Wednesday, October 27, 2010

More thoughts on Core to Shore

One of the problems with Oklahoma City's Core to Shore redevelopment is that the area - from Reno to the Oklahoma River - is bisected by both I-40 and the railroad tracks. Whether you lower the interstate below grade or narrow the tracks to one, the problem still exists - it's going to be difficult to move from the north half to the south half and back.

Planners' solution was to build a "pedestrian bridge" evoking a scissortail flycatcher, the state bird, between the two. Theoretically, people would be able to spend their blissful Sunday afternoons crossing the Skydance Bridge while gazing upon the flow of 80,000 vehicles a day beneath them. Kinda gives you the warm fuzzies, doesn't it?

Today we learn that the bridge's cost has skyrocketed from $5 million to $12.5 million, due in large part to the Oklahoma Department of Transportation's requirement that the pedestrian bridge be big enough and strong enough to carry maintenance vehicles. Under the new design, the suspension cables would be simply for show - the bridge decking would be strong enough to carry its own weight. Oh, and it will be narrowed from 30 feet to 20 feet.

Folks, this is ridiculous. First of all, people won't be inclined to walk from the north end of Core to Shore to the south end. They'll drive to a parking space as close as possible to their destination. If they're going to a waterfront venue, they won't park north of I-40 and take a leisurely stroll eight blocks to get to where they wanted to be in the first place.

Second, this is intended to be a pedestrian bridge. ODOT can find some other place to drive their maintenance vehicles. ODOT is trying to preempt the project, and in doing so will drive up the cost (something they're very good at) and make it less enjoyable by everyday people. Narrowing the bridge by a third will also make it less practical for its intended purpose.

Third, the City has completely overlooked inclusion of light rail into the equation. All discussions about light rail - the most popular component of MAPS 3 - have been at or north of the boulevard that will replace the old I-40 route. To succeed, downtown needs to include the concept that people will be able to use transportation other than foot or car to enter and leave C2S. If I'm working in the federal office building and want to spend my lunch break on the Great Lawn, wherever it will wind up, I'm not gonna hoof it down there. Let me catch the trolley to the park and back. Restricting access to pedestrian only will restrict the number of people who are likely to utilize the massive complex.

Another advantage of planning light rail integrally into C2S is that less acreage will be necessary for parking. Why spend $30,000 to build a parking space when the person's vehicle is already parked in a COTPA parking garage a mile away? Instead of driving to their destination, they can just catch the trolley and leave their car behind.

The scissortail bridge should include provisions for light rail extension in its plans. I don't care if the trolley crosses in the middle of the bridge, or alongside it or underneath it, but one bridge is less expensive than two. If the point of the bridge is to transfer people from one half of C2S to the other, why not do both at the same time? Otherwise, there will be resistance to adding a light rail bridge adjacent to the beautiful iconic scissortail bridge because of aesthetics. Do it right the first time.

This concept is nothing new. Lots of cities have multi-purpose bridges, even double-deck bridges. Portland recently announced plans for a new bridge across the Willamette River that would carry their popular MAX light-rail line and pedestrians/bicycles, but no cars or trucks. The designer of the Caruthers Bridge, architect Miguel Rosales, said, "To have a cultural impact, you need to innovate," he said. "A bridge, it's for everybody. It has an enormous influence." That's true for Oklahoma City as well.

One final suggestion. If you've been to New York City, you may have visited Columbus Circle, at a corner of Central Park. Here's a photo of it, through the glass wall of the adjacent Time Warner Building.

Everyone's familiar with Leonard McMurry's statute of the 89er driving his stake into the ground. That statute is currently tucked away on Couch Drive downtown. It's easy to miss while you drive south on Robinson. Why not place a traffic circle at the intersection of the I-40 boulevard and Walker, comparable to Columbus Circle, that will ease the traffic flow from north-south and east-west into downtown and Core to Shore? In the center of that traffic circle, place a large fountain topped by the 89er statute. It wouldn't need to be as tall as the Columbus monument's 70 feet; maybe just 20 feet or so. But I guarantee you, tourists will be taking pictures of themselves in front of that statute and fountain from the Grand Lawn, with Devon Tower and the rest of the downtown skyline in the background. "This is where we started, this is where we are today." That will be the image of Oklahoma City by which the world will know us.

Just a few thoughts.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Obama's Roots In Oklahoma

Two years ago, when I was Secretary of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, one of the articles I ran in our quarterly newspaper, the "Yellow Dog Dispatch," featured then-Senator Barack Obama's roots in Oklahoma. Here is that story.

