It’s odd to think that either the Republican or Democratic party would overlook one of its rising local leaders. Generally, it seems that anytime a mayor or governor even trips into the national spotlight, he is immediately touted by party elders as the next big thing, whether or not he’s accomplished anything in office. But for ten years, one Republican has remained under the radar even while effectively leading a major city — normally hostile territory for the GOP. He is Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett.
Since 2004, Cornett has overseen the rise of Oklahoma’s capital from a backwater into a global metropolis. In March he will seek reelection to his fourth term, which would make him the city’s longest-serving mayor. So now is a good time to look back at his record and what it says about the national political picture.
When Cornett started, Oklahoma City was already well into a decade of growth, following years of uncertainty. Its economy had risen in the 1970s when an oil boom lured in serious investment, but global price fluctuations made this all go bust several years later. In 1982, a city bank shuttered after failing to collect its loans, and 100 more followed suit, causing the finance industry and downtown economy to collapse.
Fortunes reversed in the 1990s, however, when other industries helped diversify the economy. These included expanded local companies such as Sonic Drive-In and the craft-store chain Hobby Lobby, and growing public entities such as Tinker Air Force Base. The oil industry eventually rebounded too, backed by the rise of the city’s two Fortune 500s, Devon Energy and Chesapeake Energy. In 1988 Devon went public, quickly reaching record profits, and Chesapeake was founded one year later, becoming America’s best stock listing by the mid-1990s.
This enabled city growth throughout the decade, which was further reinforced when residents unified around the 1995 federal-office bombing. But it wasn’t until Cornett’s tenure that Oklahoma City went global, becoming one of the nation’s 30 largest cities and arguably its strongest local economy. From 2004 to 2012, it added 73,000 people, its most over an eight-year stretch since the 1950s. The metro area enjoyed a similar population growth rate of over 14 percent from 2000 to 2012, even as the state’s overall rate remained far less. Much of this was due to an in-migration of young people, signaling both Oklahoma City’s job prospects and its increasing cultural cachet. Unemployment under Cornett went as low as 2.9 percent, was three points below the national average during the recession, and is now 4.7 percent. During this period, the city has also been near the top in job creation, income growth, and business startups.
Beyond the numbers, this rise is embodied physically in downtown’s transformation into a glossy corporate business area and in the gentrification of nearby Bricktown. Cornett’s luring of an NBA team has brought national buzz and a flurry of game-day traffic, as Thunder playoff runs have become a citywide rite of spring. And even during the recession, the city enjoyed $2 billion in development, topped by Devon’s recently completed 50-story downtown headquarters.
A lot of this boom results from the fact that Oklahoma City is structurally geared for growth — something Cornett has little messed with. Besides oil, the city benefits from agricultural commodities that have brought stability throughout the Great Plains. Its political atmosphere, as a majority-Republican city in a right-wing state, also helps. According to Dean Stansel’s economic-freedom index for U.S. cities, Oklahoma City’s rating is well into the top third nationwide. One reason is its low taxes, thanks largely to Oklahoma’s having one of the lowest state burdens; also, the revenue generated is spent judiciously. The city’s current debt is $1.1 billion (compared with $18.5 billion in Detroit and $29 billion in Chicago). Its public-employee retirement trust is fully funded, a shocking achievement for a service in which 80 percent funding would be considered superb. Oklahoma City also has minimal regulations, particularly for land use. This has produced a housing market that is cheap — the median home price is $116,000 — but because of the city’s understandably cautious banking culture, not overly speculative.
“We are surviving,” said one businessman during the recession, “because in good times we are conservative and in bad times we are conservative.”