Former Oklahoma legislator remembers time in office

August 26, 2018

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — A photo of Larry Ferguson sitting on a folding chair at a desk made of two cardboard boxes in a state Capitol hallway was published in the May 22, 1985, editions of the Tulsa World.

The Republican had just beaten eight opponents in a special election to fill the seat of a Democrat who had died.

Representing a district that included Pawnee and Noble counties and a portion of Osage County, he was elected even though the district’s party registration was 65 percent Democrat.

“The part of Osage County in my district had more registered cows than registered voters,” he told the Tulsa World .

Ferguson would go on to serve nearly 20 years in the Oklahoma Legislature, including eight years as the minority leader.

“I moved offices a few times while I was in the Legislature, but when I got there my first day, there was nothing,” said Ferguson, the publisher of newspapers in Cleveland, Pawnee and Hominy. “So they put me in the hallway, and I found a couple of boxes.

“The Democrats ran everything back then. I’m not sure anyone even noticed me for the first year or so. I eventually got a broom closet cleaned out for my office.”

Ferguson, now 80, remains one of the most recognizable and friendly faces in Pawnee County. He comes from a legendary newspaper and civic-minded family that has been full of significant statewide leaders since the 1930s. Spend a few hours with him at the local steakhouse, and he is repeatedly greeted by friends and family.

“Our family has been around here for a while,” he said.

His father, Jo O. Ferguson, was the Republican nominee for governor in 1950 and lost a tight race (51.1 percent to 48.6 percent) to Johnston Murray at a time when Democrats dominated state politics. Jo Ferguson was the publisher of newspapers in Pawnee, Cleveland, Ripley and Vinita for more than 50 years.

“This is still a family business,” Larry Ferguson said. “There were three of us kids (the late D. Jo Ferguson of Pawnee and sister Deloris Hooper of Sand Springs) in our family, and now there are lots of kids and grandkids.”

Larry Ferguson’s brother, D. Jo Ferguson, published the Pawnee Chief and also served as a state legislator, being elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives in the 1940s while he was still a student at the University of Oklahoma.

“Our family had obviously been active in politics, but I never thought about it until our state rep died and we had an opening,” Larry Ferguson said. “I still didn’t think I’d win. This was a pretty heavy Democrat district back then, and I had eight opponents.

“But that was a far different time. You could be a Democrat or Republican out here in rural Oklahoma, and people would vote for the person, not the party. That’s how I got elected. That’s the way it used to work at the state Capitol, too. I probably voted more with rural conservative Democrats than I did with Republicans.

“I guess times have changed.”

Ferguson was a popular figure around the state Capitol from the 1980s until term limits pushed him out of the Legislature in 2004.

“My office was always getting moved, and there came a time when I found myself once again without an office, and the guys in the press room set me up a desk in the press room,” Ferguson said. “So I was working in the press room. I guess it was appropriate. I was, after all, a newspaperman and knew all of those folks.

“In fact, I really enjoyed the press room. It was a fun group of people. And they didn’t have to go looking for me to get a quote.”

His two decades in the Legislature were spent in the minority party.

“The year I left the Legislature is the year the Republicans became the majority,” Ferguson said.

Back then, Ferguson said, most legislators identified more with where they were from than party affiliation. He said rural legislators seemed to stick together while the legislators from Tulsa and Oklahoma City were a group.

“We had all sorts of caucuses in the Legislature,” he said. “However, it always seemed like you did most things with people in similar situations. Our problems in rural Oklahoma were a lot different than the two big cities, so we worked together to do what was best for our district.”

That seemed to make him popular on both sides of the aisle.

“Again, the way offices and desks in the house were assigned sometimes left me out,” Ferguson said. “My desk on the House floor was on the same row with a bunch of rural Democrats. That was great for me.”

He was so popular that Ferguson is believed to be the only Republican ever named the chairman of a standing house committee (Retirement) during the era of Democratic rule in the Oklahoma Legislature.

These days Ferguson remains active in his communities of Cleveland, Hominy and Pawnee, his hometown.

He was a legendary high school athlete, playing on the undefeated state champion Pawnee football team in 1954 and basketball teams that reached the state tournament three straight years. He briefly played basketball at OU.

He came home in 1962 after a stint in the armed services to take over the family business in Cleveland.

“I see people from different places, and I wonder what it is like. I love being here with folks I’ve known forever and they’ve known me and my family forever. There’s something very nice about that.”


Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com

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