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By Laura Z. Bellis
George Theron (GT) Bynum’s public persona has gone the way of Game of Thrones. After several years of garnering consistent community fandom, he managed to lose his moral center and widespread appeal in 10 days during the summer of 2020.
I had been in Tulsa for a decade when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic in 2020. My family expressed concern over safety and the lack of public health infrastructure in Oklahoma as we all began to realize COVID would be with us for a while. To ease their concerns, I showed them an op-ed written by Mayor Bynum in the New York Times titled “I’m a Red-State Mayor and I Ordered My City to Stay Home.”
Bynum displayed good leadership with his op-ed as he pledged to follow science and prioritize the safety of Tulsans over partisan politics. I did not realize at the time that his op-ed was published on April Fools Day, which proved ominous before too long.
GT Bynum had a consistent track record of being data-driven, so it didn’t come as a surprise that he initially took a similar approach to the pandemic. He championed work like the Tulsa Equality Indicators, and he had campaigned on wanting to end the life expectancy disparity between zip codes in north and south Tulsa. This was a man who trusted experts, who read exorbitant amounts of nonfiction, and whose first-term administration was reliant on youthful diversity.
Like any self-proclaimed moderate in the current political era, his first term was not free of public discord. After the murder of Terence Crutcher by Tulsa Police officer Betty Shelby, Mayor Bynum faltered and failed to address police brutality or racially biased policing.
He fumbled his words and efforts in addressing equity issues, but he remained open to dialogue, or appeared to at least. For example, after local protests in response to George Floyd’s murder, Bynum met with organizers on June 1st, 2020, and made commitments to policy changes and to maintain ongoing conversations with the community.
But on June 10th, 2020, Bynum’s attitudes dramatically shifted away from moderation to entrenched partisan ideology. When former-president Trump announced that his first pandemic-era campaign rally would be in Tulsa on Juneteenth (he moved it back one day after finding out Juneteenth exists), Bynum conspicuously supported the event. The spectacle was to be held at a city-owned facility, the BOK Center, and conservative media predicted attendance would be in excess of a million people.
Many Tulsans (outside of the MAGA echo chamber) were genuinely worried about two things: a Covid super spreader event wreaking havoc on the community and the heightened risk of violence from those traveling to Tulsa to genuflect at the altar of their demagogue.
Right-wing Trump supporters began camping out downtown days before the planned rally. The BOK Center is less than a mile from the Greenwood District and the site of the 1921 Race Massacre. The potential for Trump’s white supremacist supporters to enter Greenwood on Juneteenth, when a large portion of the Black community would be gathered outside, threatened to re-open historical wounds.
Regarding the rally, Mayor Bynum went against the advice the Tulsa Health Department, pleas from hundreds of healthcare workers, and the urging of civic leaders and community members. Not only did he allow the rally to happen, he also failed to protect the Tulsa community with any public health precautions. Instead of following data-driven public health policy, Bynum greeted Trump at the airport with a handshake and a cheesy grin.
GT Bynum took a literal and physical backseat that day. He opted to ride around with the police instead of attending the rally or appearing at any of the Juneteenth weekend commemoration activities. Meanwhile, as the Mayor absconded his responsibilities, downtown Tulsa braced itself. Shops were closed, windows were boarded up, and many left town for the weekend, but only if they could afford it.
Thankfully, and somewhat humorously, the rally failed to meet attendance expectations and predictions, as its approximately 6,200 attendees did not even come close to filling the arena’s lower levels. This was still a sizable crowd to host indoors during a pandemic, even if the mayor tried to downplay the outcome of the rally by ignoring the death of Herman Cain and the notable spike in local covid cases afterward, which surely resulted in other preventable deaths.
The 10 days between the rally’s announcement and the actual event marked a clear turning point in Bynum’s political approach. In that brief window he shed his moderate, data-driven politics for a public persona that catered to the propaganda-ridden, skeptical of science, data-denying Republican Party.
He admitted in an interview with Politico this past week that his decision regarding the rally had
“dented our ability to lead from a position of confidence…a lot of folks felt it was a political decision.” Bynum also acknowledged that, in welcoming Trump’s campaign to Tulsa, he had sided with people who had “not been so helpful in reducing the spread of the virus.”
