A fellow attorney walked up to Terry Simonson a few weeks ago and, with a knowing smirk on his face, asked him if he’d prefer to be back in private practice doing divorces and bankruptcies.
The Board of County Commissioners had just agreed to grant disgraced Sheriff Stanley Glanz retired peace officer status, and a horde of media was gathered at the courthouse to record the vote.
Simonson, Glanz’s right-hand man for the past two years, looked up at the lawyer and laughed his hard, deep laugh, one that seems to inevitably mix genuine good humor with a groaning sense that, sure enough, the joke’s on him. Again.
Simonson can laugh at himself because he knows that a lot of people have laughed at him. And cursed him, and criticized him, and, when it suits their purposes, forgotten about him.
“NO Simonson commentary.”
That’s how Mayor Dewey Bartlett’s press secretary responded to a request to talk to Bartlett about his longtime friend and former chief of staff.
That’s OK with Simonson. He understands how the game is played. He’s been playing it himself since 1980, when he moved from Kansas to Tulsa to become the city’s first court administrator under then-Mayor Jim Inhofe.
And who knows, maybe there’s more fight in him yet. Maybe the nine lives of Terry Simonson will become the 10 lives of Terry Simonson.
Or maybe we’re miscounting. Maybe Terry Simonson hasn’t been in the middle of every political mess this town has seen in the last 35 years. Maybe we’re mis-remembering, as they say.
This much we know: Simonson isn’t planning to go away just yet. He says he’d like to work for the next sheriff, and insists that if that that doesn’t happen, plenty of people around county government have expressed interest in his services.
So, at 64, as he recovers from foot surgery and the withering whirlwind of the grand jury investigation that led to Glanz’s resignation, Simonson may be down, but he’s not out.
When life happens, roll with it
First, Simonson’s brother died. Then his father. Then his grandfather. This all happened within 90 days, in late 1980.
Simonson had just arrived in Tulsa a few months earlier when his mother called to tell him his younger brother, Chuck, had overdosed on drugs.
“I had to go out (to Colorado) and turn the machine off because Mom couldn’t do it,” Simonson recalls. “I got out there and talked to the doctor. I could see his chest going up and down.
“I said, ‘Mom, he’s not there.’ It was just me and her. I said, ‘Go over and say goodbye. We’ve got to tell him (the doctor) to turn it off.”
Simonson’s father, Aaron Simonson, died of a heart attack about a month later. He was 54. Terry Simonson does not believe this was a coincidence. The hardware store owner — by then divorced from Simonson’s mother — may have had a bad heart. But that didn’t do him in.
“I think it was too hard on my Dad,” Simonson says. “I think he probably had a weak heart anyway, but I think when my brother died, it killed my Dad.”
Simonson’s grandfather died of natural causes.
He speaks of this chapter in his life matter-of-factly. There’s nothing sentimental in his recounting. By then, Simonson had been on his own for years, hundreds of miles from Boulder, Colo., where he graduated high school.
Terry Alan Simonson was born in Gary, Ind., on Jan. 16, 1951. His was not a political family, though his father occasionally had people over to send out fliers for candidates for local office, and his mother taught civics and history and English in public schools for 52 years.
Simonson spent his youth playing baseball and basketball. He was also active in Boy Scouts, and even at a young age he had an uncanny knack for reaching high places.
After his elementary school class held a mock election for president in 1960, Simonson wrote a letter to the winner, John F. Kennedy, informing him of the results. He was 9 years old.
The senator and president-elect responded with a personal letter, dated Dec. 2, 1960.
“I want to thank you for the very friendly message you sent to me after my election to the presidency,” the letter reads in part. “…. I hope that my record during the next four years will sustain your generous confidence.”
Simonson had the letter framed, and it has found its way onto the wall of most every government office he has ever occupied.
The Simonson family moved to Boulder when Terry was about 13.
Even before he had finished high school, Simonson’s mother, Shirley, made it known that she did not want him sticking around town to go to college. Boulder is home to the University of Colorado, and this was, after all, the late 1960s. So he ended up in Kansas, at Bethany College, where he majored in social work and political science.
