A Renaissance Mayor: Mick Cornett
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if you’re tired of reading about politicians, maybe it’s time to meet someone who’s actually making change where we live: at the local level.
By Lorena O'Neil
How often do you meet a man who can convince people to pay money for city improvement while simultaneously persuading them to lose weight? About as often as you find a TV sportscaster turned four-term mayor.
Meet Mick Cornett, Oklahoma City’s mayor.
“A pivotal day for me was when I figured out that city hall was where the action was,” he says, adding that in Oklahoma City, city council members and mayors can make a difference. “I see a lot of really talented people at other levels of government who seem really frustrated that they aren’t able to make a difference in what they are able to accomplish.”
The 55-year-old was just re-elected to his fourth term with 65.7 percent of the vote, becoming the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history.
It’s unusual for mayors to make it into the national consciousness unless they govern a major coastal metropolis or fall into abysmal scandals. But this landlocked mayor is on the radar because of the way he’s effectively reviving the city by keeping lines of communication open between residents and other government officials. His health and quality-of-life measures have already earned him international attention and raised the city’s profile.
It’s said Oklahoma City has undergone a renaissance on his watch. In part, it’s because of the city’s success in the oil and gas industry, but it also has to do with the mayoral office’s capital improvement program: Metropolitan Area Projects, or MAPS. Sure, a funding plan may not sound sexy, but Cornett and his two predecessors managed to execute public works projects spanning years-long commitments and the terms of multiple mayors. No small feat, given that local elections often usher in wholesale shifts in priorities and pet projects.
The most recent MAPS program focuses on “quality of life” and will raise approximately $777 million for a 70-acre central park, streetcar system, boating facilities, hundreds of miles of sidewalks, jogging trails and a convention center.
“Quality of life” isn’t a soft concept for Cornett. The Republican has made a point of saying that public safety is his top priority, but beyond that, the term means economic development and job creation. He says a city has to prioritize health if it expects to have a strong economy that can attract 20-somethings. “Quality of life is a highly important aspect of what they are looking for—it’s not just about the jobs anymore,” he says. “Now, the jobs go where the people are. If you can create a city where people want to live, the jobs will come.”
And the jobs are coming to Oklahoma City, which stayed strong throughout the recession and has held unemployment at 5 percent. People are coming, too, with the city’s population currently at 1.3 million, and growing more than 5 percent since the 2010 Census.
The city has also embraced health by losing weight. One million pounds of weight. (Seriously.)
In a fun, tongue-in-cheek way, he took on a very serious issue.
The mayor’s TED talk about putting his city on a diet earned him international attention. After Oklahoma City was listed as one of the nation’s fattest cities in 2007, Cornett weighed himself and found he had gained 10 pounds for every year he’d been in office, making him technically “obese.” Cornett put himself on a diet and lost 42 pounds. He challenged the city to lose weight, too. The campaign’s website provided diet tips, answers to questions about obesity, and locations of public parks. Moreover, it provided a way to talk openly about what can be a sensitive personal issue. “He kind of, in a tongue in cheek way and in a fun way, took on a very serious issue,” says Roy Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber.
Not everyone is on the Mick Cornett bandwagon. Opponents of the mayor like to imply he has prioritized Oklahoma City’s cosmopolitan makeover over the everyday concerns of his constituents.
Dr. Ed Shadid was the main contender running against the mayor in this past election. He pointed out 84,000 potholes in the city’s streets and a slow response time for emergency workers. Shadid said Cornett has only focused on the downtown area of Oklahoma City, rather than the city as a whole, a criticism that plagues many city mayors. ”I think that we’re prioritizing one small geographic area, and we’re seeing wholesale decay of our neighborhoods throughout, in all sectors of our city, and that’s very, very worrisome,” said Shadid. While Cornett won against Shadid in a landslide, Shadid did win the support of the civil servants who often know best: the firefighters and police officers.
Other critics of Cornett’s administration say corporate interests and lobbyists have a stranglehold on the city. On a more personal note, they contend that Cornett spent too much time out of Oklahoma City when he pursued his executive MBA from New York University in 2011.
“I made 45 trips to New York,” says Cornett when speaking about the MBA program. ”I didn’t miss council meetings and I was still working when I was in New York. I enjoy working, I enjoyed the educational process.”
The son of a postal worker and a school teacher, Cornett was an all-star athlete and grew up loving sports. After raising two much-older siblings, Cornett’s parents gave him the attention of an only child, encouraging him to pursue any career he wanted. It was at the University of Oklahoma that he developed a taste for broadcasting: He ended up a sportscaster with a 20-year career in media. He married his high school sweetheart and they had three children together. (The couple would later divorce in 2011 after 32 years of marriage, citing “total irreconcilable incompatibility.”)
In 1995, the Oklahoma City bombing changed the course of his life.
“That changed my focus,” he says, explaining that a “mid-life crisis” about what to do with the second half of his professional career spun him in a new direction. “I wanted to be a person of substance. I wanted to make a difference. At that time, I didn’t know what that meant.” His boss switched him from sports to city politics news to keep him inspired.
Once he was up close with local government, it wasn’t long until Cornett threw his hat in the ring. He was elected to the city council in 2001 and to the mayor’s office in 2004. In 2006, he announced he’d be running for the U.S. House of Representatives, but lost to Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin in a GOP run-off election. Fallin eventually won the general election, and four years later, when she left the House to run for governor, rumor had it that Cornett would go after her seat. He didn’t, choosing to run for mayor again.
Today, when he’s asked about seeking a higher office, Cornett says he isn’t “in any way trying to strategize to make that happen.” He adds that he feels “completely fulfilled” as mayor.
What does Cornett love so much about the city? He says Oklahoma City is an example of “a lot people pulling on the same rope.”
“We lived through very distressed times. In the 1980s, we may have had the worst economy, and in the ‘90s, we had the Oklahoma City bombing. You take a community that has been through those life experiences … it’s almost as if after the bombing, we grabbed hands and pulled each other up and dared the world to tear us apart.”