman group collected more than 20,000 signatures, but several thousand were ruled invalid and the attempt to recall Clark failed.

Looking back, Clark said she’s disappointed to the extent COVID-19 precautions became politicized. Masks “were a no-brainer from the beginning,” she said, noting that while Norman is Oklahoma’s third-largest city it had the fifth-most cases and fourth-most deaths. She said she regrets not instituting the mask mandate sooner, “because the data shows that it worked.”

Oklahoma City

Things started out pretty great for David Holt after he ascended to the position of mayor of Oklahoma’s largest city in 2018. In 2019, he oversaw the popular MAPS 4 vote in 2019 that promised nearly $1 billion for public improvements.

But 2020, with all its pandemic-related difficulties, was a new challenge for the Republican mayor.

Oklahoma City holds a unique place politically in the state. The state Capitol is located just east of Interstate 235 and is largely filled with Republican lawmakers. But the city itself is increasingly purple. In 2018, it sent a Democrat to Washington, D.C., for the first time more than 40 years, and the city has elected numerous Democrats to state office. Seven of the 19 Democrats in the state House are from Oklahoma City, as are five of the nine Democratic state senators.

Oklahoma City instituted a mask mandate last July. And while there was some pushback, the Republican mayor said he largely found himself with a population ready to do what it took to get through the pandemic safely.

“It was a balancing act,” he said. “You had to do what was best for public health, but at the same time recognize that American society is a free society and that people won’t shelter in place forever. They would do the right thing but it was important to tell them why they were doing it and for how long it might be necessary.”

Unlike in Norman, Holt didn’t face the possibility of a recall election. Some people called him a RINO — short for Republican in name only — on social media, but Holt felt like the detractors were far outnumbered by people who felt the city was making the right decisions. And in the end, he said, he was trying to help save lives.

“Politically I don’t think I paid a price for my decisions,” Holt said. “It was a situation with thousands of lives at stake. I couldn’t care less about my own political future at that point.”

Holt said he believes rules don’t necessarily change people’s behavior on their own. People will follow rules, he said, if there’s a clear reason and understanding of why the rules need to exist.

“Public health experts understand that explicitly, and we really leaned on them,” Holt said. “A lot of the literature I read was how to influence public behavior as much as it was about public health measures that need to be put in place.”

Now, as the daily count of new COVID-19 cases continues to dwindle, Holt said Oklahoma City just cashed its largest sales tax check in history, a sign, he said, the economy has recovered in force.

“If you had asked me in March 2020 I would have assumed I would be a mayor who presides over empty storefronts and office space and that has just not materialized,” he said. “If you compare our numbers capita in cases and deaths, it’s definitely at the lower end and economically we are exploding right now.”

TulsaEarly on in Oklahoma’s pandemic, when the reported case count was low, but there was little knowledge about COVID-19 or how it spread, there was a lot of “external noise” surrounding the virus, particularly politically, Bynum said.

“In the early going I spent just a tremendous amount of time every day trying to learn as much as I could about different viewpoints nationally and internationally and what I ultimately learned was my job wasn’t to set national policy, it was to save the lives of Tulsans.”

Tulsa initiated its mask mandate in July 2020, a little more than a month after President Donald Trump held a rally in the city’s downtown BOK Center, where thousands of unmasked attendees sat in an enclosed arena for nearly 10 hours.

Bynum was criticized locally for not stopping the rally, but he maintained his hands were tied. The governor’s office declared that Oklahoma had fully re-opened on June 1, 2020, and Bynum said in an interview last year he wasn’t going to veer off the course the state had set. But it didn’t mean he was excited to host the event. He said in a social media post before the event that he had “anxiety” about the rally and wished Trump had chosen another city.

Bynum said he initially was reticent to put in a mask mandate, but local hospital leaders came to him with numbers showing a rapidly increasing hospitalization rate. Early in the pandemic, Bynum said, a lot of the discussion about COVID-19 restrictions was “philosophical.” But the talk with local hospital leaders made it a much more visceral, tangible concern.

“When you have these people whose jobs are to save the lives of people who are dying and they say we need your help to get through this and save people, it becomes a simpler calculation,” Bynum said. “Political philosophy and political caution go out the window and the only thing that matters is those experts saying that.

Their concern, Bynum said, changed his mind. He felt he had two options — another shutdown that would cripple the economy, or a mask mandate that would give hospitals time to prepare for a surge but would minimize harm to local businesses that already had closed down once.

The lesson he learned, he said, was to lean on local experts in a time of crisis. He decided not to worry about national headlines and instead focused on local leaders like Tulsa County Health Department executive director Bruce Dart.

The Frontier is a nonprofit focusing on investigative and watchdog journalism. For more information or to donate, go to www.readfrontier.org.

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