“What I wanted to do is help kids in trouble in the court system,” Simonson says. “Because I had gotten into trouble when I was young. I had been on the other side of the desk.”
Simonson describes his 16-and-17-year-old self as “a little juvenile delinquent,” a kid who shot out street lights and stole hubcaps.
“We didn’t break into anything or anything like that,” he says.
Simonson’s first job out of college was as a juvenile probation officer in the McPherson County, Kan., court system. He moved up to running the juvenile detention facility there and eventually was placed in charge of the entire county court system.
Then one day in 1979 a job announcement arrived in the mail. The city of Tulsa was looking for its first court administrator.
Simonson, son of a hardware store owner, applied and got the job.
He’d never been to Tulsa in his life.
Simonson has the rest of his story all written down. He slides his resume and a separate list of “Crisis Management” positions he’s held across his desk.
1986-1988: Chief of staff to Mayor Richard Crawford. Crisis: Collapse of city budget due to oil recession and spike in unemployment
2007-2009: County Commissioner Randi Miller’s chief deputy: Crisis: Closing of Bell’s Amusement Park and the community reaction
2009-2011: Chief of staff to Mayor Dewey Bartlett. Crisis: Fiscal collapse of city budget due to recession; worst winter storm in city’s history; controversial City Council
2013-present: Chief of staff and director of governmental affairs for Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz. Crisis: Grand jury
It’s an incomplete list. Simonson has left out the crises he’s created or played a role in creating.
It was Simonson who was twice found to be working as a private attorney while serving as Miller’s chief deputy. It was Simonson who was accused by three Tulsa Police Department deputy chiefs of lying about whether a federal grant could be used to rehire police officers who had been laid off.
It was Simonson who asked former Fire Chief Allen LaCroix to help get his son tested for the firefighters academy — a move that eventually contributed to his decision to resign as Bartlett’s chief of staff.
It was Simonson who wrote a letter disparaging We The People Oklahoma — the grassroots organization that sought a grand jury investigation of the Sheriff’s Office — that Glanz later distributed at a meeting of a secret group called the Royal Order of Jesters.
It was Simonson who came up with the “hot dog” defense when he argued that the grassroots organization was using hot dogs to entice county residents to sign the grand jury petition.
And it was Simonson who, in a 2013 Tulsa Urban Weekly column, wrote: “It’s hard for the community to be concerned about the number of homicides when it’s gang members killing gang members. When you think about it, who’s really complaining about that? Those deaths are certainly a loss to the families of the fallen gang member, but is it actually a loss to the community? It sounds like good public safety work being done for the police by the gangs.
“Wiping out gangs is, after all, the focus of local law enforcement, and they can use all the help they can get. If the gangs want to kill each other, we certainly don’t want to stop them. This is a callous, but true, assessment of the situation. The sad part of these gang-on-gang shootings are the innocents who end up being killed in cross-fire and drive-by shootings.”
Simonson takes responsibility for what he thinks he should take responsibility for — his request for help from LaCroix, the hot dog defense. (“It will work someday,” he insists with a laugh.)
However, he’s resolute in his belief that more often than not the controversies he’s found himself in had less to do with him than the people for whom he was working. Or, as he insists was the case when he practiced law while working for Miller — which was not illegal — his bosses knew what he was up to and approved it.
“I have known when I got hired that I was the front person and that is what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to take the lightning. You’re supposed to be an advocate. You’re supposed to argue for them. You’re supposed to honor and be loyal to them, whether it’s Randi Miller or Dewey Bartlett or Sheriff Glanz,” Simonson said. “So in the end people start to think you are the face of the controversy.
“I don’t create any of these things and none of those things were in place when I was hired, but I think each of those people were thankful I was there — because when those storms hit none of them on their own were prepared to take the shots and be accused and blamed because they weren’t ready for that. They weren’t used to that. I was used to that.”
Simonson says he did not leave the Mayor’s Office because of the incident with the Fire Department.
