Jim Inhofe dies
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) speaks with reporters in his office Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. (Gaylord News / Brooklyn Wayland)

Days after experiencing a stroke, former U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe died at age 89 early this morning in Tulsa.

A longtime Oklahoma politician who represented the state in the U.S. Senate from 1994 through 2022, Inhofe’s political career began with a 1966 election to the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He jumped to the State Senate in 1969, serving one year as Republican minority leader in the 1970s. He served two terms as mayor of Tulsa from 1978 to 1984, joining the U.S. House in 1987 and serving there until he won an open race to succeed former Sen. David Boren in 1994.

As the longest-serving U.S. senator in Oklahoma history, Inhofe held influential chairmanships on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and the Senate Armed Forces Committee, positions that allowed him to promote the petroleum industry and protect five military bases in Oklahoma from being closed. Inhofe was drafted into the U.S. Army in the 1950s and completed two years of service.

Jeff Wilson, an Inhofe staff member from 2005 to 2010 who now works for Devon Energy, remembered his former boss for “maturity and leadership” during a 15-year political arc that transitioned Oklahoma from a state dominated by Democrats to one dominated by Republicans.

“You had Jim Inhofe fighting to preserve Oklahoma’s five military facilities — bringing infrastructure projects home and really making Oklahoma transition from being a donor state to a donee state in terms of federal transportation dollars,” Wilson said. “This is a guy who never once backed away from the idea that earmarks were the right thing to do, and they were the right thing to do because Oklahomans knew better what to do with those dollars than bureaucrats in D.C.”

Wilson said Inhofe’s legacy includes “realizing what a Republican majority in Oklahoma looked like.”

“It had a really tremendous benefit for Oklahoma over time,” he said. “Were it not for Jim Inhofe, we wouldn’t have five military facilities today. (…) I won’t discount others, but without his leadership, we probably don’t have two of those facilities today.”

Inhofe — whose middle name, Mountain, stemmed from his mother’s family — often embraced rankings that showed him as the most conservative member of the U.S. Senate. But despite Inhofe’s blunt nature and preference against pulling punches, Wilson said he valued relationships with his Senate colleagues.

“Jim never shied away from the conservative moniker. He embraced that American Conservative Union ranking. He always wore that mantle proudly, but I think he was also someone who worked to form friendships across the aisle that may not have always been transparent to the public eye,” Wilson said. “His relationship with people like Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and working in the way that the Senate was meant to work in a collegial fashion — always sticking up for your principles and standing firm on your principles, but not doing it in a way that alienated you from people that you were there to work with and get things done.”

‘A generational Oklahoman’

Of course, Jim Inhofe’s ability to get things done for the oil and gas industry — including a 2005 transportation bill’s midnight rider that ensured Oklahoma can administer Environmental Protection Agency regulations despite the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma — coincided with his public denial of climate change, a position now largely out of touch with recognized realities and scientific data.

In February 2015, Inhofe famously took a snowball onto the Senate floor, tossing it to a bystander during a speech as frigid, purported evidence that the globe was not warming. The stunt left him ridiculed by national pundits, but his strong support in Oklahoma never wavered. He won his final reelection campaign in 2020 with 62.9 percent support over Democrat Abby Broyles.

Throughout his campaigns, Inhofe became known for heavy TV advertisements that framed himself as a champion for freedom and cast his political opponents in unflattering shadows. Many of the ads — including 1994’s infamous Bug Zapper ad that criticized U.S. Rep. Dave McCurdy — were created by Strategic Perception, a company run by Inhofe’s nephew, Fred Davis III.

A longtime aviation enthusiast, Inhofe appeared in cockpit during several of Davis’ ads. Inhofe obtained his pilot’s license at age 28 and preferred flying light aircraft including the Van’s RV-8 that was featured in his 2020 reelection campaign. During the summer, he was a frequent attendee at the Oshkosh Air Show in Wisconsin. Inhofe attended the show more than 20 times and slept in a tent.

“I’ve slept in the same tent for 20 years,” Inhofe told General Aviation News in 2021. “If you’re not sleeping in a tent, it’s not like being at Oshkosh.”

But his time in the skies was not without turbulence. Inhofe was involved in several serious aviation incidents, and some elected officials and staff members told stories of anxious moments on board Inhofe’s plane.

In July 2016, Inhofe had to make a forced landing in Ketchum after encountering severe weather. In 2011, he landed his plane on a closed runway, forcing airport workers to get out of his way. In 1999, Inhofe made an emergency landing when the prop came off his plane mid-flight. But the love for flying ran in the family. His son, Perry, also became a pilot. He died in 2013 while attempting to land at Tulsa International Airport.

