In backwoods Oklahoma, Democrats look for their roots

Gun Rights

It’s been a long time since Oklahoma Democrats had fun this late in a general election campaign. But they did Saturday night.

Deep in the hills holding Lake Tenkiller like a gulp of water in the hollow of a giant hand, about 450 Democrats did their best to re-create the feel of the days when their party controlled the congressional delegation and the Legislature and, more often than not, the governor’s chair.

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“I didn’t sleep for two or three weeks before Saturday night because I was worrying about this event. I didn’t sleep Saturday night because I was so ecstatic about the way it turned out,” said Kalyn Free, organizer of the Mike Synar Memorial Barbecue.

By all accounts, Saturday night’s soiree — at the lake in Cherokee and Sequoyah counties, about 90 miles southeast of Tulsa — was not as big as the legendary all-day events hosted by the late 2nd District congressman during his 18 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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But it was more festive and more hopeful than most Democratic events of recent years.

Some attendees, said Free, even complained that the candidate speeches weren’t longer.

Oklahoma Democrats’ aspirations are both less grand and more audacious than a generation ago. They think they have legitimate chances to win some important races, or at least make Republican votes not quite so automatic as they’ve been lately.

Channeling Mike Synar, for one night at least, is an interesting development.



To the general population, Synar is most remembered as a liberal who finally went too far to the left and was defeated for reelection in 1994, a loss that helped launch the political career of the late Tom Coburn.

His supporters, though, say Synar’s real sin was angering moneyed interests. His 1994 defeat came largely through the efforts of the National Rifle Association, the tobacco lobby and ranching concerns upset with Synar’s attempt to raise grazing fees on federal land.

Perhaps most importantly, he was the only member of the Oklahoma delegation to vote for the 1994 assault rifle ban, a vote he is said to have predicted would cost him reelection.

In the end, it might not have mattered. Oklahoma Republicans won every congressional seat and the Governor’s Office in 1994, and U.S. Sen. David Boren, one of the most powerful Democrats in the nation, abandoned Washington for the University of Oklahoma.

With a few exceptions, every other November since has inspired dread.

Free said Synar’s spirit, rather than positions on particular issues, should unite Oklahoma Democrats.

“Mike always voted in what he believed was the best interest of not just Oklahoma but all Americans,” she said.

That fits in with a general theme of Saturday’s speakers — that the coming election is about integrity and good government.

“Gov. (Kevin) Stitt is vulnerable,” said gubernatorial nominee Joy Hofmeister. “He is vulnerable because of his ego.

“We can feel the momentum,” she said. “Can you feel it?”

For one night, at least, they could.

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