The Bynum lunch, Part 2

The mayor discusses sanctuary cities, Helmerich Park, and his first 100 days in office

(First appeared in The Tulsa Voice)

Back in July, I interviewed Mayor-elect G.T. Bynum (TTV July 20, Vol. 3 №15) just a few days after he handily beat then-incumbent Mayor Dewey Bartlett. I proposed then — and he graciously accepted — that we have lunch every few months during his administration to continue the conversation. What follows is our second meeting.

He arrives at the Daily Grill with no entourage and orders a Kale Chicken Caesar without the chicken or shrimp.

THE TULSA VOICE: You’re kidding me with that, right?

MAYOR BYNUM: I’m only doing this because I just came off Spring Break. Plus it’s surprisingly good.

TTV: It’s kale! You lost my vote. So your wife is in her last year of law school, you have two small children. What the hell were you thinking running for mayor? There’s a right and a wrong time to this. This was both, no?

BYNUM: (Laughing) That’s one of the reasons I didn’t run when Kathy [Taylor] retired. And the next time I didn’t run — one of the reasons: our daughter was supposed to be born on primary day, back in 2009 —

TTV: Back when you were what — 19?

BYNUM: (Laughing) I’d be a terrible father if I was running for mayor the day my daughter was due on the primary, so I supported Dewey [Bartlett] instead. And the next time around, I was encouraged to run, but the kids were still too young. But this time around, it felt right. My wife was in school, and it was important to us for our kids to see both of us pursuing our dreams as adults and not making excuses to avoid pursuing them. My kids loved it. They saw the first negative ad at BBD. The TV is over my head and the picture of me that looks like Voldemort, and my kids start laughing. “Dad, there’s a cartoon of you on TV.” I froze up — the kids are going to be so upset, this is terrible, I’ve done the wrong thing — and my wife was, “That’s an ad that Dewey is running, telling lies about daddy.” My son asked why and she said, “Because he doesn’t want people to vote for him.”

TTV: This was the one accusing you of taking, like, a billion dollars from lobbyists?

BYNUM: That’s the one! My son looked up and said, “I still like our chances.” And I realized I don’t give them enough credit for being resilient.

Bynum then tells a marvelous story about the night before he was sworn in, when he snuck his son up to the mayor’s office — his new office — but his key card wouldn’t work.

TTV: You couldn’t even break into your own office?

BYNUM: I know.

TTV: Okay, sanctuary cities —

BYNUM: (Laughing) From kids to sanctuary cities, all right.

TTV: You wrote a letter that you got a lot of credit for it, but to clarify, you were not saying Tulsa was a sanctuary city?

BYNUM: Correct.

TTV: You were not saying you wanted Tulsa to be a sanctuary city?

BYNUM: Correct.

TTV: But you were saying people who were here without documents should not fear being here and people who were here, shouldn’t fear those without documents?

BYNUM: Exactly right.

TTV: And, more to the point, you were not going to direct Police Chief Chuck Jordan to bust into places like El Tequila and round-up those without documents? Fair enough?

BYNUM: Or Daily Grill, but yes.

TTV: So the liberals applauded you and the conservatives didn’t hang you in effigy in Woodward Park — yet. You didn’t really say that much; still, you must have worried about the letter’s reception?

BYNUM: I knew it had the potential for controversy. What bothered me was I was hearing, and this is even before Trump, a lot of demagogue-ing by Democrat mayors who were saying he was going to send people out — the storm troopers — and kick people’s doors down, and it was very similar to what I heard from Republican mayors who said the same kind of partisan demagoguery I heard about President Obama about how he was going to take your guns and he wasn’t born in the United States. The outcome of that was the immigrant community in Tulsa was scared to death. What Trump was saying was the cities should do what we’ve already been doing. After someone is arrested, the sheriff at the jail checks their immigration status, and if they’re not here lawfully, then they’re turned over to immigration and customs. But if someone calls the police and is afraid, we don’t ask for their immigration status. We don’t ask for their immigration status when we pull someone over. The other thing I heard is there were people preying on the immigrant community knowing they were afraid to call the police. I put that post up as a clarification that nothing about the executive order had changed the way we were doing things in Tulsa. But it blew up. Was it me standing up to Trump? No.

