National News

Scott Pruitt, Fallen EPA Chief, May Rise Again in Oklahoma

Posted July 8, 2018 9:20 p.m. EDT

BROKEN ARROW, Okla. — Scott Pruitt’s brief, tumultuous tenure as head of the Environmental Protection Agency has left him disgraced in the eyes of many in Washington and across the country. But it may not have done him much harm in his home state.

Though a comeback for Pruitt is far from assured, some liberals and conservatives in Oklahoma agree he could engineer one in this oil- and gas-dependent state where he used to be attorney general. His hard-line anti-regulatory message remains popular here, and many of his supporters consider the spreading plume of scandal from his time at the EPA the product of unfair liberal persecution.

“I don’t judge him,” Ron Bracken, 59, a salesman and a supporter of President Donald Trump, said while sitting Sunday morning in the cafe of the megachurch that Pruitt has attended for decades.

Bracken conceded that perhaps there had been some wrongdoing on Pruitt’s watch while in Washington. But he was not ready to condemn Pruitt based on news media reports, which he said had become partisan and untrustworthy: “It’s probably not as bad as they say. If you’re a Republican, you’ve got a mark on your back.”

It is not clear whether Pruitt, 50, and his family will return to Tulsa, where he attended law school, practiced law and owns a home in a neighborhood south of downtown that has large residences and wide green lawns. A lawyer for Pruitt did not respond to questions Sunday.

If he does return, he would probably need to find a job. He would also likely find many people who have cheered the leading role he took in the Trump administration’s effort to drastically roll back environmental rules that affect the oil and gas industry.

“Whatever Scott Pruitt’s problems, whether they were self-inflicted or not, it really doesn’t matter, in my view, because his approach was correct, and that needs to continue,” said Dewey F. Bartlett Jr., an oil executive and former mayor of Tulsa. “Now, how Scott will be welcomed back in Tulsa, back in Oklahoma, that will be OK.

“It’s not like ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ necessarily. But I think he’s been seen as a person who tried hard, was pretty successful, and got beat up pretty bad.” Tulsa, with a population of about 402,000, is Oklahoma’s second-largest city, and oil and gas are central to its self-image and crucial to its economy, with 20,000 industry jobs in the area. Bartlett owns Keener Oil & Gas, a family business that was founded in 1910, three years after Oklahoma gained statehood.

Bartlett spoke of “the old entrepreneurial wildcatter spirit” from those days, when a few men in a coffee shop might hear talk about a gusher, get hold of a nearby lease, secure investors on a handshake and drill. That spirit, he said, continues to permeate the business culture of Tulsa, and of Oklahoma more broadly, where about one in four jobs is estimated to be directly or indirectly tied to the energy industry.

Pruitt celebrated that kind of frontier capitalism when he ran for attorney general in 2010. “I love the pioneering spirit of our state,” he said in a campaign video.

And in a signal of his antipathy for environmental regulations, he said government “is not our master, it’s our servant.”

Soon after winning election, he disbanded an environmental protection unit in the attorney general’s office, according to Johnson Grimm-Bridgwater, director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Sierra Club. Pruitt also established a “federalism unit,” to which he said he would assign state lawyers “to wake up each day and to go to bed each night thinking about ways they could push back against Washington.”

As attorney general, he repeatedly sued the EPA and joined with other Republican attorneys general to fight federal pollution regulations, working hand in hand with the energy industry. In 2014, he sent a letter to the EPA accusing federal regulators of overestimating the pollution caused by gas wells in Oklahoma; the text was written by lawyers for Devon Energy, one of Oklahoma’s biggest oil and gas companies. A billionaire oil executive, Harold G. Hamm, led his re-election campaign.

Pruitt became a hero to conservatives of both modest and ample means. Lawrence Zezima, 25, a conservative gun shop owner in Broken Arrow, a Tulsa suburb, said Saturday that many Oklahomans would consider Pruitt’s problems with the Washington establishment a well-earned badge of honor — not a blot on his reputation.

“I don’t see how he doesn’t have a chance” to win a future statewide office, Zezima said.

Noel Runyan, 31, a liberal-leaning high school social studies teacher, agreed. Pruitt has portrayed himself as a victim of liberal enemies, he said, and “a lot of the political culture in this state depends on that sense of martyrdom.”

While at the EPA, Pruitt justified flying first class at taxpayer expense by saying he needed to avoid confrontations with uncivil critics. In his resignation letter Thursday, he wrote that “unrelenting attacks” on him and his family had “taken a sizable toll on all of us.”

Pruitt’s actions at the EPA remain the subject of several federal investigations despite his resignation, and the outcome of those investigations could substantially change the political calculus.

But in the meantime, some important Republican leaders in Oklahoma have rallied to his side. “I think Oklahomans still love him, support him and trust him,” Pam Pollard, the state party chairwoman, told The Associated Press after his resignation. “We’ll give him the opportunity to tell his side of the story.”

Carl Curtis, 59, a retired teacher who was walking in Pruitt’s neighborhood Saturday morning, said Pruitt would probably have a chance for political rebirth, if only because Republicans now seem to rally around their politicians regardless of ethical failings. “Look at Trump, what he’s gotten away with, and they’re sticking with him,” said Curtis, a Democrat.

Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., who had long backed Pruitt, appeared to waver this year but later said the ethics allegations against Pruitt had no merit. Inhofe released a statement shortly after Pruitt resigned, saying he had performed “great work to reduce the nation’s regulatory burdens.”

There is some talk in Oklahoma that if Inhofe retires — he is 83, and his term runs through 2020 — Pruitt could run to fill his seat.

The challenge for him in such a race would be the many other ambitious anti-regulation Republicans who would not be burdened, as he has been, with months of negative headlines and late-night TV ridicule.

“If he decides to run for something again, he’s going to confront a relatively young opponent, or group of opponents, who just won’t have his baggage,” said Keith Gaddie, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma. Still, Gaddie said, Pruitt has proved to be a skilled and adaptable politician. Even after his ignominious retreat from Washington, he holds a certain sway with Oklahoma voters like Kelly Coday.

Coday, 52, considers himself a conservative Democrat. He voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and for Trump four years later. The latter vote came, he said, in a moment of fear: The company he was working for, which supplies nuts, bolts and fasteners to the oil and gas industry, was laying off workers, and Trump was saying he would help.

Now, Coday said, he has soured on Trump and faulted Pruitt for his ethical lapses, saying “he got caught and he shouldn’t have done it.”

But the economy is good, he said, and it seems as if everyone in Washington is up to some kind of nonsense.

Would Coday vote for Pruitt if he ran for office?

“I’d give him a look,” he said.