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Tulsa World

Henry defied odds in race against Largent
2002-11-07

OKLAHOMA CITY -- There's an old adage that says the most important thing in politics is to be in the right place at the right time.

But that probably is the most difficult thing to do in politics. Golden opportunities can tarnish almost overnight, and a futile tilt at a windmill can turn into a winning crusade.

That appears to be what happened in the Oklahoma governor's race this year.

Former Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Largent looked like a shoo-in to most people when he announced he was leaving Congress to run for governor.

The National Football League Hall-of-Famer appeared to have everything going for him.

He had a solid base of support in his metropolitan congressional district and was the darling of the GOP's religious right. He was guaranteed a well-funded campaign and would benefit from a visit by President Bush, who referred to him as "Gov. Steve Largent."

"It has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?" Bush asked a crowd of cheering Republicans.

Charlton Heston and the National Rifle Association also brought their show to town and embraced Largent.

The 48-year-old former Tulsa University football star is charismatic, attractive, articulate and made for television.

The money poured in and Largent ended up with more than $3 million -- the largest campaign war chest ever in an Oklahoma's governor's race.

So, what went wrong?

It was Brad Henry, 39, a Shawnee lawyer, who pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Oklahoma political history, defying the odds and winning the closest governor's race in more than 30 years.

When Henry formally announced June 24 -- an extremely late entry, only two months before the primary elections -- he appeared to have nothing going for him.

He was virtually unknown outside his state Senate district in Pottawatomie and Seminole counties and conceded Wednesday after his upset victory that he had "zero name recognition in the beginning."

He is a 10-year Democratic lawmaker, and Democratic legislators have been notorious failures in recent elections when they have run for higher office.

Most people doubted his ability to adequately fund a campaign.

He wasn't even the favorite for the Democratic nomination. Former Republican Vince Orza had that tag, and about 20 of Henry's fellow Democrats in the Legislature endorsed Orza over their colleague.

Labor and education groups whose support is vital to Democratic candidates also endorsed Orza.

But Henry fought his way into a runoff with the front-runner and pulled off his first upset.

That just got him into the arena with King Kong, however, and many Democrats didn't think he had a chance against the much-better-financed celebrity Republican candidate.

But Henry was fortunate enough to be the Democratic nominee in a year when a Republican, running as an independent, would hammer Largent.

It was the reverse of the situation in 1990, when Democrat Wes Watkins ran for governor as an independent, killing any chance Jack Mildren had of defeating Republican Frank Keating.

Henry also was on the ballot with an unanticipated state question to outlaw cockfighting, another stroke of luck.

Henry, Republican State Chairman Chad Alexander and Democratic State Chairman Jay Parmley all agree that independent Gary Richardson and cockfighting were major factors in the campaign.

Richardson, a wealthy Tulsa trial lawyer, twice was the Republican nominee in respectable but losing 2nd District congressional races. He was a Ronald Reagan appointee as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Oklahoma.

Richardson never caught on with the voters, but he did cut into Largent's Tulsa base, taking votes that otherwise would have gone to the Republican and unleashed a withering blast of negative advertising at both of his opponents, but especially Largent.

One television commercial featured the burning twin towers after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and accused Largent of being AWOL from Congress when he was needed.

A Democratic state senator said Henry told him long before announcing that he could hold the Democratic base and win with 39 percent of the total vote because of Richardson.

He did better than that. Largent and Henry both got about 43 percent of the total vote, with the Democrat winning by slightly under 7,000 votes. Richardson got only 14 percent de spite putting $2.3 million of his own money into the campaign.

"I do think Gary Richardson benefited me by taking votes away from Steve Largent," Henry said Wednesday. "But he also took votes from me."

He conceded, however, that he was the biggest beneficiary of Richardson's candidacy.

Henry said he hasn't had time to study the election returns but added SQ 687 may have helped get Democratic voters to the polls, who wouldn't have been there otherwise, in rural areas of eastern Oklahoma.

Alexander said "a combination of factors" are responsible for Largent's defeat -- mainly cockfighting and Richardson.

"Take away any one of them, and Steve probably would have won," he said.

"Look at where the counties are that had the biggest increase in voting," Alexander said of the cockfighting question's impact on his candidate.

He also said Richardson and Henry ganged up on Largent late in the campaign -- "two guys against one."

Parmley, who doesn't often agree with Alexander, agreed that Richardson took crucial votes away from Largent. "I'm absolutely convinced he did," Parmley said.

Largent supported the cockfighting ban question, while Henry opposed it, and Parmley said that was an important factor. "That helped us in the governor's race," he said.

"The turnout was high down there."

Largent said there could be any number of reasons for his defeat but mentioned his reluctance to respond to negative advertising.

Another potential factor that is harder to pin down is last year's election on right to work. Organized labor registered a lot of union voters, who normally support Democrats in state elections.

Whatever the reason, it is clear Brad Henry was in the right place at the right time.