The Oklahoma City Council elections are signalling that the worst variants of the Trump coalition are alive and well in Oklahoma City. Thoughtful, progressive candidates lost to do nothing incumbents or bizarre reactionaries rallying a few supporters on the edges of the city while the overwhelming majority stayed home. A personally popular moderate in Ward 3 was pushed to a runoff by a hyper-partisan hack running a right-wing campaign. But through it all, one thing was consistent. The people with money and power will do almost anything, align with almost anyone, no matter how grotesque, to keep the deck stacked for them.
Oklahoma City has a storied history of giving the wealthy and powerful whatever they want. The central argument laid out in "Boomtown" by Sam Anderson is that the Oklahoma City Chamber operates as a kind of shadow government guiding the fortunes of OKC through the years. As our society reaches political breaking points around racism and whether we have a shared reality, but also the material limits of capitalistic greed, the Chamber has become increasingly reliant on aging oligarchs and hired hacks to implement its tired agenda. Due to a rapidly changing demographics and sensibilities, it's slowly losing control of both the narrative and its power.
You really saw this play out in the council elections in campaign donations.
These are the average donation for the Chamber supported candidates are:
Todd Stone (Ward 4): 39 donors for $50,000 - $1,285/donor plus $25,000 from an independent expenditure on his behalf and $45,000 from previous campaigns and unfiled reports.
Barbara Young (Ward 3): 87 donors for $54,716 - $628/donor
Jay Sherrill (Ward 1): 115 donors for $52,455 - $456/donor
Compare this to the progressives/moderates average donation:
Sam Wargin Grimaldo (Ward 4): 167 donors for $12,575 - $75/donor
Megan Scott (Ward 1): 176 donors for $16,227.60 - $92/donor
Nana Dankwa (Ward 1): 81 donors for $16,636.81 - $205/donor
Jessica Martinez Brooks (Ward 3): 201 donors for $45,980 - $229/donor
There aren't a ton of $500+ a pop political donors out there. Whose interests do folks think are being represented in the first group? Not yours.
While Jay Sherrill bombed in Ward 1, he also had stiff competition from a range of right-wing nuts and moderate conservatives. The progressives in Ward 1 split their voting base that captured nearly 30% of the total vote. While there is a split in the Republican bloc around chamber preference vs the open embracing of fascism or libertarian christian nationalism, in Ward 3 they went for the candidate that unites both worlds in Barbara Young, I suppose they considered well-liked, moderate Republican Jessica Martinez-Brooks too liberal. Todd Stone lucked out and didn't draw a reactionary opponent on the far-right, despite them being pretty annoyed about his waffling vote on masks (voting against the mandate but for the emergency implementation) as well as doing whatever the rich people want. But at the end of the day, racism and reactionary politics unites all sides with that group.
But times are a changin'. The influx of younger people, shifting demographics and massive societal problems ranging from inequality to police violence to the dying of the oil and gas sector, the OKC Council has moved dramatically more progressive in a few short years. The three progressive councilors (Hamon, Cooper and Nice) have taken what previous progressives have done, like Ed Shadid and sent it into overdrive. They question much of the conventional wisdom, they also speak to issues from racism to gentrification to police violence to economic inequality and more.
The OKC Chamber loves to tote its Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) as this huge success story about the citizens of OKC investing in ourselves. There have been many iterations since the first one in the mid-90's. You can read about the history here. The biggest critique historically has been about the laser focus on downtown, to the exclusion of everyone else. MAPS 4 was a significant improvement on MAPS 3, which contained nearly all giant downtown projects aimed at big business types. MAPS 4 has a range of social welfare projects, more focus on parks and neighborhoods but still contains a few giveaways to the obscenely wealthy.
