Billings farmer and World War II tank commander Henry Bellmon casts a giant shadow on Oklahoma history. His determined leadership of a decrepit state Republican Party from 1960-1962 began its resurrection. His 1962 election as Oklahoma’s first GOP governor ever confirmed that resurrection. The foundation he laid for the party as a center-rightist organization ironically provided the superstructure upon which a more conservative party would take 21st-century control of state politics following the liberal drift of the national Democratic Party.
Upon graduation from Oklahoma A&M in 1942, Bellmon enlisted in the wartime Marines. A first lieutenant, he commanded a tank unit across multiple campaigns against the Japanese in the Pacific Theater.
During the fearsome 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima, enemy fire disabled his tank and pinned Bellmon and his crew down in it for days. Thirty mortar rounds per hour bombarded them. They finally escaped to aid another tank crew crossing a mined airfield as more fire poured in on them. Bellmon won the Silver Star for his bravery.
Following the war, he farmed, served one term as a Republican state representative, and chaired the party’s Noble County organization, then its state one. Facing a steep uphill battle in 1962 running for governor under a party banner that had never won in Oklahoma, Bellmon—and his energetic, innovative wife Shirley—unleashed a blitzkrieg of campaign innovations. They ranged from the 500-strong “Bellmon’s Belles,” to hundreds of two-party (Democrat and Republican) women’s teas around the state, to rallying thousands of disaffected Democratic voters—and volunteers—to Bellmon’s own savvy and elan.
A pivotal moment occurred during Bellmon’s statewide television debate with Democratic candidate Bill Atkinson. The former Marine maneuvered his opponent’s controversial sales tax hike proposal out into the open for all the state to see. Rightly gauging the electorate’s opposition to it, he declared his own, and his preference for wiser, more efficient, and by implication, honorable budgeting. He won decisively.
Bellmon’s gubernatorial agenda faced predictably rocky shoals with a still-dominantly Democratic legislature. But his presence, honesty, and freedom from subjection to the era’s prevailing good ole boy political establishment enabled him to exert his influence—or not to exert it—for good at crucial points in historic events. These included both legislative and Congressional reapportionment, and the State Supreme Court scandal.
The Bellmon juggernaut won a U.S. Senate seat in 1968 and again in 1974. After declining to run again in 1980, he bided his time, then ran and won the governorship again in 1986.
As he won elections, however, he and Oklahoma’s awakening conservative majority, increasingly voting Republican, drifted apart. A series of controversial Senate votes demonstrated this chasm. These included his support for giving away the Panama Canal, for the Equal Rights Amendment, for requiring women to register for the military draft, and for federal funding of abortion.
Bellmon’s vote against a Republican-sponsored constitutional amendment that would have stopped the forced busing of public school children so roiling Oklahoma City and many other cities prevented its passage. After his decisive 1968 election, he squeaked past Ed Edmondson in 1974 by only 3,000 votes. Even that margin was hotly contested by Edmondson as the result of malfunctioning voting machines.
The dispute escalated and ascended to the U.S. Senate itself. Finally, in March 1976, Bellmon’s colleagues voted to keep him seated. They did so by one vote.
Not yet 60 years of age, Bellmon declined to stand for reelection in 1980. He then attempted to dissuade staunchly conservative young Republican state senator Don Nickles from running for the office. After Nickles defeated a bevy of heavyweight contenders for the nomination, Bellmon dismissed him as a “lightweight candidate,” and asserted that Nickles “preached to the choir” too much while prioritizing issues like abortion and busing.
Nickles proceeded to defeat favored Oklahoma County District Attorney Andy Coats by nearly 100,000 votes, become a trusted ally to President Ronald Reagan, a leader of the Republican Senate Caucus, and serve until choosing to return to business in 2005.
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Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
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