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Lessons from victory

By Connie Marshner
web posted December 17, 2001

Nobody was paying much attention on September 25, but it could be argued that on that day the Reagan Revolution was reborn.

The scenario was a referendum special election. In the course of the campaign the opposition made the largest per capita media buy in rating points in history - imagine the weekly exposure of McDonald's ads on TV and multiply it by forty or fifty. The winning side spent $6.4 million -- but the losing side admits to $15 million, though some calculate a more honest figure would be $20 million. Two weeks before election day, the unprecedented national tragedy of 9/11 happened, and for five days, the campaign went dark.

Those were tough odds. But on September 25, Oklahoma became the first state in 43 years to win a right to work referendum. The margin was 53 to 47, still a close election. How did Oklahoma Families for Jobs and Justice, as the umbrella group was called, do it? Can that victory be replicated elsewhere?

Marc Nuttle, Oklahoma Families for Jobs and Justice senior strategist, Gov. Frank Keating and former Kerr McGee CEO and campaign co-chair Frank McPherson celebrate victory
Marc Nuttle, Oklahoma Families for Jobs and Justice senior strategist, Gov. Frank Keating and former Kerr McGee CEO and campaign co-chair Frank McPherson celebrate victory

The strategy of the campaign deserves close analysis. By all accounts, Marc Nuttle, who earlier in his career was a fieldman for Paul Weyrich's Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, living in Oklahoma all the while, deserves the lion's share of the credit. Marc made some carefully-researched assumptions; he designed a strategy; he had a plan.

But Marc had a lot to work with. It is symbolic that in this campaign 84 per cent of the money for the right to work side came from within Oklahoma, while 84 per cent of the money for the big labor side came from outside Oklahoma. The same can be said of the talent on both sides of the issue: Marc Nuttle's brain trust had been friends for thirty years, and had excellent working relationships. The AFL-CIO operatives who opposed them were unknown and from out of state.

It could be said this was a victory eleven years in the making, because that was when Edward Gaylord, publisher of The Oklahoman, hired Pat McGuigan away from the Free Congress Foundation to be the editorial page editor of his newspaper. In 1964, a right to work referendum in Oklahoma had been defeated, and Gaylord wanted another chance, and he was willing to wait for it. The issue had come up in the legislature fifteen times since 1964, always to no avail.

In the late 1990's, occasional meetings on the subject began to occur, and a few years ago, they became regular meetings. In the heat of the campaign, the strategy meetings took place weekly in the Governor's office, and the Governor was an active participant. It took years to get all the ducks in a row, and then it took experienced, steady hands to follow a good strategy.

Governor Frank Keating had called for passage of right to work in every State of the State address since he took office in 1995. But the votes weren't there - even though only 6 per cent of the workers in the state are union members, the political power of the unions was intimidating. In the 2000 elections, several pro-right to work Democrats were elected, and the balance tipped enough that a final legislative vote to create the referendum had all the Republicans in the legislature and half the Democrats supporting it.

"Vote Yes on Q 695" became the slogan.

It helped that Oklahoma has an elected Labor Commissioner. Brenda Reneau Wynn was free, therefore, to advocate on behalf of Question 695. "I was elected to look after the interests of all working people of the state, not just unionized ones," she would say. It helped that not only incumbent Governor Keating, and Lt. Governor Mary Fallin, but popular previous Governors Boren & Nigh favored Question 695. It helped that Oklahoma's Congressional delegation, except for one, was in favor of Q695. Congressman J. C. Watts did several television ads for Q695.

The theme was freedom of choice: workers should be free to choose whether or not to join a union. It's hard to argue against freedom of choice, as pro-lifers have discovered to their sorrow in referenda of their own. The business community was willing to stand and be counted on this: the Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce and scores of local Chambers were all in support, and willing to be listed as such.

The truly Reaganesque ingredient of success was the use of grassroots coalition politics. The Oklahoma Christian Coalition may not have a lot in common with the Oklahoma Bankers Association, but both were among the organizations listed as supporters in the ads of the Vote Yes campaign.

Grassroots coalition building went beyond ads in newspapers. There are about 230,000 Oklahomans who are dues-paying members of national conservative organizations, out of a state population of 3 million. The national leadership of those organizations was asked to help, and they did: they communicated with local members on behalf of the 695 campaign.

That's why it was like the Reagan Revolution reborn. People join those national organizations because they want to be involved politically. But most of the time the national organization does little other than send letters to its members. In the Oklahoma referendum, those organizations functioned the way they are intended to: they provided the linkage between the concerned citizens and their local politics. People follow those they recognize as their leaders. If they get a phone call from Dave Keene of the ACU or Bev LaHaye of CWA, they will listen. And they did. Things like that can help add up the exit poll statistic that 25 per cent of union households voted for 695.

Now watch out that the AFL-CIO doesn't push for legislation in Congress to outlaw such grassroots and personal contact with voters.

Freedom, grassroots coalitions, and personal contact with the voters: as Marc Nuttle puts it, "a united front becomes a fortress." Congratulations to the Oklahomans.

And caution to leaders on other issues, who may look at Oklahoma and be tempted by hubris: Can you do the same thing? How many years has your on-the-ground team been working together? How many of the ducks can you line up?

Connie Marshner is Director of the Free Congress Foundation's Center for Governance.

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