Since news broke about former Oklahoma Rep. Gus Blackwell (R-Goodwell) being charged with 44 criminal counts related to campaign financial practices, I have been inundated with unsolicited criticism of the diminutive lawmaker-turned lobbyist.
Most of the stories simply involve people finding Blackwell to be rude and unlikable, from his hometown where he clashed with Baptist church leaders to his time at 23rd and Lincoln where he served in the House of Representatives from 2002 to 2014.
While others are more damning, I won’t print them here because I don’t need anyone else’s words to explain the amusement of Gus Blackwell getting his felonious comeuppance.
You could say Gus Blackwell and I have met
I first encountered Blackwell in 2008, when I was a recent college graduate and a new reporter for eCapitol.net. I was so green to the position that the first time Shawn Ashley took me to the building before the start of session, I forgot to check my computer bag for contraband and was stopped by state troopers for sending a garden trowel through the x-ray machine. Months later, Rep. Sally Kern (R-OKC) accidentally left a pistol in her bag, and I understood her embarrassment.
At the time, Blackwell was the speaker pro tem of the House of Representatives. Essentially, he was second in command of the chamber, and while I was still learning my way around the Capitol’s hallways, scandal erupted.
Before I could blink or session could start, then-Speaker Lance Cargill (R-Harrah) resigned over a baffling list of reported problems: He had not paid his property taxes on time, he had not filed income tax returns, and there were rumblings that his involvement with a PAC was questionable.
Blackwell became a leading contender to replace Cargill as leader of the House, his name swirling in the press room and among several lobbyists who subscribed to eCapitol’s services. For the most part, people who spoke with me hoped Blackwell would not be selected. They found him to be a jerk.
Days later, The Oklahoman reported that Blackwell and a handful of other legislators — including current Oklahoma Corporation Commission candidate Rep. Richard Morrissette (D-OKC) — were also delinquent in paying their property taxes. Blackwell withdrew his name from Speaker consideration and continued to serve actively in the legislative body. Cargill, on the other hand, rarely showed for work that session and did not file for re-election. Chris Benge (R-Tulsa) became Speaker, and he now serves as Oklahoma Secretary of State.
Fast-forward a year to 2009, and the odd events of January 2008 were hardly a topic of discussion. Blackwell had long regained his swagger, and I had become more confident in my ability to understand the sausage-making of daily legislating. But one fateful spring day, those two realities collided in a story I’ve never told publicly.
One man’s greed
If you’re a food enthusiast in Oklahoma, you’ve probably heard about the El Reno Onion Burger Festival. For years, those involved would bring enormous grills to the Capitol in promotion of the festival, cooking hundreds of free burgers for whoever wanted one. It was, I had quickly learned, a great day to be alive.
But in 2009, the serving line seemed especially long, Capitol veterans told me. I stood in it for half an hour, inching around the second floor of the Capitol and hoping I could get a free onion burger before the next meeting on my coverage schedule.
As I stood 50 or so people from my goal, Gus Blackwell and another state representative walked to the front of the line, grabbed onion burgers and left. The secretary standing behind me sprinkled her assessment of the two men with four-letter words. Minutes later, as we witnessed the person in front of me receive the day’s last burger, I offered my own four-letter words.
I wandered back upstairs to the press room, trying to decide whether I’d just skip lunch altogether or rush to the snack bar. Outside of Room 432A, however, I saw House GOP caucus members in their daily chow line. The meals were routinely provided by lobbyists, and there — standing with a plate of food in his hands and a smarmy grin on his face — was Gus Blackwell.
I walked past him in disbelief and then anger. As I approached the press room, I decided I momentarily didn’t care about decorum or my expected neutrality as a journalist. This was an affront of human decency — a tangible example of how one man’s greed deprives another man of lunch.
I wasn’t going to stay silent.
“Blackwell!” I turned and yelled to the shock of his colleagues, who were filling their plates and stuffing their faces. “You stole my onion burger! You’ve got free lunch right there, but you cut that line downstairs and stole my onion burger!”
I was simultaneously incensed and terrified, knowing that my outburst was both morally right and professionally wrong. At that moment, I hated being in that stupid building where an egotist in a frumpy suit with three letters and a period in front of his name thought 7,000 votes from the people of Texas County entitled him to cut other hard-working Oklahomans in line. Had he learned nothing in elementary school? Had he learned nothing from failing to pay his taxes on time?
And was my boss going to reprimand me for deciding I had to be the one to confront this greedy bastard in front of his colleagues?
Squeaky wheel gets the greasy burger
I turned and nearly made it to the door of the press room before I heard him reply.
“HEY!” he yelled. “Come here.”
I did as he asked, feeling much smaller and weaker than the man I towered over. Who did I think I was in the first place?
“Go down to my office,” Blackwell said to me gently, “and that burger is sitting on my desk. Tell my assistant I said for you to have it.”
I was shocked. I thanked him and did as he said. The burger was good, and I replaced it on his desk with a candy bar and a note of appreciation.
In the end, the exchange highlighted to me a truth of life at 23rd and Lincoln: The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and if you sit back and say nothing, you’ll never get results. Legislators are usually terrified of being called on their bullshit.
It’s with this in mind that I offer kudos to Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater for trying not to let Blackwell — and all the other politicians from both parties he has investigated and prosecuted — get away with their poor ethical decisions.
So don’t cut in the lunch line, kids.
And don’t fudge on your expense reports.
Things we saw (and heard)
Why Bobby Knight and a rogues’ gallery of athletes are flocking to Trump — NPR
Tulsa World Editorial: District attorney tries to play with judicial boundaries — Tulsa World
Passenger Fears Professor Doing Math Is A Terrorist, Delays Flight 2 Hours — Huffington Post
50% of Teens Say They’re ‘Addicted’ to Their Phones — Fortune
Quotes to note
Carly’s perfectly nice. By the way, she fell off the stage the other day. Did anybody see that? And Cruz didn’t do anything. Even I would have helped her, OK?
— Donald Trump to a crowd in Indiana, as reported by Politico, 5/2/16
The pictures in The Transcript of protestors waving posters and saying land run equals genocide and things like that, I can appreciate where they’re coming from, but land runs were not genocide. That’s just false.
— OU history professor Sterling Evans on protesters of Norman’s 89er Day parade, 5/7/16
You can’t tell the story better. If you are a good police officer and you do what’s right, you won’t have any issues.
— South Euclid, Ohio, Patrolman Steven Wilson, on wearing body cams on the beat, 5/8/16
This blows: KOCO story on wind energy lacks perspective by William W. Savage III