TTV: What about the Trump administration’s desire to defund so-called sanctuary cities?

BYNUM: He said he would take funding away from cities that are not complying with federal law, which, by the way, I don’t have a problem with. If a city is not following federal law, there ought to be some sort of punishment.

While Bynum, admittedly, was not giving an informed legal opinion, I decided to check with a good friend of the column, Garrett Epps, an American legal scholar, professor of law at the University of Baltimore, and contributing editor for The Atlantic, on this topic: “The threat to withhold funds is almost comically unconstitutional,” Epps said, adding, “I regard this as a clumsy — almost childish — attempt to violate the Court’s 10th Amendment rule that the federal government cannot ‘commandeer’ state officials to enforce a federal program. The 4th Amendment says you can’t hold someone in jail without a warrant or probable cause to believe they have committed a specific crime. Thus the city may become liable (as has happened in Oregon) when it is later determined that the ‘alien’ is an American citizen whose constitutional rights have been violated.”

TTV: When we talked last time, you said you had hoped to stay out of national politics. But neither one of us thought Trump would win.

BYNUM: (Laughing) Yes. But in this issue, there were people who on both sides — immigrant community and those who were anti-immigrant — who were misinterpreting how it would be applied, so I thought it was our responsibility to say this is our understanding of what this executive order says.

TTV: And if Clinton had won?

BYNUM: Different set of problems.

TTV: In assuaging the fears of immigrants in Tulsa, your tone is not Trump’s.

BYNUM: Absolutely. There’s a lot of bombast in tone, but what Trump is saying — and, again, this is falling into the trap of talking about national stuff — as a Republican, I feel a lot of the things that the president advocates, if you just look at it from nuts-and-bolts policy, makes a lot of sense. But the way it is messaged and conveyed is a disaster. It’s too inflammatory. Tulsa, 20 years from now, is going to be a Hispanic city. That’s just the way the demographics are going. From a leadership standpoint, I want the immigrant community, who is hearing nothing but negativity on the federal level, to know, locally, they have someone in the mayor’s office who is happy they are here, who welcomes them here, who knows they are the future of the city, just as my Irish ancestors were a century ago.

TTV: So you’re supportive of the immigrant community in Tulsa?

BYNUM: Yes.

TTV: Even the illegal immigrant community that contributes to Tulsa?

BYNUM: Yes. I think the Republican Party should be a place that’s welcoming for the immigrant community. The immigrant community in Tulsa is pro-hard work, pro-family, loves the United States. Those are all things the Republicans ought to be on board with.

TTV: Let’s move on. Another easy one. REI?

BYNUM: (Laughing) Yeah, sure.

TTV: One of your predecessors, Mayor Terry Young, who has vehemently opposed the deal, actually applauds your handling of this. There are two issues here, yes? One, Tulsa didn’t get enough money for the land, and two, the city had no business selling it in the first place.

BYNUM: He’s the leading opponent of it, yeah. Well, one, I did not think it was handled well, leading up to when we took over the process. The whole thing was insular, the public was not engaged, and anytime you do that, you heighten the level of mistrust. Whether there should be development on that corner, I think, has been resolved repeatedly. It’s in the Arkansas Corridor Master Plan, it’s in the River Design Overlay that the council passed unanimously last year, so when I met with Mayor Young and Greg Bledsoe [the attorney for the plaintiffs], I realized they were not opposed to development at Helmerich Park; they just didn’t want it at the corner and wanted it farther into the middle of the park. Now, our planning has repeatedly shown it should be at the corner, then the question for me is, there’s already been a contract signed, so do we become a city that is known in the development community for not honoring our contracts? So the third step, then, is there a way to get the developer to modify what is a terrible design proposal?

Young, for his part, is apoplectic about the project, specifically the original deal negotiated between REI and the Bartlett Administration, calling it “a badly bungled shit show.” While finding Bynum to be “open, intelligent, and often inspiring,” Young said, “This is not and never has been a matter of a single building to house an REI store, nicely integrated into the middle section of Helmerich Park. It is about a 55,000-plus square foot, six- to seven-tenant shopping center crammed into another crummy commercial intersection corner that MIGHT have an REI store somewhere in it.” Moreover, he said, the whole project is stained with “some really lousy legal work by the city attorney.”

