House Speaker-elect Kris Steele may not have intended to enter the 2011 legislative session by picking a fight with some fellow Republicans and thus ensuring controversy right off the bat, but that's what he's done.
Analysis By Mike McCarville
He's not alone. And because of that, some now wonder if Steele's remarks were intentionally designed to antagonize his more conservative colleagues, and if his remarks were part of a larger "pile on" plan involving the state's largest newspaper and several prominent organizations including the Oklahoma Municipal League and The State Chamber.
Steele's Thanksgiving Day interview in The Oklahoman in which he appeared to "diss" the more conservative Republicans in the House by dismissing their legislative social goals as "frivolous" sent a ripple through the GOP Caucus that's still spreading.
In the interview, Steele is not quoted as citing any specific issue, but reporter Michael McNutt wrote, "Since gaining control of the Legislature, Republicans have overturned gubernatorial vetoes of Republican-sponsored bills making English the state's official language and banning Islamic Sharia law from being considered in state courts. The bills created state questions approved by voters this month that quickly received national media coverage following legal challenges claiming they are unconstitutional and discriminatory. Republican-sponsored state immigration laws passed in 2007 drew national attention for many of the same reasons. Comments condemning homosexuals by a Republican legislator and a failed bill that would've exempted almost any firearm made in Oklahoma from federal gun laws also have drawn mostly negative national attention. Steele said many business groups in the past have opposed such hot-button issues. 'Where it negatively impacts business, we will speak up,' said Fred Morgan, president of The State Chamber. 'We'll try to educate legislators on how something that while well intended might have some negative consequences to the business climate.'"
Steele followed that interview up with another in which he said he wants to change state law that prevents cities from enacting stronger anti-public-smoking ordinances, angering some conservatives in the House who find that tantamount to more "big brother" government action. Steele's remarks were followed up a day later by an OML announcement in support.
And today, The Oklahoman poured kerosene on the fire with an editorial supporting Steele and ridiculing ("jingo bills," quoth the editorialists) conservatives who favor the so-called social issues of illegal immigration and gun control, among others.
The editorial doesn't just weigh in on Steele's side; it appears to go out of the way to belittle the conservative Republicans: "Steele wants to keep his caucus focused on the budget, the economy and growth — not on the lords-a-leaping issues that have filled the Legislature's days since Republicans took over the House in 2005. But the pipers piping in the GOP's right fringe will be back in office, this time with a potentially sympathetic governor. They may see this as their best chance to get their jingo bills over the veto hills of the past. Steele would rather they deck the halls with the greenery of economic development — not fill a stocking with lumps of coal that contribute little or nothing to state progress."
Taken as a whole, this series of events could be taken as "piling on," Steele and the not-so-conservative-now newspaper editorial board sending a message to the arch-conservatives like Randy Terrill and Jason Murphey and others, and that may be the "Why?" in this equation.
Regardless, the speculation will grow like mold. The only certainty is that Steele and those who side with him have stirred up a hornet's nest that is likely to sting him throughout the session.