Add to this that the Chamber's wildest bets have started to look increasingly bad in hindsight. The biggest boondoggle of MAPS 3 was the Streetcar to nowhere. A $135M tourist circulator for a city with few tourists is more than a little messed up. A Streetcar subcommittee that decided to place the route on streets where they owned property is super messed up! But arguably, the MAP 3 project problems get much worse. With a nearly silent opening, back in December, we have our taxpayer built $300M Convention Center accompanied by a $100M subsidized Omni Hotel and parking garage that will sit largely empty through at least the next year and likely well into the future. The convention business was dying with skyrocketing space and falling demand in 2009 when MAPS 3 passed, in 2021 those trends have only accelerated. Add a global pandemic that is crushing air travel, tourism and conventions and it may be the kiss of death. The Riversport ($100M+ invested) is chronically insulvent and charges the citizens who paid to have the area built ridiculous sums ($200 for a family of four for their adventure pass) for the privilege of using worn out gear and an adventure area that is lacking in thrills but high in risk for personal injury. The Riversport has asked repeatedly for millions in operations money from the City because the only thing MAPS does is build stuff, it never includes money to operate it.
MAPS 4 continues many of these systemic issues. It also still has its giveaways to extremely wealthy interests who have plenty of access to capital or other ways to pay for it. While it does have quality of life projects, there is $115M to renovate the club level of the Chesapeake Arena. Our NBA franchise is worth $1.66B (up from $300M when they bought it). They do not need our money. There is also $100M+ for an arena at the Fairgrounds and a new multipurpose stadium. There is $60M for the amorphous innovation district with renderings that look increasingly desperate and ridiculous all cloaked in woke capitalism about incubating small businesses and synergizing minority startups. There are also tens of millions for an endowment system (several different endowments for certain projects) where the idea is that we hold tens of millions of dollars in investment accounts and generate pennies on the dollar of interest to subsidize operations. This is both mathematically ridiculous considering what public services actually cost to run well and means we'll constantly be scrapping for more, all while some investment banker collects incredible fees for our trouble.
All this spending, mostly downtown, against the backdrop of many, many solvable problems. The second most murderous police department in the country, the second most deadly county jail, the number one incarcerator of humans on the planet, rents rising far faster than inflation and a chronic education funding crisis. The Chamber knows all of this. They study it ENDLESSLY. So, when the 2021 City Council races rolled around, how does our shadow government avail itself? By immediately uniting with the most disgusting, reactionary elements in our society, pumping money to conservative candidates and doubling down on all their bad decisions. Last minute money from the OKC Chamber PAC, allied developers and oligarchs flooded into Todd Stone in Ward 4, Barbara Young in Ward 3 and several candidates in Ward 1.
The Chamber's ineptitude at solving even the most basic of problems is coming home to roost. The problems above are not only not improving, after years of study, they're getting worse! The lack of operations money means that everything from the Diversion Hub to Youth Centers to parks to housing for the homeless in MAPS 4 are left to be run almost entirely by philanthropy. While some nonprofits will have matching federal funds to fund operations, many are relying solely on local philanthropy and that will not work! MAPS primary function of build, build, build is already breaking down on the projects in MAPS 3. Add an empty convention center, a decaying boathouse district that the namesake energy companies have abandoned, an empty hotel the city is on the hook to subsidize and you've got serious fiscal problems.
When a bunch of social service projects, whose primary function isn't the building itself but what happens inside of it, come online, you are going to need philanthropy to step up in a way they may be financially incapable of doing. The Inasmuch Foundation bragged about giving the City $175,000 to study police violence some more. How big a pat on the back do they expect when we need MILLIONS to operate the Youth Centers? The MAPS 3 Senior Wellness Centers already show serious economic and racial disparities because seniors in affluent parts of town can afford high membership fees to cover adequate services while low income seniors don't use them at all because they cannot afford to and the centers struggle to make their budget and/or find operators. Now, imagine youth centers, who serve a customer base with no income at all! If we want an example of how operations funding works well, take the Oklahoma City Zoo. It has a dedicated 1/8 of 1% of sales tax, manages to keep a year long family pass affordable ($120/family compared to the Riversport's $600/PERSON) and a facility that looks and feels well maintained. They offer frequent special programming and an excellent customer experience. Amazing!
