How Oklahomans Will Welcome Pruitt's Return

Jul 6, 2018
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today was Scott Pruitt's last day as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. He resigned under a cloud of alleged ethical violations. His departure comes as a relief to many of his critics who say even before the scandals his close ties to industry made him unfit for the office. But the reaction in Pruitt's home state of Oklahoma has been different.

For more on that, we're joined by Joe Wertz of StateImpact Oklahoma. Thank you for joining us.

JOE WERTZ, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So Scott Pruitt was the state attorney general of Oklahoma for several years before he came to Washington. What are people saying about his very short tenure at the EPA?

WERTZ: Well, I talked to some folks at a coffee shop in Oklahoma City this morning. And keep in mind, this is a blue ZIP code in a very red state. Most of these folks really dislike Pruitt. They think climate change is real, and they support environmental regulation. They didn't like Pruitt when he was attorney general here before. And now their biggest worry is that Pruitt is going to return to political life in Oklahoma.

But I was in a rural part of the state earlier this week. This is a region with a lot of agriculture and some booming oil fields. A lot of folks out there support deregulation, and they think Pruitt made a target for himself because of these allegations of these ethical lapses. I talked to Jim Dunlap. He's a Republican legislator for 16 years. Now he's a consultant. He says it's not Pruitt who represents the D.C. swamp, that it's his critics.

JIM DUNLAP: It's just an atmosphere in Washington, D.C. It's - say, if they don't agree with me, I'm going to go ruin them. And I think Scott realized that. He fought as hard as he could. And it just got to a point where it became too personal. And he said, you know, somebody else can do it.

WERTZ: Now, Dunlap does say that it's possible that Pruitt made some mistakes. Maybe he even violated some rules. But he doesn't think that Pruitt did that on purpose.

CHANG: What about Pruitt's policy moves to roll back environmental regulations? I mean, you've suggested that he's - there's been quite a bit of support back in Oklahoma about that.

WERTZ: Yeah. Look; this regulatory rollback has massive support in Oklahoma, especially among, you know, like, the oil and gas industry. The Oklahoma Oil & Gas Association praised, you know, Pruitt, the outgoing EPA boss, for getting energy producers a seat at the table. And that's a seat they said they were kept away from during the Obama years. Republican Governor Mary Fallin has also said kind things about Pruitt. And she likes his public crusade against, you know, federal overreach and Pruitt's push for more state authority.

CHANG: What about questions remaining about Pruitt's political future? I mean, there's been some talk he's interested in running for Senate in 2020...

WERTZ: Yeah.

CHANG: ...If his mentor Senator Jim Inhofe steps down. Do people think his resignation from the EPA would hurt his prospects?

WERTZ: Well, Dunlap, the Republican consultant, said he'd be happy to work with Pruitt if he re-entered politics. But others say it's going to be really hard for Pruitt to hit a political reset - even for a former state attorney general.

I talked to Keith Gaddie. He's a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma. And Gaddie says this is not because of Pruitt's policies or his politics; it's because of this constant drumbeat of questions about his personal conduct. Gaddie says supporters that really liked his policies might have even ignored a couple of these ethical lapses. But with so many, he's a liability.

KEITH GADDIE: For the state GOP, they have so many ambitious, highly qualified people out there who are just as good of campaigners, just as well invested with the financial class in this state, the donor class in this state. There are alternatives to Scott Pruitt that don't carry all of Scott Pruitt's baggage.

WERTZ: Gaddie also says other Oklahoma politicians who have had ethical scandals have not managed to make a comeback and win major office. He says, quote, "it just doesn't happen here."

CHANG: All right. That's Joe Wertz of StateImpact Oklahoma. Thank you.

WERTZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.