“The conflict I had with the city was a power struggle between the mayor and the City Council, or some on City Council, and I was the face of the mayor in terms of that fight,” Simonson says. “I knew I had more experience in city government than probably anybody on the council and felt like what we were trying to do was the right thing. The council disagreed, so you had daily arguments and fights about it.”
Simonson said the acrimony “got to a point where the truth really didn’t matter.”
“I was the story. … What mattered was the revenge and the anger the council had felt toward the mayor and me because I was the one going down to the council, not the mayor.”
The Urban Tulsa column was an emotional reaction to a spree of gang-related killings in the city at the time, including a shooting at a Best Buy store that left an innocent bystander dead, Simonson says.
“I am not for anyone killing anyone,” Simonson said.
He knows the column upset some people but said the larger point he was attempting to make was that the high number of gang-on-gang killings had led to a skewed vision of how dangerous their city was.
“They live that life,” Simonson says of gangs. “They carry guns for a reason — they use them. They use them on each other.”
Not everyone agrees with Terry Simonson’s assessment of Terry Simonson. Many people wonder privately how he has survived this long, always jumping out of the frying pan just in time to land another high-level, big-dollar, public-sector job.
Former Tulsa City Councilor John Eagleton, paraphrasing a former council colleague, said of Simonson: “‘Everything he touches turns into fertilizer.’ I think that is a fair statement. You look at everything he has had his fingers in and it doesn’t turn out well.
“The people who hire him know that he will get done whatever is asked of him. You attract certain kinds of people when that is your MO.”
Displaying what some might seem as his greatest strength, tenacity — or his greatest weakness, vanity — Simonson turns all the talk about him being the problem on its head.
“I should be the one complaining,” he says. “How come I get hired by these people who heretofore seem to have a great reputation, get elected, and then crap happens?
“So I should be asking myself: ‘Maybe there is something going on here where I’m going to work for somebody because something is going to happen to him.’”
Mayor Terry Simonson
Simonson describes his father as a happy-go-lucky man who could sell anything. He laughs when asked if that sounds like anyone he knows.
“I can’t even sell myself,” he says.
Oh, but he can. And he has. He gave former Mayor Susan Savage a run for her money when she ran for re-election in 1998.
Simonson says the Republican Party power brokers at the time — Sen. Inhofe, Sen. Nichols and others — asked him to get into the race at the last hour because the only other Republican in the field was white supremacist Dennis Mahon.
Savage received 54 percent of the vote to Simonson’s 46 percent, according to Tulsa County Election Board records.
That was a much better result than even Simonson had imagined.
“Nobody gave me any much chance of winning. Even the people who got me into the race said, ‘You know, you probably can’t win,’” Simonson says. “So for me, personally, it became kind of a Rocky Balboa story. I was just going to go the distance, do the best I could and maybe next time or some time in the future I could run and actually win.”
He took another run at the Mayor’s Office four years later when Savage left office. He finished a distant second in the Republican primary to Bill LaFortune, who went on to become mayor.
Simonson has won a few elections, and he is proud of that. In the 1990s, he served three terms as chairman of the Tulsa County Republican Party.
“You can’t be everything to everyone,” Simonson says of those years. “Yet somehow I was able to be elected by acclamation, without opposition, three times.”
Three Cheers for Terry
Politicians and their political operatives make enemies all the time. It comes with the territory.
Simonson has his share, and then some.
A couple of people declined to be interviewed by The Frontier for this story because they just didn’t believe they could come up with something nice to say about him.
And then there were people like Sharon King Davis, who has known Simonson from afar, but had few occasions to work with him closely. Then, as a member of Tulsa Leadership Vision, she did, and her opinion of him changed — or at least was better informed — and she was impressed.
“He has a memory and an experience with most anything that has happened in the city in the last 40 years,” says King Davis. “It’s really quite remarkable. I have really come to have great respect for him and his love for Tulsa, yet he still manages to find himself in hot water.”
The same could be said for County Commissioner Karen Keith. She has known Simonson for years but had never worked closely with him until he joined the Sheriff’s Office in 2013.