The Chamber's anti-tax, anti-govt bullsh*t is going to look increasingly foolish. They love government, when it is raining our money on them! This is the Chamber's greatest sin. Instead of electing thoughtful, reasonable leaders who might hold them accountable and curb their worst impulses but who could also work to convince the public of the common good and that funding social services is in fact the solution to our many problems, the Chamber has rigged all of this to fail. They continue to hide the fact they have nearly endless pots of money (totaling billions with a B) in Tax Increment Finance (TIF) districts, Business Improvement Districts (BIDS), giveaways in our general obligation bonds and other state tax incentives to get the resources they want with relative ease.
But what about what we the people want!? Do we want struggling schools with decrepit facilities? Do we want parks that lack sanitation facilities and barely have funding to be mowed adequately (we barely failed to pass a dedicated tax, with no real yes campaign because the Chamber sat it out)? Do we like having frequent pedestrian and bike rider fatalities? Or a county jail that cannot stop killing the people it is holding, nevermind offering treatment or rehabilitation? Do we want to live in a city where the unhoused die of exposure? Do we like our county jail being the largest mental health facility in the state? Do we like giving the richest Oklahomans more and more and more of our tax money for their playthings and big ideas while these issues go unaddressed? The answer is overwhelmingly, NO!
The Chamber loves to do unpublished polling that says, "we can't pass a school bond," "we can't replace the county jail," "we can't increase funding to parks." But when they needed to pull a political stunt to shut police and fire up, they ran a .25% sales tax increase for "public safety," made up a public safety budget concern we didn't really have, wrapped it with what people actually wanted which is street improvements and sidewalks, stuck a glossy well-funded campaign behind it and unsurprisingly, folks voted for it! They bundle all the MAPS projects together knowing full well that they could easily break up the penny tax and fund operating things people actually want but know their precious giveaways would never survive on their own! The word was the Streetcar from MAPS 3 was so unpopular they dropped any discussion of additional routes from MAPS 4 entirely despite spending years talking about how this was some grand first step in a bigger system. The Convention Center and other big projects will be even bigger disasters, no matter how many pretty pictures they take of a brand new, yet empty building.
The Chamber is failing OKC. But wait, downtown redeveloped!? Don't you remember how bad it was!? It's great now! Yeah, well, so did every other downtown in the entire country. Downtowns have seen a boom in recent years from LA to Detroit to Austin. Name a city, downtown is doing pretty great. OKC's redevelopment is the one thing we may have caught the curve on, slightly ahead of everyone else with the first MAPS back in the 1990s but it was entirely on trend for the next 20+ years. And while the Chamber's business interests and their developer allies have enjoyed (and profited from) this great boom, they've let countless other problems fester. Their biggest MAPS 3 crown jewels are already looking like terrible bets before they even open and the Chamber's biggest players of yesteryear (Chesapeake and Devon) are in the midst of fire selling assets and abandoning their once lofty perches and pledges to support these things.
The voters of OKC have largely missed a golden opportunity in the Feb 9th City Council elections to elect a more deliberative, more inclusive OKC Council ready to meet a challenging future. We've signed ourselves up for at least another few years of wandering down the path the Chamber has laid out only to be shocked when our problems don't get better because we have dramatically underfunded what we actually need (schools, social services, mental health, etc) so that a bunch of business guys can get rich and keep cutting ribbons while pretending we don't have the problems every study they commission clearly says we do.
In an effort to offer solutions to seemingly intractable problems and offer an olive branch to the OKC Chamber and their fellow oligarchs. Here are a few things they could do to improve lives, increase equity and solve problems instead of simply studying them forever or doing performative, woke capitalism.
