Bobby Stem has no need for a white board in his new offices at 636 NE 41, which as of June is the new headquarters of the Association of Oklahoma General Contractors.
Stem, who serves as executive director of the trade association, simply brandishes a blue dry erase marker and starts jotting planning notes directly on his glass office wall.
Planning has been an integral part of Stem's job for seven years, including two years as a lobbyist for the AOGC and the past five as its director.
Six years ago, state leaders — with the association's input — devised a rolling eight-year plan to ensure Oklahoma's bridges remain structurally sound, dangerous shoulder-less two-lane roads are widened, and safety cable barriers are erected on others.
“Gary Ridley, Oklahoma's transportation secretary, and I meet every other Wednesday for breakfast,” Stem said. “I bring five sausage biscuits, and he brings five, so no one can accuse either of us of buying favoritism.”
Joking aside, Stem lauds the state Legislature for automatically funding the Oklahoma Department of Transportation — and for the master plan, which he said helps his 280 association members, from large construction companies to one-man backhoe operators, make future decisions regarding payroll or equipment rentals and purchases.
“Every now and then, I have to say ‘time out,'” Stem said. For example, he said he celebrates the City of Oklahoma City's recent purchase of electrical vehicles, but lobbies Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, and other federal lawmakers about the absence of fuel tax revenue, which funds improvements to the country's roads and bridges.
Electrical vehicles also weigh more than traditional vehicles, and do more damage to roads, he said.
Stem, 41, recently sat down with The Oklahoman to talk about his professional and personal life, including growing up with a single mom and without knowing his father. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Can you tell us about your roots?
A: My mom was born in the little town of Seville, Spain, and sailed on the Queen Mary to America in 1963, at age 9, with her two sisters, her mom — my grandmother (who was widowed after her husband was killed in a winery accident) — and my great-grandmother. A Houston oilman vacationed in Spain, fell in love with my grandmother and convinced her to come to America, where they married.
I was raised in Tulsa. My parents split up when I was very young. My mom remarried, had my sister Jeni, and was a single mom, by the time Jeni was 5 and I was 11. She worked very hard at Sheffield Steel by day and, until 11 at night, as a waitress at El Chico. I'd walk my sister home from school; we'd do her homework, then I'd do mine. She'd go to bed at 9 and I'd wait up for mom, count out her tip money and fill out the bank deposit slip for the next day. When I was 13, my mom went back to school at then Tulsa Junior College on Wednesday nights and, 12 years later, graduated first in her class from Northeastern State University with a bachelor's in Spanish education. She teaches Spanish at Sand Springs High School and loves it.
Q: Neat. Are you fluent in Spanish?
A: When I started talking, I was fluent in Spanish and struggled with English. Now, I can fully comprehend Spanish, but my speech is broken. When we vacationed in Cozumel a few years ago, I used a combination of words and pantomime to tell the taxi driver I wanted to go to a discotheque where we could dance (“bailar”) and drink (“bebida”).
Q: What piqued your interest in a political career?
A: A 26-year-old state representative addressed my high school when I was a sophomore. He talked about a state law mandating seat belts that he'd helped pass, and I was hooked. A month later, I served as a page at the state capitol, and then went on to be elected vice president and president of my study body at East Central High School. I chose to attend UCO, largely because a statesman, Gov. George Nigh, worked there. That was before he was UCO president. I gave Gov. Nigh my dorm room number and asked him to give a young man a chance; that I'd take his car for an oil change, drive Mrs. Nigh to her hair appointment or do whatever. He called me soon afterward to drive him to a speech in Altus. I would have done it for free, but he paid me $3.50 an hour to chauffeur and run various errands for him. A year later, he introduced me to Gov. Walters, with whom I traveled and worked as an advance man.
Q: Did you ever aspire to run for office yourself?
A: I did. At age 20, I ran for House representative in District 75 and got my clock cleaned in the Democratic primary. I got 1,000 votes and my opponent got 2,000.
Q: You say you're a registered Republican today. What prompted your party switch?
A: I wanted to vote for my friend, state Rep. Mike Thompson, who represents parts of Northwest Oklahoma City, Bethany and Warr Acres. Plus, I have conservative beliefs.
Q: How did you get interested in lobbying?
A: Starting when I was a junior in college, I worked a few years as a field representative for the Oklahoma Credit Union League and, after working for Glen Johnson's campaign for the state House and a stint on the staff of former state Sen. Stratton Taylor, D-Claremore, came back to work for the league as a lobbyist. It was shortly afterward, some 15 years ago, that I formed my own government relations company (Capitol Gains LLC), lobbying not only for credit unions, but also now for some 24 other organizations. I enjoy working for diverse personalities and with a range of topics. The fun thing is when my work for Capitol Gains and the AOGC mesh, like when I can introduce the Creek Nation, who we represent and is building roads, to AOGC contractors.