This Shawnee native and judge’s son (and cousin) never lost a political race. He served as Shawnee city attorney, state senator for three terms, and Oklahoma governor twice. Henry’s first gubernatorial campaign was the most storied of his career, and one of the most dramatic in state history. Not satisfied with the announced Democratic candidates, nor with their prospects of defeating popular Republican Congressman and pro-football hall of famer Steve Largent, he made several unsuccessful attempts to recruit a stronger contender.
In summer 2001, while chairing the powerful state senate judiciary committee, bigtime Oklahoma Democratic donors asked Henry to meet with them. They wanted to discuss his running for governor. Not seriously considering that possibility, he told them he would be coming straight from a family lake outing.
He showed up in shorts, polo shirt, flip flops, and a convenience store burrito stain on the shirt. It didn’t matter to heavy hitting donors like OU coaching legend Barry Switzer, Norman trial attorney Richard Bell, and Tulsa banker and oil and gas titan Julian Rothbaum.
None of the 30 stalwarts swayed him until the final one, a frail Rothbaum who passed away soon after. Leaning against his walker, he looked Henry in the eye and said with his gravelly voice: “You can’t win if you don’t run.”
He did run, beginning as the longest of long shot candidates. He garnered only 28% of a five-man primary race vote total, but won the runoff. According to virtually all informed observers, he then outworked the favored Largent in a complex, unconventional three-man race whose dynamics undermined some of the Republican’s initial advantages. Of the more than 1,000,000 votes cast, Henry won by 6,000.
Perhaps his most notable accomplishment as governor was helming the successful 2004 state votes that overwhelmingly approved lotteries, expanded tribal casino gambling, and greenlighted racetrack casinos. The effort had floundered for decades before Henry championed it, beginning when he was a state senator, as a financial elixir for state education. He also appointed five state supreme court justices to the nine-judge court. These provided Democrats a rare silo of statewide philosophical power heading into the 2020s.
In 2006, he won re-election by beating Republican challenger Ernest Istook of Oklahoma City with the largest margin for an Oklahoma gubernatorial contest in more than half a century. Near the end of that term, legislators overcame Henry’s veto of a house bill authored by Purcell representative and Chickasaw leader Lisa J. Billy. It required doctors to provide women with an ultrasound image of their baby in the womb prior to the doctor performing an abortion. It was the first veto override in Oklahoma since 1994.
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Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
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