1) Support OKC Public Schools - Begin immediate work to promote and pass the largest school bond in OKCPS history. OKCPS sits far below its bonding capacity and the Chamber runs the campaign (and strikes the deal behind the scenes on when) to pass a new one. They blame their inaction on political viability of a property tax increase instead of their own greed and incompetence. Nearly every school district in the state maxes out their bonding capacity because Oklahoma caps property taxes so low. We have the 47th lowest property taxes in the country. Right now, hundreds of millions of dollars (estimated at $750M) are sitting on the sidelines in the OKC public school district. You could transform the schools across the district, invest in the latest technology, and free up millions in deferred maintenance to reinvest in the classroom with a very modest increase in property tax that every suburban and rural community gladly pays because they care about their schools and the children who go to them. We don't because the voters of Nichols Hills (who vote in OKCPS elections) would vote against it and the Chamber listens to them. It is disgusting and should be fixed immediately.
2) Use TIF dollars to benefit the public - Utilize TIF money to incentivize/subsidize social services, affordable housing and public quality of life projects, not luxury condos, downtown street projects or fun stuff for rich people. TIFs take money from schools, libraries and the county to give to developers to incentivize them to do what they planned to do anyway. The number of objectively good TIF projects in the last two decades can be counted on one hand (the Skirvin and First National Center might be it), the rest are giving 5-10% of the project cost to people who are disgustingly wealthy and have plenty of access to capital markets. We need to stop this immediately. California made TIFs illegal because they were sucking so much revenue away from schools and redirecting it to lousy purposes. We're doing that while already having a reduced tax base. This is devastating to public services (but great for rich developers with connections). We need a complete overhaul of this process and how we decide priorities.
3) End the full MAPS penny tax - Break up the MAPS penny and fund operations. MAPS has run its course. The MAPS 3 projects are a disaster that will hemorrhage cash and bind the city budget to funding a bunch of stuff for tourists and out of towners. The MAPS 4 projects that people actually want will struggle to get adequate funding for programming and the Oklahoma City oligarchy will have no answers for this as they realize they can't fund annual operating budgets in the tens of millions, despite their obscene wealth. As rich as they are, it takes all of us to make this work. We can easily raise money for operations by breaking up the MAPS penny, and doing it retroactively (i.e. get rid of the endowments in MAPS 4 and use it to fund operations spending). The money going to endowments alone is millions per year that could be used to sustain operations, instead of pooling it and collecting pennies in interest.
4) Don't just talk about racism, do something about it - Stop supporting racist and xenophobic public policy. Stop over studying racial justice issues and fund solutions. The Chamber has a horrific history around gentrification and driving nearly every Black person and business from Deep Deuce, while also cutting a highway through predominantly Black neighborhoods to shuttle people in and out of Edmond. This same process is already starting on the near Southside and continuing on the East side around the medical center. Combine this with our horrific criminal legal system and the desire of right-wing reactionaries to utilize ICE to terrorize immigrant communities and we are still implementing the white supremacy agenda in OKC. If the Chamber wants to be a Big League City, it needs to put its money where its mouth is and fight these clowns. You don't get to put Black Lives Matter all over our NBA Arena with one hand and support using ICE like a gestapo or giving white developers all the money they want to drive out Black and brown families from areas they want to develop. We need to invest in these communities the same way we do white ones and create a process and investment that allows for agency and self-determination around the spending of resources in their communities.
5) Invest in better candidates for public office - Divest from reactionary politicians. The Chamber's obscene monetary advantage is only part of the story in our electoral politics and ultimately has diminishing returns but supporting candidates like Barbara Young, vast numbers of our Oklahoma legislature, seditious US Congressional delegates like Stephanie Bice and others, only accelerates bringing fascism to America. While the OKC Chamber wasn't involved directly, Unite Norman was driven by a grotesque mix of white nationalists, anti-maskers and monied business interests that were willing to put aside their differences to fail at driving out a center left city council. The Chamber would be wise to get out of that business and support people who actually care about fixing problems and not the latest Qanon post.
Very much a wish list but the chamber would do well to get out of its echo chamber, stop aligning with fascists and be the shadow government that actually fixes problems instead of enriching themselves. We have to admit, we're not holding our breath.