Gene Stipe, perhaps the last of the old-school Oklahoma Democrats, has died at 85, and truth be told, I was rather shocked by the news; I just assumed that Stipe, who served 53 years in the state legislature, a figure which will never be topped unless they repeal term limits, would be around forever, like the Arbuckles and the crabgrass and the Sonic foot-long cheese coney.

One common objection to career politicians is that they supposedly never spent any time in the Real World. This really doesn't apply to Stipe, who served in the US Navy during the last days of World War II, and went on to put himself through law school at OU while living in the Norman fire station and, eventually running for a seat in the state House of Representatives, which he won in the general election of 1948. House Speaker Walter Billingsley installed Stipe as an assistant floor leader, a position he retained for two terms.

By 1954, Stipe was ready to step up, and filed to run for Kirksey Nix's Senate seat. He lost. But Nix had higher aspirations as well: two years later, Nix moved on to the Court of Criminal Appeals. (You don't want to know what happened to Nix's son.) A special election was called, and this time Stipe won. He would never again lose an election.

The Democrats had been in almost continuous control of the legislature since the 1920s, and would remain so for the rest of the 20th century, so Gene Stipe had an opportunity to build himself an empire. Which he did: he acquired oil and gas leases, radio stations, a newspaper or three, and various other interests, all while remaining officially outside the Senate leadership and maintaining an enviable record for constituent service, and avoiding the consequences of Reynolds v. Sims, which tossed the old system of electing legislators in favor of one which mandated districts of equal population statewide.

But you don't get to be a power broker without occasionally exercising some, um, unusual initiatives. In 1968, the IRS thought they'd nailed Stipe on tax-evasion charges. They hadn't. In 1979, Stipe was indicted by a federal grand jury for an alleged scheme to obtain a questionable SBA loan for a constituent. This didn't stick either, but while awaiting trial on that case, another indictment came down, claiming Stipe had illegally intervened in an extradition case.

The actual unwinding, though, didn't begin until 2003. At the time, I wrote:

It probably wasn't any big surprise that failed [1998] Congressional candidate Walt Roberts entered a guilty plea to various counts of conspiracy; many of us have been wondering just where this good ol' boy was finding all this campaign financing. Now the finger has been pointed, and it's pointed toward Senator Gene Stipe.

Stipe was put on trial, and entered a guilty plea; he resigned his Senate seat, turned in his law license, and paid about three quarters of a million dollars in fines. He served no hard time, and in fact, nearly four years into his probation, the Feds sought revocation, arguing that one of his business partners was a felon. By the time the revocation request had become moot, Stipe, this time with his brother Francis, was under yet another indictment, charging influence peddling and various other nefarious schemes to extract favors from the legislature. Stipe, then 82 and ill, was deemed incompetent to stand trial; Francis, after pleading guilty, quietly died. There was yet another Stipe brother, Clyde, who died two weeks ago; he was running the Stipe family law firm.

Still, what people are going to remember about Gene Stipe will not be his occasional brushes with the law, but his service to the state and its people. Mike McCarville writes:

A life-long Democrat, Stipe will best be remembered for his impassioned and undying support for Oklahoma's poor and working men and women. Throughout his service, those in need would gather to meet the senator at his McAlester office on Saturday mornings. He would pay the bills of the penniless, find jobs for the jobless, and advocate for the downtrodden. His vast influence turned McAlester into a hub of political and economic activity. Through his support of his entire Senate district, Stipe brought home millions of dollars of funding for roads and highways that resulted in economic development and thousands of jobs. The people of the district responded by electing him 17 times.

We will not see his like again. Whether that's a triumph or a tragedy will have to be decided by history.

The Vent

  23 July 2012

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 Copyright © 2012 by Charles G. Hill