“I think he is very committed,” she says. “I think he is just constantly trying to do the best job he can. I don’t think the public has any idea how hard he works.”
Randi Miller, the former county commissioner, says her chief deputy was a hard worker and a quick study.
“If he didn’t know an issue, he studied on it,” she says. “He has proven that he knows what he’s doing, he’s just been in some bad places at bad times.”
Even John Eagleton, the former city councilor, says Simonson’s a nice person.
“I like him personally,” he says. “He’s very cordial.”
The Years Away
Simonson has not been living off the public sector his entire life. It just seems that way.
For 20 years — between working for former Mayor Crawford and Miller — he earned his living in the private sector.
But even during those years he never really left the public arena of politics. There were the runs for mayor in 1998 and 2002 and the six years he spent as the chairman of the Tulsa County Republican Party.
So why does he bother? Why does he get involved? Why can’t he stay away?
Not because he’s needed work, Simonson insists.
“Maybe it’s because my Mom was a school teacher — that’s public service,” Simonson says. “My dad ran a small business. I enjoy it, but I also enjoyed the 20-something years I was away from it practicing law, which most people forget that whole period of my life, that I wasn’t even around here until I started getting drafted and drafted and drafted.”
Simonson says he’s never had a problem being “the No.1 guy behind the No.1 guy,” in his government jobs, but he also takes pride in what he’s accomplished as second in command.
He established the state court system’s first conflict resolution program and has authored at least three state laws, including one that established an energy-efficiency program for county governments and another that did the same for municipalities.
Simonson says it was his idea to have the city of Tulsa hire a firm to conduct a wide-ranging audit of city operations to identify possible savings. The KPMG study has been touted by Bartlett has having saved the city millions of dollars.
“I think he’s like a policy wonk,” says Keith.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe government, in one form or another, is just Simonson’s thing.
“I like the challenge of government, even though sometimes to bring about change you’re going to be attacked or criticized by people who don’t like the changes.”
“You might be reading a nice novel,” Simonson adds. “I’m reading a book on cities of the future.”
Woe Is Not Me
Lane Simonson remembers his father being in the Tulsa airport when a man stopped to talk to him. The conversation went on for a while, and finally Terry Simonson caught back up with his son.
“Who was that?” Lane Simonson asked his Dad.
“I have no idea,” Terry Simonson said.
It’s been that way for years, Lane Simonson says. Everywhere they go, his father knows someone, or someone knows him.
“He has been involved with, it feels like, everyone in the city since I have been born,” said Lane Simonson.
Politics can be an all-consuming business, but Lane Simonson says his father always made time for him and his brother, Ryan.
“I have never met or known of a father who was so active and so involved with not only work but with us” says Lane Simonson. “He was there for every game. He was there for scouts. Sometimes, it never seemed to stop. You don’t appreciate it until later in life.”
His father was always good about not taking his worries home with him, Lane Simonson says. And he’s philosophical when it comes to handling criticism.
“Everyone has opinions,” Lane Simonson recalls his father saying. “They even have an opinions section in the paper.”
Lane Simonson believes that deep down, his father cares about what people say about him and that the criticism hurts. He just doesn’t think he’s consumed by it. The Simonson family takes the same approach.
“We just kind of keep moving forward,” Lane Simonson says. “It’s kind of like a football hit. You get hit, and you just keep moving forward.”
That sounds about right. Terry Simonson can come off like a man frustrated by the world’s inability to see things his way or give him the credit he deserves.
But then comes another twist in his story, and one’s perception of the man changes.
Like this: At least once a year, sometimes more, Simonson stops by Baby Land at Floral Haven Cemetery.
It’s amazing, he says, to see the dolls and Teddy Bears and balloons that loved ones leave at the graves.
“It’s like they can’t let go,” Simonson says.
He doesn’t visit for the decorations, of course. He goes for the little girl in the ground. Her name is Britta Erin Simonson. She died in 1986, on the same day she was born.
“If you ever want to start feeling sorry for yourself, go out to Baby Land, and then you’ll understand real loss,” Simonson says.