Republican Dewey Bartlett had carried the banner of a political party, still vastly outnumbered in voter registration as well as office holders, through four years of frequently tumultuous Oklahoma history. Nonetheless, he aimed to parley a new state law into becoming the first two-term Oklahoma governor ever.
Bartlett wielded a political arsenal. He possessed a strong resume of accomplishment, not least his intrepid recruitment of new business to the state. Despite the lopsided Democratic advantage in party affiliation, he registered high in political polls. No significant scandal nor glaring mistake had tarnished his four years. To top it off, four years before, in his 1966 election victory, he had decisively beaten the man who defeated Bartlett’s own 1970 gubernatorial opponent.
That new foe, however, was one of the ablest and most attractive candidates in state history, Tulsa County Attorney David Hall (OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapter 12). He possessed a brilliant mind, surpassing charisma, a tall, strapping gridiron stature, and movie star good looks, as well as that 5-2 advantage in statewide voter registration. Governing the state through a period of immense drama, as chronicled in OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapter 11, Bartlett chose a much less aggressive schedule of personal appearances across the state than Hall.
The Democrat deeply regretted his own middling slate of rural appearances during the 1966 Democratic primary. This time around, he crisscrossed the state, with a rare and fierce tenacity. He visited 939 towns and cities. He hitchhiked on foot for campaign crusades between Tulsa and OKC. His 39-car Cannonball Express campaign passenger train was the longest ever to run between the two cities.
Still, going into the closing days of the campaign, the highly respected Bartlett led Hall in the polls by several percentage points. Then the confident incumbent apparently cancelled a late round of rural media advertising. Hall later credited that decision with delivering him the narrowest gubernatorial election victory in Oklahoma History. He nosed Bartlett out by just 2,000 votes out of 700,000 cast.
Hall gave Oklahoma a polished, magnetic chief executive. His decisive championing of enhanced state educational efforts, prison reforms, and budget remedies garnered him sufficient support that by the second year of his term, he and his leadership team were already mapping strategy for a 1976 Presidential run.
Alas, to paraphrase an iconic show phrase, there was trouble in River (Oklahoma) City for Hall. The brutal legislative brawl over his hefty package of state tax increases— including personal income taxes— that passed by one vote left many Oklahomans embittered, and numerous powerful forces gunning for him.
But the silver-haired governor faced an even bigger problem. He had risen from a broken home of modest means. He worked multiple part time jobs to finance his own college education. He spent most of his post-collegiate life in law school or the public sector. By the time he ran for governor—and indeed, before that—his perceived personal or professional needs far surpassed his limited finances.
As historical author Kent Frates, a Republican state representative during Hall’s tenure as governor, wrote in his award-winning book Oklahoma’s Most Notorious Cases, when he won the governor’s race:
“Hall himself was broke and owed personal bank loans and credit card debt of at least $30,000. At the time, the governor’s salary was $35,000 per year, not nearly enough to support Hall’s lifestyle or repay his personal obligations.
Even before he was sworn in, Oklahomans would later learn, Hall began to replenish his coffers by trafficking on the influence of his office. Much of the money he received went straight to his pocket and was never reported as either a campaign donation or personal income. Not only were the transgressions illegal, many of them were also ill disguised and traceable.”
This predicament proved to be no fluke or one-time oversight. Twenty-seven-year-old assistant Tulsa district attorney Frank Keating (OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapters 12, 16, 17) attended the long-awaited 1971 opening of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (OKLAHOMAS 2, Chapters 7, 10, 11) with his father, Anthony Keating. The elder Keating, a former Oklahoma Highway Commission member and Tulsa City Commissioner, mentioned to his son that, “David Hall has a lot of unpaid bills all over town. When he was D.A., he was always out of money. Yet, he had the most gorgeous Vicuna topcoat,” which cost many thousands of dollars.
“Immediately,” the younger Keating, a former FBI agent, recalled, “my alarm bells went off.”
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Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
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