When Oklahoma City’s founders dined at Jacob Dunham’s restaurant at Main and Santa Fe in 1890, or ate at his son’s lunch counter near the post office, they had no reason to suspect the White House was in the family’s future.

Everyone today knows Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, that his father was from Africa and his mother from Kansas. But the next president has some pretty solid Oklahoma roots as well.

Four of his ancestors are buried in our state, and he has numerous cousins still living here. And Barack Obama’s mother came very close to being from Oklahoma instead of Kansas.

Sen. Obama’s mother was Ann Dunham. Her great-great grandparents were Jacob Mackey Dunham and his wife Louisa Eliza Stroup. Dunham was born in present-day West Virginia in 1824 and lived in Ohio, Indiana and Kansas before being among the first white settlers of Oklahoma City. They appeared in Smith’s First Directory of Oklahoma Territory of August 1, 1890. He eventually had restaurants in Oklahoma City, Okmulgee and Dustin.

Jacob and Louisa had seven children. In 1890 Jacob (age 65), Louisa (53) and their three youngest children, Joseph, Samuel and Mary Mae, lived at the corner of Main and Hudson in Oklahoma City, just south of today’s downtown Metropolitan Library. Joseph and Samuel worked as clerks in their father’s restaurant and confectionery businesses on the south side of Main between Santa Fe and Broadway.

Dunham and his sons David, then 34, and Joseph, then 23, were in Oklahoma by May of 1889. The other family members arrived from Kansas three months later.

By 1895 Dunham moved his family on to Wellston, probably about the time Lincoln County was opened in the September 1895 land run. Louisa died in 1901 and is buried in the Wellston Cemetery. Mackey then moved with his children to Okmulgee, where he died on June 12, 1907. He is buried at Okmulgee.

The Dunham Grocery and Billiard Parlor in Okmulgee was located at 300 North Oklahoma Street. When it opened in 1916, it was the first brick building in the west section of town. They shipped pecans and animal pelts to St. Louis, and supplied goods to Okmulgee residents for several decades.

When Barack Obama’s direct family line moved on to Kansas, the rest of the Dunhams remained in Oklahoma.

- In 1890 their oldest son David Henry lived next door to his parents in Oklahoma City with his wife Phoebe (Kearney) and their four children. They eventually relocated to Okmulgee, where they are buried. At least 15 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren were born in Oklahoma.
- Jeptha Dunham lived in Wellston by 1902, where he owned a jewelry store and clock repair business on Main Street and a grocery store near Luther. He is buried near his mother in the Wellston Cemetery, and several of his ten children and their families remained in Oklahoma.
- Jacob William Dunham, the great-great grandfather of Obama, was the fourth of the seven Dunham children. In 1890 he ran a lunch counter near the post office in Oklahoma City, and lived on Main between Harvey and Hudson near his parents. He married Mary Ann Kearney on March 1 of that year in Oklahoma Territory. By the end of 1890, however, Jacob and Mary Ann had already moved on to Wichita, Kansas, where he became a pharmacist. Their seven children, including Obama’s great-grandfather, were born and raised there.
- Joseph and his wife Jennie Lula (Hill) Dunham lived in Oklahoma with their eight children and many of their descendants. They are buried in Okmulgee.
- Samuel Lemuel Dunham, a gifted natural musician, married Carrie Harmon in 1899 at Wellston. In 1907 they moved to Dustin, and in 1919 relocated to Tulsa. Their thirteen children were born between 1900 and 1923, and most live in Oklahoma. They are buried in Tulsa’s Clinton Oaks Cemetery.
- Jacob and Louisa’s youngest daughter, Mary Mae, married Arthur Lay. They and their five children lived and died in Tulsa.

David Lee Dunham, a grandson of Samuel Dunham, is a retired postal worker in Owasso who has been doing genealogy for 40 years.

“I can see Barack’s resemblance, kind of like the thin face, not too wide, fairly nice looking – a lot of Dunham’s have that,” he said.

Harbin Wilburn McCurry had had enough with the terrorists of his day.
After the Civil War, bushwhackers burned his Missouri home, killed his first-born son and nearly blinded an infant daughter with burning coals. They packed up and, after a brief stay in Kansas, moved to present-day Pontotoc County after 1880.

Quantrill’s Raiders probably targeted the McCurrys because, as Missouri Baptists, they sided with Northern congregations in opposing slavery. 15-year-old Worth McCurry was killed because he recognized some of the family’s assailants.

