Oklahoma Governors 1959-1963: J. Howard Edmondson (1926-1971)

Oklahoma gubernatorial biographer LeRoy Fischer depicted the electrifying TV presence that helped catapult this Muskogee native, Tulsa County District Attorney, and early member of the Edmondson family political dynasty into becoming the youngest governor in American history at age thirty-three:


“Likely no other political candidate in the state since the articulate and handsome Edmondson has possessed such spellbinding power when using this modern-day medium. While speaking on television, his deep soothing voice, golden-red eyelashes, strong featured face, and impelling visual contract seemed to produce a sense of urgency.”


It was not all externals that propelled Edmondson to a razor-thin victory in a tough Democratic primary, then a blowout win over his Republican opponent in the Nov. 1958 general election. Riding the tide of telegenic young political stars spearheaded by successful Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, Edmondson presented one of the most audacious reform programs ever rolled out by an Oklahoma governor. It mirrored much of what Johnston Murray had attempted earlier in the decade, and then some, to the similar discomfiture of the powerful state legislature. Though not initially apparent, this posed similarly ominous tidings for Edmondson’s political future.

Upon taking office in Jan. 1959, however, he roared out of the starting blocks. He championed the historic overturn of state alcoholic prohibition. He also advanced a throng of other reform measures long advocated by many of the wiser minds around the state. Two of these succeeded in substantive form. One was a state employee merit system to replace mere length of service in promotion and salary increase considerations. A centralized purchasing system for some state departments was the other.


But other key, even landmark, initiatives of Edmondson’s failed. More damaging to him, legislator opposition mounted against him for his bold entry into the arena of lawmaking. In particular, this involved the control of key areas of the state budget and numerous political patronage appointments. Especially irksome to many legislators was Edmondson’s campaign to secure petitions for public votes on three of his proposals. All failed to obtain the necessary signatures, and they generated a roiling grudge against Edmonson amongst many state solons.


In retrospect, the state would pay dearly for the Senate and the House’s, and then the public’s—specifically the rural population’s—rejection of two of these. One was Edmondson’s desire to reduce county commissioner power over road and bridge construction. The commissioners’ embarrassing performance was already well documented, decades before their sensational national disgrace. The other was his attempt to correct the same unconstitutional legislative district population apportionment that Murray had decried.


On the other hand, his predecessor Raymond Gary had promulgated his own nervy agenda. Gary, however, compromised where he felt necessary with the legislature he had previously led, and paid heed to their public vanity. In contrast, Edmondson, younger in years and never having served in the legislature, confronted them with the zeal of youthful confidence to upbraid stale programs, and by inference, their supporters. Further, he did not put in the work to build sufficient alliances with legislators whose support he needed, or mend the hurt feelings of others.


The final nail in Edmondson’s political coffin came when he orchestrated a shrewd but controversial sleight of hand with Lt. Governor George Nigh upon the stunning death of U.S. Senator Robert S. Kerr on New Year’s Day 1963. Edmondson resigned from the governor’s office, allowing Nigh to succeed him, then appoint him to Kerr’s vacant Senate seat. Nigh held the governor’s office for only the nine days until newly-elected Republican Henry Bellmon took office. Edmondson, meanwhile, held his Senate seat until Fred Harris defeated him in the 1964 primary for continued possession of the office.


A divided Democratic Party which Edmondson in the final analysis had failed to effectively lead, doomed him against that unusually liberal political outsider, whose own career would end after just one senatorial term. Prominently contributing to Edmondson’s downfall was the enduring power of Kerr’s family and allies. They were incensed that the governor did not appoint Kerr’s son to his father’s vacant Senate seat, rather than assuming it himself. Thus, the charismatic young reformer’s once luminous and ascendant political star was extinguished. He practiced law until his death of a heart attack in 1971 at only 46 years of age.

 

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Statehood - 2020s

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