Henry Bellmon’s one-cent’s worth

One of the most important political debates in Oklahoma history occurred in Tulsa during the 1962 gubernatorial campaign.

The Democratic nominee, W.P. Atkinson, had survived a brutal primary and runoff in which he defeated former Gov. Raymond Gary by just 900 votes. Atkinson was a real estate developer who more or less built Midwest City after Tinker Field — now Tinker Air Force Base — was located on farmland east of downtown Oklahoma City in the run-up to U.S. entry into World War II. Atkinson was the mortal enemy of powerful Daily Oklahoman publisher E.K. Gaylord.

Gaylord found an ally in Republican candidate Henry Bellmon. Bellmon, a Noble County farmer, had revitalized the Oklahoma GOP. As state chairman, he pushed the party’s boundaries beyond the country club set that had dominated it for so long. He ventured into small towns and rural counties that had not had a Republican Party organization in decades, if ever.

A key component of Atkinson’s platform was a one-cent sales tax increase. During a highly-anticipated debate in Tulsa, Atkinson was asked by newsman Phil Dessauer what he would do if the Legislature refused to give him the increase. Atkinson replied that he supposed he would just have to go after waste, corruption and abuse.

Dryly, Bellmon wondered why Atkinson would not go after waste, corruption and abuse first.

Bellmon might have won the election anyway. Tax increases are never popular, and Atkinson was being hammered daily in The Oklahoman. And, as Bellmon had discerned, the state’s political foundations were shifting. But in political lore, that brief exchange in Tulsa is remembered as the turning point in an election that brought Oklahoma its first Republican governor.

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