The baby’s eye was burned so severely that as an adult she could never close it. Sophronia McCurry married and had two children, but died shortly after the second child was born.

Harbin McCurry was a blacksmith. He died in 1899 and is buried at the Center Cemetery between Ada and Stratford.

Elizabeth Edna Creekmore, an Illinois native, was raised near Springfield and married Harbin in Missouri in 1848. She lived in Ada with her son Edward, died in 1918, and is buried at Rosedale Cemetery in Ada. Also buried there are three of their eleven children and their families.

One son, Daniel Fletcher, married Annie Jones of Wynnewood in 1895. Their ten children were all born at Ada, where he was a farmer. His brother Nathaniel Albert was a contractor and builder; his three children were all born at Ada.

The second of their children was Thomas Creekmore McCurry, who, with his wife Margaret Belle Wright, became Barack Obama’s great-great grandparents. Born in 1850, he moved to Kansas before 1880, about the time his parents moved to Indian Territory. They had seven children, including Obama’s great-grandmother Leona McCurry.

Coincidentally, at least three of Thomas and Margaret’s sons later moved to Okmulgee County. John McCurry worked for 35 years with Oklahoma Natural Gas; he and his wife Blanche lived on Bald Hill, and are buried at the Odd Fellows Cemetery at Morris.

Thomas Wilburn McCurry, his wife Alpha and their seven children also lived at Morris. Jacob Monroe McCurry was 95 when she died at Morris. Another brother, Joseph Elmer, filled out his WWI draft registration card in Okmulgee. Had Leona moved back to Oklahoma as well, Senator Obama probably would be talking about his mother from Oklahoma instead of his mother from Kansas.

If all of Obama’s relatives in Oklahoma turn out to vote for him on November 4, there should be no problem carrying the state!

Only Four Proposals Worth Their Salt

With the November 2 election fast approaching, Oklahoma voters must digest the longest list of questions of any state in the nation.

Eleven measures are on the ballot, ten of which are proposed amendments to the Oklahoma Constitution. All but one were sent to the voters by the Oklahoma Legislature; the only one coming from a citizens’ petition is the proposal to raise Oklahoma’s education spending to the regional average, something Republican legislators are loathe to do on their own.

A lot can be learned by understanding who is behind the proposals. Representatives Sue Tibbs and Mike Reynolds cosponsored six of the ten legislative measures, with Leslie Osborn, George Faught and former Tea Party gubernatorial candidate Randy Brogdon signing on to five. Senators Coffee, Ford, Jolley and Sykes and Representatives Duncan, Kern, Randy McDaniel and Terrill endorsed at least three.

In all, 65 of the 149 legislators cosponsored at least one of the measures; 56 of those 65 are Republicans. Only the proposal to increase the Rainy Day fund cap received good bipartisan support. Two other Democrats supported the proposal to lower the number of signatures required for initiative petitions. Other than those two measures, no Democrats cosponsored any of the legislative proposals.

That means that eight of the ten measures submitted by the Legislature are purely part of the Republican agenda to change Oklahoma government.

This legislature doesn’t have a good track record for well-written laws. In March the Supreme Court found one of their bills to be unconstitutional. In 2009, the Court had ruled the same way twice in three months, to no avail. Having ignored earlier admonitions, the Court added, “We are growing weary of admonishing the Legislature for so flagrantly violating the terms of the Oklahoma Constitution. It is a waste of time for the Legislature and the Court, and a waste of the taxpayer's money.”

In August, the Supreme Court agreed with Insurance Commissioner Kim Holland that a bill taxing health insurance claims was unconstitutional, stripping $78 million from an already-tight state budget. Fortunately, federal economic stimulus funds filled the gap, avoiding an expensive special session to fix the problem. But those federal dollars won’t be available forever to cure the incompetence of the Oklahoma legislature.

Several of the state questions will face legal challenges. SQ 746, requiring a voter to produce identification, may conflict with the state constitution, which provides that “No power, civil or military, shall ever interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage by those entitled to such right.” That was one reason Gov. Brad Henry vetoed the proposal when it crossed his desk; the Republicans overrode his veto and placed it on the ballot anyway.

SQ754 includes a provision that claims it cannot be repealed or amended, even if Oklahoma voters unanimously wanted it changed. That’s inconsistent with the Constitution’s original language, which guarantees that the people “have the right to alter or reform the same whenever the public good may require it.” In effect, Republican lawmakers seek to strip Oklahoma voters of their fundamental right of self-governance. That one will be tied up in litigation for years, when we should be addressing real problems facing Oklahomans.

