Exclusive: The Right has locked down political control of a number of states like Oklahoma, making them laboratories for far-right legislation. But some legal experiments are so extreme that they are causing unintended reactions that may hurt the Right’s cause, writes Oklahoman Richard L. Fricker.
By Richard L. Fricker
An interesting aspect of living in Oklahoma – one of if not the reddest state in the Union – is that I’m observing a test tube for the farthest right of the right-wing experiments. Legislation goes through undiluted by the need to compromise, but those combustible elements can sometimes blow up in the faces of the mad chemists of the Right.
For instance, the 2004 legislature placed a constitutional amendment on the November ballot defining marriage as between a man and woman. The idea was straight from GOP political strategist Karl Rove’s playbook, “Guns, God and Gays” – often accompanied by strong doses of anti-Muslim sentiments and “real” patriotism. The conservative strategy that year was to fill ballots with wedge issues that would turn out the conservative vote.
To no one’s surprise, the strategy worked. In Oklahoma, the anti-gay-marriage amendment garnered 75 percent of the vote; President George W. Bush crushed Sen. John Kerry in a landslide; and Republicans won up and down the ballot. However, shortly after the anti-gay-marriage provision was passed, two Lesbian couples challenged the law in court.
Almost a decade later, on Jan. 14, 2014, the amendment was ruled unconstitutional in a scathing 68-page opinion by Federal Judge Terence Kern, who called the law “arbitrary” and “irrational.” Judge Kern’s ruling came days after a similar finding by Utah Federal Judge Robert J. Shelby, who struck down that state’s anti-gay-marriage law which was approved by Utah voters in the same 2004 election.
Thus, two states – considered the vanguard of the anti-gay movement – may very well be the instruments of its demise. Utah and Oklahoma find themselves in this position, not through any gay conspiracy, but rather the result of their playing around with explosive right-wing notions that – without any buffering from political compromise – led to dangerous excesses and to an unintended reaction, the advancing of gay marriage toward national acceptance.
Oklahoma and similar deep-red states are inviting such results when they pass extreme legislation that responds to hot-button issues of the Far Right, such as prohibitions against Islamic Sharia law; strict ID requirements aimed at “voter fraud”; loose rules on public “open carry” of guns; intrusive demands on women seeking abortions (required sonograms, face-to-face counseling, prohibitions on morning-after pills, etc.); and anti-gay and anti-sodomy laws.
Some of these laws invite expensive court challenges while others provoke political resistance from angry citizens who feel their rights and freedoms are being trampled. Even if the Oklahomas of America may be secure from any significant political backlash, the public impression that the Republican Party has gone off the deep end has clearly hurt its “brand” in national elections.
What’s the Matter with Oklahoma?
As with many issues about socio-political upheaval, there is a back story to this drift of Oklahoma into right-wing extremism. The state was once a Democratic stronghold, home to a Prairie Populism that was common in the nation’s interior. But – as Democrats embraced civil rights and other liberal causes – Republicans rebranded Democrats as limousine liberals of dubious patriotism and with secular religious leanings, more interested in helping urban blacks than rural whites.
Today, the Oklahoma State House of Representatives has 101 seats, 72 are held by Republicans, including Tea Party extremists and Evangelical Christians. This Republican coalition also holds 36 of the 46 Senate seats. Every elected state office is held by a Republican or an affiliated Evangelical or Tea Party member.
The few surviving Democrats in the Oklahoma legislature are not even backbenchers, rather more like interested observers. The absence of a viable Democratic alternative has encouraged the Republicans to go all out in bolstering their numbers even more by inviting the Far Right into their political tent.
Yet, Oklahoma’s Politburo-style unanimity has ironically paved the way toward reversals on ultraconservative issues because the more the legislature seeks to appease the extremism of the Tea Party and Evangelicals, the more the legislation runs afoul of the courts.
For instance, both federal and state judges have been overturning legislative bans on same-sex marriages. These judges, of nearly all political stripes, agree such laws violate the equal protection laws of the U.S. Constitution and many state constitutions. As the gay marriage fight enters this judicial phase – often forced there by clearly discriminatory laws against gays – the legislatures and elected officials can only watch.
So, the 2004 strategy of using anti-gay-marriage referenda to ensure George W. Bush’s second term and boost the Republican vote nationwide may turn out to be shortsighted (as well as wrongheaded). The strategy may have actually hastened the legal and political acceptance of gay marriage.
Plus, the marriage referendum provided a look into just who is running the legislatures of Oklahoma, Utah and other deep-red states. The name Gary Bauer floats to the top. Bauer has never been elected to public office in any state yet he has influenced election results in many.
Bauer served in the Reagan administration as a part of the crusade for “traditional family values.” He then became head of the right-wing Family Research Council and transformed it into a multi-million-dollar nationwide ultraconservative evangelical lobby group. One of the council’s chief selling points was the alarm about an “assault” on traditional marriage by those promoting the “gay agenda.”
Bauer headed FRC until he launched his own presidential campaign in 2000. After his campaign collapsed amid organizational chaos and backbiting, Bauer retreated from public view temporarily, but he re-emerged in Oklahoma and other states with a cadre of tacticians and lobbyists supporting the anti-gay-marriage referendum. Encouraged by Bush’s political guru Karl Rove, Bauer’s group pushed anti-gay proposals through state legislatures or onto state ballots in Red states where passage was assured.
This state-by-state strategy was to build on the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which was enacted in 1996. Bauer and his team didn’t believe they could entrust DOMA to shifting public sentiments and to an uncertain 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court. Massachusetts found its way around DOMA in 2003 and had begun allowing same-sex marriage. It was felt something had to be done on the state level, and done quickly.
In Oklahoma, State Sen. James Williamson presented State Question 711 for a referendum vote, while a nearly identical bill was put before the voters in Utah. Both bills declared that marriage in the two states could consist only of the union of one man and one woman and forbade marriage rights being extended to gays through other legal devices, such as civil unions.
The clearly discriminatory language guaranteed that the laws would be challenged in federal court – and they were. The cases now rest before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. Following that court’s decision, they most assuredly will head to the Supreme Court, which may or may not accept the appeals. Nothing is expected from the Denver court for several weeks if not months.
But the right-wing chemistry experiment is ongoing in Oklahoma and other deep-red states. With “model legislation” provided by the likes of Gary Bauer or ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) or Koch Brothers-funded Tea Party groups, right-wing politicians compete with each other to attach their names as sponsors of these bills.
In Oklahoma, Rep. Mike Turner, a freshman legislator and Tea Party rising star, has introduced legislation for the coming session calling for a second vote on the marriage-definition referendum in case Judge Kern’s findings hold up on appeal.
Turner’s is only one of many right-wing bills likely to be cheered on by the huge Republican majorities in the legislature after it convenes on Feb. 3. Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin faces political pressure to tilt even further right since she is facing a Tea Party challenge in her race for reelection.
More explosions in the lab seem all but certain.
Richard L. Fricker lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer. His latest book, The Last Day of the War, is available at https://www.createspace.com/3804081 or at www.richardfricker.com .