He claimed then, as he does now, that Trump’s political rally in Tulsa was a demonstration of free speech. In addition to a slight misread of the Constitution’s First Amendment, Bynum’s arguments conveniently ignore the public health policies and procedures he could have implemented to make the rally significantly safer than it was.
The mayor has the power to pass policies regarding capacity or ventilation, and before Trump arrived, Bynum could have required the crowd to gather outdoors. He also could have mandated all attendees to wear masks and undergo testing for Covid, but he chose not to. Unfortunately, Herman Cain cannot be reached for comment.
GT Bynum largely ignored the pandemic after the rally as well. He made occasional remarks encouraging people to get vaccinated, but he recklessly refused further mitigation measures and absconded from his responsibility to serve his constituents.
Compounding his decision to host the rally, Bynum never followed up on the policing policy commitments he had made either. Instead, he leaned hard into pro-police rhetoric. The majority of his post-June 2020 social media posts focused on praising police officers, and he made little effort to publicly support events commemorating the Race Massacre Centennial.
Following the August 2020 mayoral election, GT Bynum went on a conservative radio show and declared that he planned to build relationships with his detractors on the right going forward. Bynum was most likely worried that 13.8% of the vote went to extremist candidate Ken Reddick, who participated in the January 6th attack on the Capitol Building, although nearly 30% of the vote went to progressive candidate Greg Robinson. It remains an odd decision that Bynum would prioritize a smaller demographic while ignoring a third of the voters in the election.
Bynum’s popularity with his fellow conservatives has historically been tenuous, as many viewed him as a RINO, especially during the brief time frame when he took the pandemic seriously. He’s been finding a modicum of success lately with the Tulsa County GOP; the chairperson recently gave him a “B” letter grade for his pandemic performance.
Last week, GT Bynum claimed that he tries to “unite people in the center.” His self-proclaimed moderation and compromising political style may have existed earlier in his mayoral tenure, particularly given the diversity of his administration and appointments of people across the political spectrum to key positions.
His administration has witnessed an exodus since Trump’s 2020 rally though, which has allowed Bynum’s politics to shift more towards the right of the political spectrum. Consider the talent and diversity that left Bynum’s leadership team overtime: Brandon Oldham, Jonathan Townsend, DeVon Douglass, Christina da Silva, Jack Graham, Nick Doctor, Ashley Philippsen, Becky Gligo and Amy Brown all left their public positions within Bynum’s city government.
Bynum’s relationship with the city council deteriorated significantly during the summer of 2020 as well. Instead of seeking to repair broken relationships with city councilors in 2020 and beyond, he launched an alleged non-partisan PAC that is clearly designed to connect with those previously mentioned conservative detractors by supporting “Pro-Tulsa” municipal candidates. GT Bynum has proven to be more interested in exclusive, nationalist ideologies rather than working with elected officials to improve Tulsa for all its citizens.
Like most people, I was excited about the year 2020 before it all went by the wayside. I was excited to be part of positive change in Tulsa, in part because I had faith in Tulsa’s municipal government. I believed I could meaningfully engage with the mayor’s office and city council to help make Tulsa a better, more equitable place. More so than the pandemic, GT Bynum’s actions have deeply disillusioned me of that belief. His drift away from moderate Republicanism to a politics more representative of Trump’s disillusioned far-right supporters frightens me for the future of the city.
Those of us striving for justice and equity will have to be vigilant in our civic engagement going forward. The GT Bynum many of us voted for in 2016 is long gone, as is the 2020 mayoral candidate. Bynum’s vision for Tulsa is markedly different from what he sold us on 6, and even 2, years ago.
Laura Bellis is an organizer and community health access strategist. She was appointed twice by Mayor Bynum to the Human Rights Commission, serving a year as vice chair and two years as chair. Mayor Bynum has unfriended her twice on Facebook. In March of 2020, she co-founded Save Our State: Oklahomans United, a grassroots group of over 50,000 people working on pandemic-era resources and policies.