The same is true for SQ756, by which Republicans seek to deny Oklahomans the benefits of reforms in health care passed by Congress earlier this year. As the ballot language makes clear, under the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, federal law preempts conflicting state law. You can bet there will be lawsuits over this one if it is passed.

The only ones worth their salt, besides SQ744 on funding for common education, are SQ748, SQ750 and SQ757.

SQ748 restructures the eternally-imperfect system of redistricting. If the legislature reaches an impasse over redistricting, the process is entrusted to six bipartisan appointees rather than the current three elected officials who may all be from the same party.

SQ750 would lower the number of signatories required to put a question to the voters by initiative petition. I don’t think it should ever be difficult for Oklahomans to propose changes to their system of government.

SQ757 would increase the amount of the Rainy Day fund from 10% to 15% of available funds, creating a deeper savings account for future tough times. We don’t have money to set aside today, but someday we will, and we need to be prepared.

As for term limits, we have them already. If the voters step up to the plate and do their job, SQ747 is unnecessary. Let the voters decide who they want to serve in public office.

So there you have it. In this humble writer’s opinion, only four questions merit a “yes” vote on November 2 – State Questions 744, 748, 750 and 757. The rest deserve a “no” vote. Hopefully we’ll survive this mind-numbing process until we get a smarter legislature.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Yes on 744, No on 754. Touchdown!

It’s the fourth quarter, and you’re behind by five points. It’s fourth down and long yardage for a first down, much less a touchdown. The clock is ticking. Your only chance is to throw a “Hail Mary” pass. Throw it deep, throw it long. The chance your opponent will intercept the ball is literally a toss-up. But it’s possible that, just maybe, one of your teammates will catch it, hang on to it, and stumble across the end zone for victory.

That kind of last-ditch effort to pull off a miracle is exciting football. But it’s also an apt description for State Question 744, the best-known proposition on Oklahoma’s Nov. 2 ballot.

SQ744 is the only question on the ballot that came from an initiative petition; all the rest are creatures of the Republican Legislature. 234,446 voters signed the petition, nearly 100,000 more than the required 138,970 signatures. State questions on the ballot four years ago needed about 440,000 votes to be approved, so there appears to be strong support for SQ744 among voters.

This is, after all, the people’s government. “All political power is inherent in the people; and government is instituted for their protection, security, and benefit, and to promote their general welfare; and they have the right to alter or reform the same whenever the public good may require it,” says the Oklahoma Constitution. The people have every right to set priorities for public officials. If they want public schools to be funded at the regional average, they should fix that bar and force public officials to construct state government around it.

According to SQ744 supporters, Oklahoma is currently dead last and $1,627 per student behind the regional average. We’re also 49th in the nation. The status quo is obviously not working.

SQ744 would mandate that the Legislature must fund public schools at a rate at least equal to the average spent per pupil by the six states surrounding Oklahoma. If the average from the bordering states drops, Oklahoma must spend the amount it spent the year before.

But we also would deal with the Lake Wobegon effect. In Garrison Keillor’s mythical Minnesota community, all the children are above average, a statistical absurdity. As Oklahoma raises its spending, the regional average would also rise. It’s not just a matter of spending $1,627 more per pupil; it will cost more than that, and even more as other states increase their expenditures to avoid losing ground. It would be an interesting dilemma if each of our neighbors committed themselves to spend more than the regional average.

Aren’t we spending enough on education? After all, Brad Henry’s principal campaign promise was to bring Oklahoma up to the regional average in teacher pay. Surprisingly, over the past two years we’ve cut funding for common education by over $200 million.

Will this mean raising taxes? Probably, along with a good stiff kick in the pants toward reform in state government. But that’s not part of the Republican agenda. So, after SQ744 was circulated, Edmond Sen. Todd Lamb and his buddies put State Question 754 on the ballot. That proposal would cause a constitutional crisis by banning what SQ744 seeks to accomplish. Check. Checkmate.

Interestingly, despite the quote above, SQ754 includes a provision that claims it cannot be repealed or amended, even if Oklahoma voters unanimously wanted it changed. By doing so, Republican lawmakers seek to strip Oklahoma voters of their fundamental right of self-governance. That’s how little they trust the voters.
The mix of State Questions 744 and 754 on the same ballot guarantees protracted and expensive litigation if they both pass. With one mandate pitted against another, eventually the Supreme Court will have to untangle the mess. Voters would be wise to stand up for their right to govern themselves and save a lot of taxpayer dollars by voting no on State Question 754.

