Internal politics at work in ouster of Rep. Leslie Osborn (Capitol Update)

Rep. Leslie Osborn and Speaker Charles McCall

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

Internal legislative politics is one of the most fascinating but obscure phenomena in our representative government. It mostly occurs behind closed doors, only occasionally breaking into public view. And those involved — members of the legislative body — normally see no advantage in telling the whole story. Internal politics happens in private phone calls, private one-on-one or small group meetings, in casual social or political conversations that are intended to be kept quiet, and usually are, even by those who disagree with the final decision. Almost everything in life happens for more than one reason, so it’s not difficult to obscure the more important aspects of an internal political debate.

An example of internal House politics came into full public view last week when Speaker Charles McCall (R-Antlers) replaced Rep. Leslie Osborn (R-Mustang) as Chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee. The Speaker’s spokesman said the replacement of Rep. Osborn had “nothing to do” with the fact that she directly and publicly disagreed with the Speaker and Majority Leader Mike Sanders (R-El Reno) about the way DHS director Ed Lake and his staff chose to deal with the shortage of DHS funding. On the other hand, Rep Osborn said, “It is a sad day when we cannot have an honest conversation about the major financial and budget issues we face as a state,” strongly suggesting that her public disagreement with the Speaker is the reason she was fired.

It’s likely that the public disagreement having “nothing” to do with the firing is an overstatement. That’s political jargon for saying it’s not the only reason. Serving in the legislature is all about finding the necessary consensus to make policy. Members must compromise to the extent their conscience, their judgment and their constituency will allow. When you are in the leadership you are on a team. You have your relative voice within the team, but in the end, you must go with the team so long as you can. But if you’re a person of good conscience and judgment you cannot lose sight of your own values. Some decisions become a bridge too far. My take on last week’s occurrence is that the distance between Speaker McCall and Rep. Osborn became too wide a gulf.

Rep. Osborn had publicly disagreed with leadership more than once last session. It’s what she felt her own judgment and her leadership responsibilities required. Going forward, it’s not as if the budget problems got resolved last session, and this is all in the past. The same problems will still be there the next time the legislature convenes, which may be sooner than next February, and the issues will likely be even more difficult than now. The discussions that occurred publicly both last week and last session were only the tip of the iceberg compared to the discussions that happened behind closed doors. The Speaker probably decided that he could take the heat for what might be an unpopular action now or face a fractured policy relationship within his team from now to the end of next session. Knowing Rep. Osborn as I do, I doubt she would disagree with that assessment.

In my own position as a supplicant for my causes and clients, I’m in no position to express an opinion as to who is right and who is wrong. But it’s a fascinating life to work within a framework with so many ambiguities. It’s sort of like a real-life game of “Where’s Waldo.”

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Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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