This handsome, genial son of small Custer County wheat farmers rebounded from his gubernatorial loss four years before to Republican Henry Bellmon to win one of the most impressive gubernatorial victories in state history. No one had won the governor’s mansion having never before held political office, since oil baron Robert S. Kerr did so half a century earlier (OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapter 7). And Democrat Walters won 75 of the state’s 77 counties. He did it over a respected opponent, former Republican U.S. Attorney Bill Price, hero of the infamous County Commissioners saga (OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapter 13).
Historian Bob Burke well summarized Walters’ accomplishments as governor:
“(His) administration made major capital improvements on Oklahoma's higher education campuses. The governor launched major initiatives in children’s, rural development, and welfare reform programs. His Quality Jobs program was nationally recognized. He successfully sponsored significant workers’ compensation reform. A widely respected technology magazine recognized Walters as the nation's leading governor in the introduction of technology to government applications.”
His years as governor also proved a crucible of pain and challenge. His son Shaun died of a prescription medication overdose less than a year into Walters’ term. When asked would he run for governor if he had a chance to relive the time, his answer provided a cautionary message to all adults regarding their professional lives, in particular in the political arena: “No, I would not. I lost my son because I ran for public office.”
A three-year investigation into campaign finance charges also dogged Walters through most of his term. In a controversial decision, Democratic prosecutors allowed him to plead guilty to one misdemeanor count of accepting an illegally high campaign contribution, while they waved eight felony charges that included conspiracy to hide the act and multiple perjury charges.
In tribute to their son and the children of all Oklahoma governors, Walters and his wife Rhonda commissioned a bronze sculpture for the governor’s mansion grounds. Paid for by private donations, the work included the names of all such children and featured the likenesses of Shaun and the Walters’ daughter Elizabeth.
Walters opted not to run for re-election, and returned to private business. He ran for political office once more, losing to Republican Jim Inhofe in a 2002 U.S. Senate race.
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.