By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
The Oklahoma Senate Rules Committee blocked Gov. Mary Fallin’s nomination of an openly gay Oklahoma City attorney to the state election board Wednesday, raising questions as to whether the nominee was discriminated against because of his sexual orientation.
Fallin nominated former Corporation Commissioner Jim Roth to the Oklahoma State Election Board last fall. Roth has since served as a member of the election board, pending a Senate confirmation hearing.
“When selecting nominees to the state election board, the governor is required to pick one Democrat member and an alternate off a list submitted by the chairman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party,” said the governor’s communications director, Alex Weintz. “Of the 11 candidates submitted by Chairman Wallace Collins, the governor felt that Jim Roth was the most qualified to serve on the election board given his record of public service.”
Before his current nomination, Roth was appointed to the Corporation Commission by Gov. Brad Henry in 2007, to fill the unexpired term of Denise Bode. Roth lost his bid for election to the seat in 2008 to Republican Dana Murphy.
Before serving on the Corporation Commission, Roth served two terms as an Oklahoma County commissioner, winning elections in 2002 and 2006.
It was Roth’s past service as a corporation commissioner that Senate Rules Committee Chairman Sen. Rob Johnson, R-Kingfisher, cited in blocking Roth from a hearing before the Senate.
“There was a lot of concern among our caucus about putting someone who was a former statewide office holder on the election board,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he and other committee members thought it was inappropriate to confirm a former state elected office holder to the election board, where he could encounter conflicts of interest with former opponents.
“We discussed it in Senate leadership and in the Senate Rules Committee, and my take on it is people did not want to move him forward, and they did not feel it was appropriate for him to be on there,” Johnson said.
“I would have no problem voting to confirm him, I’ve worked with him. I feel he personally would do an impartial job, which is what’s required for that position,” Johnson said. “But, the votes just weren’t there to confirm him.”
Asked if Roth’s sexual orientation was a factor in the decision to block his hearing, Johnson replied “No, absolutely not.
“Somebody’s private life is none of my business, and I don’t see any relevance whatsoever between that and him being on the election board,” Johnson said of Roth. “I had no senator come to me and say they didn’t want him there because of that, or it was even an issue to them. The only person I’ve heard say that was Jim Roth himself.”
Roth stopped short of alleging he didn’t receive a nomination hearing because he’s gay.
“But,” he said, “I have heard some unfortunate scuttlebutt from the Capitol that some individuals objected to my nomination because I am a gay Oklahoman.”
Roth dismissed the concerns over his past public service as a “public excuse” on Johnson’s part, adding “I’ve been on the election board for six months already without bias.
“It’s disappointing, when you step forward to volunteer to serve the public, for it to end like this,” Roth said. He thanked Gov. Fallin for standing by her nomination, “even when it became political.”
He said he didn’t know if his being gay was a deciding factor in blocking his nomination, but “the committee met secretly and decided to approve everyone but me on the agenda.”
“I would have been proud to answer any public questions they were courageous enough to ask, but unfortunately they chose to do everything behind closed doors,” Roth said.
Rules Committee member Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, said he thought Roth’s sexual orientation was a major factor in him not getting a floor hearing.
“I think the major reason he didn’t get out of the committee is because he’s gay,” Anderson said.
Anderson said Roth’s sexual orientation was “not an issue for me personally, and I don’t think it should have been an issue in his qualifications at all.
“He was the governor’s nominee, and whether you agree with his lifestyle or not, I think he should have been given the opportunity to be voted on by the committee,” Anderson said of Roth.
As to why Roth’s nomination wasn’t permitted to go before a hearing, Anderson said, “That’s the chairman’s decision, and the chairman chose not to hear his nomination.”
Anderson said Roth’s former service as an statewide office holder “would be a reason to show he’s more qualified for the position.”
“Furthermore,” Anderson said, “he’s been on the election board for six months or more, and I think he’s obviously been doing his job and he knows how to do the job.”
Anderson said the reason for overlooking Roth’s qualifications, and the governor’s nomination, came back to Roth’s sexual orientation.
“I never heard anybody say that’s why he wasn’t being heard, I just think that’s the reason,” Anderson said. “I’ve never known us to make decisions based on someone’s personal lifestyle like that before ... but I think that clearly in this instance that was the case with Mr. Roth.
“I would hope in the future we wouldn’t look at an individual’s sexual orientation as a qualifying or disqualifying factor at all,” Anderson said. “I think we need to look at the person’s professional background and determine if they meet the qualifications for the position. And, in the future, I think we need to respect the governor’s nominees unless there’s some overriding factor that disqualifies them from the job. I would certainly hope we don’t start asking people their sexual orientation as we go through the nomination process.”
Anderson said he thought Roth was “qualified for the job, and I would have supported his nomination.”
Weintz said Gov. Fallin did not see Roth’s former service on the Corporation Commission as something that “would have eliminated him from consideration” for the election board, and the issue of Roth’s sexual orientation “wasn’t something that was brought up in our office.
“Mr. Roth has a strong record of public service and experience, but the governor respects the Senate’s right to confirm or deny his nomination or even to have a hearing on his nomination,” Weintz said.
Sen. Constance Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, Roth’s sponsor in the Senate, was less forgiving of the decision not to move the nomination forward for an up or down vote.
“It represents a failure of leadership on the part of the Republican Party and of representative democracy in our state,” she said. “They’re turning Jim’s appointment into a political issue instead of following the process, and that’s my biggest issue with this. For us to refuse an individual the opportunity to go through that process and be vetted by that process is not how government is supposed to operate.
“We are a government of the people, by the people, for the people, and it shouldn’t be about the preferences of one person,” she said.
Scott Hamilton, executive director of Cimarron Alliance, a leading LGBT advocacy group in the state, said the decision by the Rules Committee is “another blatant example of the discrimination members of the LGBT community have to face in Oklahoma every day.
“I am beyond disappointed in the way the Senate has behaved in general, and in this instance in particular,” Hamilton said. “It’s very disappointing the senators are playing politics with someone’s life like this.
“It’s very unfortunate that in 2012 they can’t see him as a man who is talented and dedicated to the people of Oklahoma,” Hamilton said. “Instead, they’d rather focus on the one aspect of the man that makes him different from them.”
Hamilton said the concerns over Roth’s former service on the Corporation Commission were “an excuse” and “absolute nonsense.”
“It’s a smoke screen for bigotry,” Hamilton said. “It’s like veiling hatred in someone’s religion, and it’s very easy to see through, to see that this had everything to do with Mr. Roth’s sexual orientation. We don’t have to look beyond this week to see the kind of bigotry we can expect from our legislators.”