Tort Reform Takes Center Stage in Oklahoma Political Battle

Article excerpt

Ivan Holmes, chairman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, said he gets it. He knows what the tort reform fight is really about, and he is ready to do battle with the Republican Party, Holmes told reporters Wednesday.

But state Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, said Holmes is mistaken if he thinks the people of Oklahoma will side with the Democrats on this issue.

"The Republicans have done good in framing this issue," Holmes said. "We've let them frame this for us, and they've gotten away with it in the past. We're not going to let them get away with it this time."

Holmes and the state Democratic Party are gearing up for a grass- roots, door-to-door battle over tort reform this year. Once the people of Oklahoma are educated regarding what tort reform really is, voters will reject the measures Republicans want to send to a vote this year, Holmes said.

Most Oklahomans have heard anecdotal stories about lawsuits that seem to be filed based on silly or flimsy claims, and about lawyers who have pocketed millions of dollars won by taking big businesses to court. But they haven't heard as much about the role insurance companies are playing in the battle for tort reform - or as Holmes has decided to call it, "corporate immunity."

"The Consumer Federation of America released a study on the profitability of the insurance industry that showed a profit of $157 billion over three years," Holmes said. State Farm Insurance Co. and Allstate Insurance have written letters to state regulators in Kansas and Seattle, respectively, claiming tort reform does not measurably improve their book of business, Holmes said.

Rather than being about improving insurance rates, as Republicans claim, Holmes said tort reform is really a battle between Republicans and Democrats for political dominance.

"This breaks down to the Republicans trying to destroy the effectiveness of lawyers in Oklahoma," Holmes said. "It's no secret lawyers have been good to the Democratic Party, they're our biggest supporters."

The Republicans' strategy has worked in the past, Holmes said. Republicans passed a right-to-work law in 2001, weakening the power of another key Democrat constituency - labor unions. Hobbled by the law, unions had less money to spend on Democrat campaigns. In 2004, Republicans took control of the state House of Representatives for the first time in state history; in 2008, Republicans also took control of the state Senate. Holmes said in some races, Republican candidates outspent Democrat candidates 10-to-1.

"The public has sided with us time and time again on this issue," said Coffee on Wednesday. "We will win this battle. …