More recently, Inhofe drew national attention and criticism from competing camps for his conflicting views on the COVID-19 pandemic. He voted against several COVID-19 relief packages but also acknowledged the seriousness of the pandemic in a 2020 interview with the Tulsa World.

“You know, I’d be the first to say we’re overreacting because that’s kind of how I am, but we’re not,” he said in March 2020.

Ultimately, the virus would play a role in his retirement, and he cited problems from long COVID as one of the primary drivers in his decision to step down. Inhofe told the Tulsa World in an interview that there were “five or six senators” who experienced the lingering effects of COVID but that he was the only one who admitted it.

Inhofe announced his retirement in 2022, triggering a special election after the Oklahoma Legislature changed state law to avoid an interim gubernatorial appointment.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said in a statement that he is ordering flags to fly at half-staff in honor of Inhofe.

“Sarah and I are saddened by the news of the passing of Senator Inhofe and our hearts go out to Kay, their children and grandchildren. Jim was a generational Oklahoman who relentlessly championed our veterans, never wavered in protecting our values, and a firm believer in the American dream. Jim will be remembered as a true statesman and public servant— and a fighter for Oklahoma.”

Calling Inhofe “Oklahoma’s favorite son,” U.S. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) also released a statement.

“We grieve along with our state and nation the loss of a true patriot for our American values and way of life,” Lankford said. “Jim was an institution in the Senate. He kept his relationship with Jesus, his family, and all Oklahomans as his priority. His passion for our military, aviation, energy, infrastructure, Africa, and our personal freedom was vital for our state and our nation. He was a true legend and a force to be reckoned with.”

Oklahoma House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols (R-OKC) also praised Inhofe in a statement.

“Few have done more than James Mountain Inhofe for the people of Oklahoma,” Echols said. “From supporting countless miles of infrastructure development, standing up for Oklahoma farmers and ranchers, his commitment to our men and women in uniform, or his unwavering commitment to conservative values, and so much more, Oklahoma lost an irreplaceable legend.”

Oklahoma House Minority Leader Cyndi Munson (D-OKC) also released a statement.

“My condolences go out to the family and friends of Sen. Jim Inhofe,” she said. “He was a tenacious leader, state representative, and United States senator who stood firm in his convictions. He bravely served our country in more ways than one and has left a long lasting impact on the state of Oklahoma.”

Brian Hackler, a longtime Inhofe aide who now works for Cornerstone Government Affairs, said he is “praying for his 20 kids and grandkids.”

“Serving on Sen. Inhofe’s staff for 12 years was the honor of my life. I had the privilege of traveling across the state, the country, and even the world with him, learning invaluable lessons and wisdom along the way,” Hackler said. “While his teachings in work and politics were important, I am most grateful for the lessons he gave me on how to be a good husband and father, and most importantly, how to love and glorify the Lord.”

Former Gov. Mary Fallin called Inhofe a “true public servant.”

“He rose through the ranks of various political offices known as a man who spoke his mind. He was respected by both sides of the aisle, was known for his strong conservative principles and was a tireless advocate for the military, national security and transportation infrastructure,” Fallin said. “His legacy will be remembered for generations. He was a good friend and mentor to me, and I will surely miss him. My thoughts and prayers go out to Kay and his family.”

Inhofe’s family released a statement Tuesday morning:

Oklahoma’s longest-serving United States Sen. James M. Inhofe passed away at 4:48 a.m. after a stroke over the holiday.

He passed peacefully, surrounded by his wife Kay, and his three surviving children, Molly, Jimmy and Katy. His son Perry passed away several years ago in a private airplane accident in Tulsa.

The family is very grateful for the extraordinary care staff and doctors of the seventh floor NeuroTrauma Intensive Care Unit of St. John’s Hospital in Tulsa.

Inhofe served his beloved state in many capacities over the years, including in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, the Oklahoma State Senate, as mayor of Tulsa, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate since 1994. He retired from the Senate in 2023.

In the U.S. Senate he served as Chairman of the Armed Services Committee and as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

The lifelong aviator once flew a small plane around the world and passed the Pilot’s Bill of Rights.

(Correction: This article was updated at 1:40 p.m. Tuesday, July 9, to correct reference to the timeline of former Sen. Jim Inhofe’s death. NonDoc regrets the error. The article was updated again to include a quote from former Gov. Mary Fallin.)