Advice for Stitt: Be approachable, pick friendly team 

Matt Barnard / Tulsa World via AP

Osage Nation Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, left, and Governor-elect Kevin Stitt, right, take part in a pre-inaugural event Saturday at the Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks.

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Current and former lawmakers are hopeful that the inauguration of incoming Gov. Kevin Stitt will herald in a new era of openness and cooperation between the Legislature and governor's office.

But if the Republican political novice, who will be officially sworn in as Oklahoma's next governor Monday morning, wants to build a good working relationship with legislators, it's imperative that he surrounds himself with the right staff and be easily approachable -- in good times and bad.

"He would have an open-door policy and meet with the Legislature and legislators," said former state Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, who served six years in the House. "To me, the most important thing a guy can do is be accessible to legislators and senators."

Cleveland said while he liked outgoing Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, lawmakers struggled with access because of her surrounding staff.

It's imperative that Stitt selects a tough but fair team.

"You can say no with a smile," Cleveland said.

State Rep. Lewis Moore, R-Edmond, said Stitt must be visible around the Capitol, particularly during session. He said people want to see a governor all the time, not just when there's a problem or something's about to come up for a vote.

"The governor's busy, but don't have a bunker mentality where you're afraid to get out and be seen and be asked questions and be confronted," Moore said. "Just go out every once in a while and walk the hallways in a kind of systematic way."

Moore, who is starting his 11th year in the House, said Fallin's relationship with the Legislature showed a lot of promise at first. But starting around 2015 when the Oklahoma economy suffered, it changed.

"I think because it got hard," Moore said. "I think they were hunkered down, and they were working on stuff, but they did not get out and see people."

In an interview last month, Fallin said that she didn't always see eye to eye with the Republican-controlled Legislature.

After a special session in 2017, Fallin vetoed the budget bill and called lawmakers back into a second special session the week of Christmas.

"The legislators were not happy with me," Fallin said.

As a result of the budget veto, she said she helped broker a bipartisan tax package that gave teachers an average $6,100 raise. She also pressed for policies to help stabilize the budget going forward.

She said she tried to do what was right even when faced with tremendous pressure from her own party. Fallin said she learned not to be afraid to tell people no.

And there were other times she wielded her veto power.

"There were times I vetoed some legislation that even my own political party had passed, but secretly behind the scenes, my Republicans were coming and saying please veto that. I didn't want to vote for that."

Stitt should try to have a good relationship with all elected officials, Fallin said.

"[He needs] to respect [lawmakers], to know that they worked just as hard to get into their offices as he has, to listen to them, but also follow his heart when it comes to signing bills or not signing bills, advocating for budgetary issues," she said. "Listen to your heart; the people elected you because of the issues you ran on."

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.