TTV: By terrible design, you mean the windows, the parking, the green space?

BYNUM: Yeah, I was opposed to it as a councilor. It looked awful, it didn’t interface with the river, it did nothing for the park, the money coming from it wouldn’t benefit the park. So the question: Can I in good conscience go to the city council and say, even though we don’t know if you’re legally required to do this, I’m going to ask you to vacate this land because this proposal that has been modified is a good one. And Kathy Taylor and Nick Doctor and our legal team squeezed those guys [REI] for months before we brought it to the council.

TTV: Some of the opposition is the fact than any park land was sold for development, but you’re saying that issue had been resolved? And to be fair, there’s a Burger King across the street, so it’s not exactly a nature preserve.

BYNUM: Yes. And one of the reasons why they wanted to build at that intersection, it’s one of the busiest retail corridors in the city. By the way, right now, you have volleyball courts, then scrub brush, basically, and a playground — or would you rather have a whole park people can use?

TTV: And that was part of the re-negotiation by your team?

BYNUM: Exactly. The whole sales price goes into the park and the developer is the first to contribute a hundred grand to improving the park, so that was the big difference between what the previous administration had agreed to.

TTV: Why was the original agreement negotiated behind closed doors?

BYNUM: Because that’s the way the previous administration did business. And you saw that on the sidewalk deal [A Gathering Place], saw that on the Turkey Mountain outlet mall thing.

TTV: So this was not about development at the park in any form?

BYNUM: Well, some plaintiffs involved in the lawsuit are opposed to any development in park land and some just don’t want it at that corner. There’s not unanimity among the people who are opposed. Now, a lot of folks said, “Well, why don’t you put it here, put it there,” but there was a signed contract for the land at 71st. Now, if you had an open process from the beginning, could that have been on the table? Yes.

TTV: What about the purchase price?

BYNUM: I used to work in the real estate auction business and I know every person in this town has a different idea of what they think any particular piece of land is worth. This is the price someone was willing to pay.

TTV: How is someone allowed to negotiate a deal like this that’s so central to a city’s identity without public comment and then have it presented to the next mayor as a fait accompli?

BYNUM: That was my criticism of the process. I don’t know. Brings up a huge issue: The land was already zoned for high-rise, office, and apartment buildings. That could be built there with no zoning change.

TTV: Even though it’s inside a park that was given to the city?

BYNUM: That’s the other thing, there’s a debate as to where the park is. But here’s the thing: the developer had this lousy design. If it goes to court and maybe the plaintiffs would win and the sale would be voided, but if the plaintiffs lost, we get the lousy development at the intersection. That was the risk we had to factor in. Remember, if the Public Facilities Authority had won the lawsuit, the contract they had in place was for the old terrible design that would have backed up the River Parks Trail, that would have dumpsters back there, next-to-no landscaping, would have had a huge parking lot, straight asphalt, no trees, no berming along 71st, and no money going to the parks.

TTV: If REI called and wanted out of the deal, would you let them?

BYNUM: It’s not my call. It’s the Public Facilities Authority. But I want REI in Tulsa.

TTV: And if the lawsuit — which is still going on — regardless of the city council’s vote last month to approve the deal, is successful in stopping it, do you think REI goes somewhere else?

BYNUM: They’re not looking for somewhere else in Tulsa — they’re looking somewhere in Oklahoma City.

TTV: What you have done, seems to me, the first 100 days, is say to people, especially moderates, “We can do this together — yes, I’m a Republican — yet not all national issues effect Tulsa.” Your predecessor, for instance, endorsed Trump, wrote Obama about the Syrians. You seem less of a Republican than Dewey Bartlett.

BYNUM: That never ceases to crack me up when that’s asserted. One, the conventional wisdom is we won the election, that we didn’t win the Republicans but we got the Democrats and the moderates, when the reality — all the numbers we looked at — says we won the Republicans. That’s the thing. We’re not doing anything that I think of as non-conservative. I take issue with anyone who says I’m less conservative than Dewey Bartlett. I’ll debate people all day long about that.

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