The posturing for gubernatorial appointment to the vacant Oklahoma Labor Commissioner post has become a de facto political campaign in the eyes of a local political science professor.
“Is it a three-ring circus? Ambitious people in politics will take aim at opportunity, right?” said Keith Gaddie, chairman of the OU political science department.
The public has seen a media blitz this week from Cathy Costello, the widow of slain Labor Commissioner Mark Costello who was stabbed to death by his mentally ill son on Aug. 23 in a Braum’s parking lot. Mrs. Costello was present at the time.
After issuing a letter to Gov. Mary Fallin on Aug. 31 formally supporting the late commissioner’s chief of staff (Jim Marshall) for appointment to the position, Cathy Costello announced this week that she desires the appointment herself.
She has implied in several interviews that a “widow’s mandate” requires her to be given full consideration for the job.
However, multiple calls and messages from NonDoc to reach Mrs. Costello over the past two days have been unsuccessful.
Gaddie said the so-called “widow’s mandate” is hardly a mandate at all. He said Section 12.1 of Title 51 in Oklahoma statutes is a holdover from a political culture where men temporarily appointed widows to positions held by their deceased husbands so they could have time to decide what “ambitious” man would eventually get or run for the job.
“It’s meaningless,” Gaddie said of the statute as it relates to what a governor must do with appointments. “What it means is a widow — just like anybody else — is eligible. That title was put in at a time when it was unusual to consider women for public office. A ‘widow’s mandate’ has been effectively gone for a long time.”
Gaddie said there is no legal requirement or even tendency to appoint widows to such a job when they come open, even though it has occurred, most notably for U.S. Congress positions.
“It sounds like she is campaigning. It has policy goals attached to it,” Gaddie said. “This looks like an effort to stabilize the existing administrative leadership below the (former) commissioner. Another commissioner will want to put his or her people in place.”
A Republican familiar with Gov. Fallin’s process for making appointments spoke to NonDoc on the condition of anonymity and echoed Gaddie’s opinions.
“I think there are people around her who are using this opportunity to benefit themselves and (are) not taking into consideration her personal family tragedy and putting that at the forefront,” the person said. “I think any time the governor has an opportunity to appoint to a position of this type, it’s going to get a lot of public interest, especially for people with political ambitions.”
Several people seem to have political ambition for the position, and some have been actively rallying supporters with calls and messages directed to the governor, NonDoc has learned.
On a Facebook page titled “Help Cathy Costello continue Mark’s work,” a message in the cover image says: “Please call Gov Fallin’s office at 405-522-8800 & ask her to appoint Cathy Costello as Oklahoma Labor Commissioner now!”
In addition to her, the names of Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan and former state senator Cliff Branan have been circulated as potential appointees.
Amid rumors that each of those politicians had already been chosen for the post, NonDoc learned Gov. Fallin has actually been out of town most of the week. The Governor’s office claims no decision has been made.
“I think the governor is going to do what is right for the state of Oklahoma, but I do think they are very intentionally trying to box her in to appointing Mrs. Costello,” the source familiar with the governor’s appointment process said. “I think it’s clear they are trying to make it the only decision the governor has.”
In an interview with the Associated Press this week, Cathy Costello said, “My heart is in this for the right reason. I am not a politician. I’m not looking for a pension.”
But in the YouTube video attached to this story, Costello announced her request for the appointment and laid out her case, including a major policy issue — a desire to address mental health in workplaces.
Gaddie suspects much of the state is not particularly concerned by what happens with the appointment.
“The public doesn’t really care, most likely,” Gaddie said. “You take a good hard look at it, I’m a little surprised by how much attention is being paid to it. But on the other hand, it’s a tragic situation. It’s a shame. It shouldn’t have happened. But it has released ambitions, and the problem with political ambition is that it’s a little tacky.”
Gaddie said political campaigns don’t always take issues to the ballot box for voters. Sometimes, he said, they involve convincing power-holders to make a certain decision.
“I turn on the NPR station, and I’m hearing what is clearly professionally developed canned audio of (Cathy Costello) describing the mission of her husband that she needs to finish,” Gaddie said. “It looks and sounds like a campaign. It presents like a campaign on local TV. It is a campaign. She’s asked for the office, she’s created a rationale for it, and she is creating a PR campaign for it. It’s a campaign by definition.”
While Mrs. Costello was unable to be reached this week by NonDoc, she has agreed to speak at Monday’s High Noon Club meeting at the H&H Gun Range, according to a message posted on the Oklahoma County GOP website.
By Gaddie’s estimation, Cathy Costello “is playing the strongest card she has.”
“I just don’t know if [she has] a sufficiently compelling argument to persuade the governor of a modern state to fill the position with her,” he said. “Favoritism and cronyism really have not been very useful in getting appointed positions from governors of Oklahoma for over 20 years. It’s been a long time since those kind of politics flew in this state, and that’s what this looks like. This is an effort to say, ‘Give it to me because I deserve it,’ not because it’s what’s best for the state.”