Joe Dorman, Mary Fallin and Storm Shelters

Image of Joe DormanImage of Mary Fallin

Barring a major scandal or a sudden seismic change in the political landscape here, it appears Gov. Mary Fallin should coast easily to victory in her reelection bid.

At least that’s the prevailing view among national and local pundits, even though it might be difficult to handle for some Democrats, but there’s little to no evidence to dispute this basic political argument.

Fallin’s approval ratings, according to SoonerPoll, have gone over 70 percent in a red state that remains deeply hostile to President Barack Obama by a majority of voters. The anti-Obama hysteria alone, fueled by a complicit corporate media here, means any Democrat would have a difficult time defeating Fallin or winning any statewide office.

The governor also has a well-funded campaign along with political expertise and experience in running for statewide office. She has deep political connections and the ability to use her office to serve constituents in ways that could generate loyalty and support.

This doesn’t mean Democrats should just give up, of course, and state Rep. Joe Dorman, a term-limited Rush Springs Democrat, has declared his candidacy for his position. But can Dorman really make a dent in Fallin’s popularity? Does he have a chance?

Dorman faces two apparent obstacles right now.

One, he has to be viewed as a conservative Democrat, a legislator who, for example, has consistently opposed reproductive rights for Oklahoma women. While Dorman might capture the lesser-of-two-evil votes from Democrats, he’s unlikely to generate enthusiasm from progressives or even some moderates. This could hurt him in campaign fund raising efforts and voter turnout. If he turns to the right even more in his campaign, he risks losing any opportunity to show how he would lead the state any differently than Fallin.

Second, Dorman has now made his effort to build storm shelters in every Oklahoma school a major part of his political campaign. Dorman wants the state to use money from a business franchise tax to fund the shelters, a position that seems reasonable enough given last year’s devastating tornadoes. But now Fallin has announced an initiative to allow individual school districts to raise their bond debt capacities, if approved by voters, to fund the shelters, thus co-opting what has now become Dorman’s signature issue. The arguments between the two approaches probably rest on an extremely fine line for most voters, but that hasn’t stopped Dorman from pressing his point.

The Oklahoman editorial board calls Dorman’s arguments about the storm shelters “class envy,” which is supposed to mean something I guess, especially to its low-income conservative readers, but here’s the main issue: Every Oklahoma school needs a storm shelter. There are two plans to address this issue. Either plan could conceivably work.

I have long been a vocal proponent of getting storm shelters in our schools and other buildings, and I do agree that the franchise tax would be the easiest way to do it. But I can’t just dismiss Fallin’s approach. Even if Dorman’s proposal made it to the ballot, for example, the business community here, along with basic Republican support, would probably unite to try to defeat it. Imagine some prominent Oklahoman in a television advertisement arguing, over and over ad nauseam on our screens, to “just say no” to this state question. It has happened before.

Dorman still has time to mount a feasible campaign. He should reach out to progressive and moderate Democrats on issues such as education and health. Fallin’s proposed budget calls for a nearly $50 million cut in higher education, which could lead to higher tuition rates. Her budget also calls for a nearly $48 million cut to the Oklahoma Health Care Authority. Dorman should vehemently oppose such cuts as well as Fallin’s proposed tax cut that would primarily benefit the wealthiest people in the state. Voters want a champion, not a whiner.

There’s no particular reason for Dorman to drop the storm shelter issue, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Fallin has politically out-maneuvered him on the issue, which was easy enough to do as an incumbent governor. That alone won’t win her the election, of course, but Dorman needs to shore up the support from his potential base, and that’s going to entail more than just talking about storm shelters.