During half a century at the Legislature, Gene Stipe reliably took care of his constituents in southeastern Oklahoma. Thus the tributes rolled in following Stipe's death Saturday at age 85.
Gov. Mary Fallin called Stipe “a legend in Oklahoma politics,” but legends are apocryphal. There was nothing make-believe about Stipe. During his 53 years in office — no Oklahoman ever served longer — Stipe, D-McAlester, created jobs and did other favors in his district that polished his “champion of the little man” image back home.
That largesse, sometimes funded with taxpayer money, ensured his popularity in Little Dixie and made him unbeatable at the ballot box. In the end, though, hubris helped to sully the reputation he had spent his life perfecting.
Stipe was the poster boy of Oklahoma's push for term limits, which voters approved in 1990. By then Stipe had been at the Capitol about 40 years, along the way defeating three attempts by federal prosecutors to convict him for alleged misdeeds. But it wasn't term limits that ushered Stipe out of the state Senate in 2003.
Instead, he resigned amid an investigation that resulted in him pleading guilty to overseeing a scheme that funneled more than $245,000 in illegal contributions to the failed congressional campaign of Walt Roberts in 1998.
Stipe was indicted again in 2007, accused of getting $419,000 in state money steered to a dog food plant built on property he owned. Much of the money was earmarked by former state Rep. Mike Mass, a Stipe acolyte who went to prison for his role.
Stipe never did. He was given six months' home detention in the Roberts case, and was found incompetent for trial in the dog food plant case.
In some ways, Stipe epitomized the American dream — a son of the Depression who rose from poverty to great wealth and influence through his law practice and politics. His personal story may inspire future Oklahomans. His record in office should not.