TULSA — Tulsa is a big small town. Big enough to accommodate 400,000 residents in a place known for its culture, museums and grand art deco structures that pay homage to the city’s oil heyday. Small enough that it’s sometimes difficult to run an errand in town without bumping into someone you know.
And so it is with the two candidates left in Tulsa’s mayor’s race, which will be decided Tuesday. Challenger Kathy Taylor and incumbent Dewey Bartlett, Jr., live roughly a half-mile apart, share a social strata and dozens of mutual friends and, at one point, actually used to like each other.
For much of the past year, they’ve been at each other’s throats, peppering airwaves and mailboxes with brutal ads and accusations — eroding what had been the equivalent of a political romance. She recruited him while she was mayor in 2007 to help head up a high-profile drive to fix Tulsa’s seemingly ancient roadways; he endorsed her re-election bid in 2009, but she decided not to run again.
Those days are long gone. Bartlett’s called her a quitter who left office because she couldn’t cut it as the recession was gripping Tulsa. She’s called him an absentee mayor who bothers to show up to only 8 percent of various city meetings and has no plan to tackle a budget shortfall that totaled $3.16 million at the start of the fiscal year.
“How do you get two friends to hate each other? You get them to run for office,” said small business owner Larry Mocha, who knows both candidates and can’t bear to see the nastiness between the two.
Bartlett, 66, a Republican and oil company executive who projects a plain-talking, aw-shucks demeanor to constituents, took the city’s reins in 2009 and is credited for shepherding Tulsa through a rough economic patch that included layoffs of 124 police officers — most were later rehired— and other citywide cutbacks.
Bartlett, who has called the city’s projected shortfall “manageable” so long as the city sticks to its belt-tightening ways, such as keeping in place a hiring freeze, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press that he deserves a second term because he guided the city through a recession where he was forced to make difficult financial decisions, such as needing to immediately shave $10 million from the budget, after Taylor left office.
“When people are elected to office, they stay through thick and thin. I made that commitment and I certainly have performed what’s expected of me,” Bartlett said. “When the economy started to hit, (Taylor) decided to back out, and that is quitting.”
And his endorsement of his predecessor? “That was a mistake I made, and I’ve been paying the price for that,” he said.
Taylor, 58, a Democrat and the state’s former Secretary of Commerce, is known for keeping epically late hours. She is credited with helping save thousands of jobs at the city’s American Airlines maintenance hub and overseeing completion of a downtown arena and relocation of City Hall. Taylor left office in 2009, citing a disdain for the party politics and personal agendas that had plagued her one term as mayor.
Knocking her opponent as lacking specific plans for a second term, Taylor said in an interview that she’s seeking the office once again to bring a “back-to-basics” approach to governing Tulsa that sees a focus on core services, like fixing streets, cracking down on crime and gangs and making City Hall accountable by putting the budget online for residents to see how their money is being spent.
“Rather than talk about plans for the future, (Bartlett’s) talking about the things from the past and, frankly, things that aren’t true,” Taylor said. “I wasn’t comfortable watching the city play politics with public safety and the lack of transparency.”
“Most disappointingly, he’s not letting Tulsans know about his plans,” she said.
While the candidates are from different political parties, the city this year held a nonpartisan election. Taylor carried 42 percent of the vote in the primary in June while Bartlett had 34 percent. Republican Bill Christiansen had 23 percent.
Entering Tuesday’s election, Tulsa voters seem as sharply divided as the candidates.
Resident Vinita Haley, a retired postal worker, said she supports Bartlett because “he took a bad situation and he made it better” when he came into office during the recession.
“(Taylor) created all this big mess, and now she has come back and she’s pretending like none of it ever happened. It did,” Haley said.
Developer and fourth-generation Tulsan Sharon King Davis said she’s for Taylor because she thinks Taylor can do more for Tulsa working in a bipartisan fashion.
“Over (Bartlett’s) last term, I haven’t seen the initiative, I haven’t seen the progressive thinking out of the box,” Davis said. “And it’s very frightening to me that we’re in a budget deficit.”
Breaking news, severe weather alerts, AMBER alerts, sports scores from The Norman Transcript are available as text messages right to your phone or mobile device. You decide which type of alerts you want to receive. Find out more or to signup, click here.