As for 744, it’s a good idea. Republican lawmakers have already strangled Oklahoma education too far. We need to educate our children, to give them a solid foundation on which they can begin their lives, so this state can be a better place in which to live. A decent education is one of the fundamental expectations we should have for state government.

But lab equipment and textbooks and computers cost money. SQ744 should end Oklahoma’s cottage industry of bake sales and car washes to pay for pencils and paper.

This is indeed a “Hail Mary” attempt to score a touchdown in the education game. Lawmakers have had 103 years to get it right, and they’ve failed miserably. It’s time for the voters to make their priorities clear by voting yes on State Question 744, and forcing lawmakers to play the game of government by the people’s rules instead of their own.

SQ755 Is Nuts!

State Question 755 is ridiculous. It’s also dangerous.

Why is it up for consideration? When the Republican-controlled legislature approved it for the ballot, the author, State Rep. Rex Duncan of Sand Springs, said in a press release, “Judges in other states and on the federal bench have increasingly turned to citing international law in their court decisions, something I and others feel is grossly inappropriate in a sovereign state such as our own.”

They may feel it’s “grossly inappropriate,” but any first-year law student knows the job of the courts is to interpret the laws under which parties operate. This radical proposition is astonishing and unprecedented in American jurisprudence.

If approved, Oklahoma’s Constitution would require the courts to “uphold and adhere to” the federal and state constitutions, statutes, rules, regulations and common law in making judicial decisions. Sounds good. And, of course, they do that already. But they also rely on the precedent of published opinions, which may end because case law is omitted as an approved source of legal authority.

“The courts shall not look to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures,” according to the proposed language, even though our entire legal code is built upon our British legal heritage. “Specifically, the courts shall not consider international law or Sharia Law.”

There is no single code that contains “international law.” It’s a legal term that refers to the laws and treaties that govern relations between independent nations. It’s not clear from the ambiguous language whether the courts are to ignore the laws of other countries, as opposed to treaties between countries, or what he means by “legal precepts.” But there are differences in legal parlance.

The proposal is also on doubtful constitutional grounds. The Supremacy Clause makes the federal Constitution, laws and treaties the “supreme law of the land, and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” As Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in an 1824 opinion, “In every such case, the act of Congress, or the treaty, is supreme; and the law of the State, though enacted in the exercise of powers not controverted, must yield to it."

This gambit sounds a lot like the Bricker amendments from the 1950s. Ohio Senator John Bricker proposed language that would have expressly prohibited the ratification of any treaty that conflicted with the Constitution. As one conservative Senator argued, “I do not want the President of the U.S. to make a treaty with India which would preclude me from butchering a cow in my own pasture." President Eisenhower fought his own party over the issue and, with the support of Senate Minority Leader Lyndon Johnson, won the defeat of the proposal by one vote in 1954. A subsequent 1957 Supreme Court opinion held that constitutional rights prevail over treaties, and the moot idea disappeared into the history books.

The proposal could also hurt Oklahoma business interests. Oklahoma’s Department of Commerce reports that about 14,000 foreign companies do business in Oklahoma, employing more than 35,000 people. We have two foreign trade zones and ocean-going ports on the Arkansas River. Oklahoma exports exceed $4 billion a year.

In a lawsuit between an Oklahoman and a foreign company, this constitutional amendment might prohibit an Oklahoma judge from “look(ing) to the legal precepts of” a foreign country in order to dispense justice, even if doing so would favor the Oklahoman. It could prevent an Oklahoma judge from considering treaties under which international trade is conducted, or the culture of a signatory to a contract. In effect, Oklahoma could become the only state in the nation incapable of enforcing international business law.

To stir emotions, this proposal throws in a ban on Sharia law, which in many respects parallels Old Testament law. Among the right-wing conspiracy theories circulating on the Internet is that President Obama is Muslim, and that he intends to impose Islamic law in the United States. First of all, of course, neither President Obama nor anyone else has proposed any such thing. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, and the doctrine of separation of church and state prevents a religious code from being made law. And, after all, our laws are written by elected officials like Sen. Duncan and his peers who would stand as vanguards against such a travesty.

At best, State Question 755 is a silly attempt to pander to right-wing xenophobes that would cause chaos in the courts. It demonstrates the poor grasp of basic legal concepts by the legislature, while placing at risk Oklahoma’s international business activity. State Question 755 deserves a prompt “No” vote on November 2.