Robert Butkin: Leaving Politics With No Regrets

When asked to provide a post for a website called “The Recovering Politician,” I tried to figure out what in the blazes I’m supposed to be recovering from. In fact, in the six years since I left my position as Oklahoma State Treasurer, I have never looked back or regretted either the time I spent in elective public service or my decision to leave after a decade in office.  I left when I determined that I had accomplished all that I had set out to do when I first ran for the job.

That’s not to say that there is not much still to be done with the agency, and in fact my successors have developed new initiatives that have improved the operations of the office. I had accomplished everything that I had set out to do.   Despite my concern about the advisability of term limits, I do believe that all of us who are privileged to serve in elective office should be willing to limit our own terms and turn our offices over to energetic– and hopefully idealistic– successors when we have accomplished our mission.  One should never be a “placeholder” when holding an office of public trust.

In many ways, I was the most unlikely of political candidates.  Nobody in my family had ever run or thought of running for political office, but like many who came of age in the 1960s and the 1970s, I was convinced that elective public service was the highest calling a democracy could offer.  A chance meeting with a candidate for Oklahoma Attorney General in 1986 gave me an opportunity several months later to join his staff to serve as an Assistant Attorney General, and in that capacity I had the opportunity to serve as the people’s advocate in utility rate proceedings and to represent Oklahoma in a landmark Clean Water Act case, Arkansas v. Oklahoma, that I argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991.

In 1993, I began to think seriously about a race for political office.  We had had a bi-partisan tradition in the Oklahoma Treasurer’s office –a bi-partisan tradition of crumminess. Democrats and Republicans alike had been beset by scandals, investigations and indictments.  Confidence in our state’s ability to manage our finances with integrity was at an all time low, and as somebody who believed in public investment, I knew that if the citizens of Oklahoma could not trust where and how their tax dollars were managed, they would not be willing to come together to invest in better schools, roads, and health care.

We won narrowly in 1994, a victory that truly would not have been possible had not dozens of volunteers, who normally pay no attention to elections for offices like state treasurer, cared enough about the need to restore integrity to the office that they joined our cause.  And I would not have been successful without an outstanding staff who every single day put the interests of our state first.  Many of our earlier accomplishments were far from glamorous, involving new accounting controls and speedier processes to convert cash to investable funds.  But when I began giving taxpayers a running total of how much money we had saved or earned through cost saving efficiencies without a need for tax increase, they responded, and I believe our work has played a role in the willingness of Oklahomans to support new investments in education and health care over the last decade.

Once we established a foundation of integrity, my staff and I worked to build on that foundation to create new programs to strengthen our state, such as The Oklahoma College Savings Program, and new low interest loan programs to increase the supply of affordable housing in rural Oklahoma communities.  My proudest accomplishment of my elective tenure was in co-chairing the effort to create a permanent constitutionally protected endowment for the deposit of Oklahoma’s share of the tobacco settlement moneys. With a balance already exceeding  $600 million, and provisions in place that only the earnings but never the principal can be spent, this endowment will ensure for generations to come that tobacco settlement moneys go to discourage smoking, to fight cancer, and to advance other important health care initiatives.  To my knowledge, Oklahoma is the only state in the union to constitutionally protect this important source of revenue for dealing with the scourges of smoking and smoking related diseases.

Robert Butkin, wife Nina, and daughters

After five years in office, some wonderful changes took place in my life.  I got married to Nina, a textile executive based in Tulsa, in 1999, and the first of our three daughters arrived in 2001. By 2005, I felt that the key initiatives that I had identified when I took office had been accomplished, and quite frankly I did not relish either a 3 ½ hours round trip car ride to the State Capitol in Oklahoma City every day, or the option of spending evenings away from our growing family.  In 2005, a vacancy arose in the Deanship of the University of Tulsa College of Law. I applied and was hired, spent two years as Dean and since 2007 have been teaching full time on the faculty.  I enjoy law school teaching very much.

I suppose that I’m not really “recovering” from any aspect of my political career. But there are some things I miss.  I miss the outstanding men and women on the treasury staff who were blindly loyal not to me or to their political parties, but to the ethics of stewardship and integrity they brought to work with them every day.  I miss the spirit of bipartisanship and the search for common ground that enabled me and other moderates to play a small role in moving our state forward.  I served in office during a time when 80 years of Democratic control of the state legislature was supplanted by Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature, yet I never doubted the support of both parties as we undertook to reform our office.  Few of the reforms we instituted could have been accomplished without the support of legislative leaders of both political parties and of governors of both parties.  Politics has become increasingly polarized in the six years since I have left office.  My hope is that elected state officials in the future, regardless of party, will have the bipartisan counsel and support I had during my tenure.

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