Former mayors drawn into fray as election day nears. 'When someone makes it personal, it's personal.'
Let’s get this out of the way: Susan Savage is voting for G.T. Bynum for mayor on Tuesday.
But that’s not why I called her Thursday. I was interested in hearing what the city’s longest-serving mayor (1992-2002) had to say about the tone of the mayoral campaign, which pits Bynum, a city councilor, and incumbent Dewey Bartlett.
Bartlett has recently sent out mailers tying Bynum to former Mayor Kathy Taylor.
The mailer shows a smiling Bartlett next to former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn on one side and Bynum and Taylor on the other, with the words, “This says it all…”
The mayor is trying to get voters to associate Bynum, a Republican, with Taylor, a Democrat. Bartlett, a Republican, defeated Taylor in the mayor’s race three years ago.
But Tulsa’s municipal elections are nonpartisan, meaning Democrats, Republicans and independents can vote for whomever they wish on Tuesday. So Savage doesn’t get it.
“When I first saw that mailer I thought, ‘Well, how thoughtful of Dewey to send out a flier of G.T. Bynum, because it’s a great picture of G.T. and it’s a great picture of Kathy,” Savage said. “So it seemed like a peculiar tactic to me.”
Savage acknowledged that Tulsans have yet to fully embrace the nonpartisan format but believes voters won’t be fooled by labels.
“What I think happens on the local level is they can see through your partisanship,” she said. “They want to know how you conduct the business of the city.
“Once you strip away the campaign, you have got to have good, thoughtful, energized people working on behalf of the city, and you don’t define them as Democrat or Republican or independent.”
Further confusing the issue, she says, is that Bartlett endorsed Taylor for mayor the first time she ran and did work for her administration.
So why pull her into the campaign? Savage has an idea.
“Conventional wisdom is when you try to distract the public’s attention to something that is a non-issue, there is a problem in your campaign,” Savage said. “The numbers are showing something you don’t want them to show.”
Perhaps. A SoonerPoll conducted for the Tulsa World shows 40.8 percent of respondents favoring Bartlett and 37.7 percent favoring Bynum. The difference is within the margin of error, with plenty of voters still undecided.
Bartlett has gone negative before, Savage said, including way back in 1992 when he was one of more than 50 candidates challenging her for mayor. In that campaign, Bartlett sent out last-minute fliers accusing Savage of failing to file documents in a timely fashion that were critical to a dispute between the city and Tulsa County.
“I didn’t have to point it out — both newspapers pointed it out — that I wasn’t even the mayor when what I was being accused of occurred,” she said.
Bartlett later apologized, Savage said.
Savage was among five former Tulsa mayors who endorsed Bynum at a Friday morning press conference. The others include Robert LaFortune (1970-1978), Terry Young (1984-1986), Dick Crawford (1986-1988) and Taylor (2006-2009). All but Crawford are LaFortune are Democrats.
Savage said she’s well aware that some people will read her words and believe she is nothing more than a partisan doing her best to dig Dewey.
“But I don’t pay much attention to that,” she said, “because on the local level, where you have daily interaction with your mayor, a mayor lives in his or her own home, your children go to school in the community. … You look for what are the qualities of that individual. Are they leadership, integrity and character?
“I support G.T. Bynum because not only does he exhibit all of those qualities, but he works really hard to understand the issues.”
Speaking after Friday’s press conference, Taylor said she believes Tulsans will not let a prior election influence their decisions on Tuesday.
“This race is about the future,” Taylor said. “I think (Mayor Savage) said it very well: Councilor Bynum represents a generation that is taking leadership and should be taking leadership of the city. He is working to unite us.”
Bartlett’s campaign manager, Matt Faeth, said it was Bynum who first went negative when early in the campaign he accused Bartlett of not being actively involved in the creation of the public safety sales tax that became part of Vision Tulsa.
“G.T. hasn’t been exclusively positive in his campaign,” Faeth said.
Savage said she didn’t mind sharing her thoughts with me in part because she’s shared them all with the mayor in emails. He’s yet to respond.
Something tells me Susan Savage doesn’t much worry about that. As CEO of Morton Comprehensive Health Services, she has plenty to occupy her time.
At the end of our phone call, I asked her if she wanted to add anything, and this is what she said: “You can’t say after an election, ‘Hey, it was just a campaign, it wasn’t personal.’ Because when someone makes it personal, it’s personal.”
She knows this first hand. During the 1992 mayoral election against Bartlett, her daughter took a newspaper clipping in which Bartlett was pictured and began drawing.
“She took it — I didn’t know this until much later — and drew horns and a little tail on his backside and a little beard,” Savage said. “That was the only way she had of expressing how she felt about the attacks on her mother.”
Ain’t politics great?