TulsaPeople Q&A: Bill LaFortune
The former Tulsa mayor reflects on the 10-year anniversary of the passing of Vision 2025 under his leadership.
Former Mayor Bill LaFortune sat down with TulsaPeople in June to talk about the major legacy of his 2002-2006 administration — Vision 2025 — and its impact today on Tulsa and the surrounding communities. A Republican with a distinguished family pedigree, LaFortune faced down fierce opposition within the conservative ranks of his own party to successfully sell the Vision 2025 vote. Today, he remains proud of this accomplishment and his administration, even while noting he expended just about all the political capital he had at the time. He also shares his own views on what Tulsa needs for continued development as well as advice for the next mayor.
Reflecting on your tenure as mayor (2002-2006) what stands out for you?
I think the flagship of the administration was Vision 2025. We came into office after a number of major initiatives to revitalize and redevelop downtown had failed. We had been watching Oklahoma City. It was post-9/11, the economy was very poor; we had tremendous budget cuts and job losses in the city when I came into office.
What was unique about Vision 2025 was it brought together the elected city and county leaders and regional mayors in one room with the business community and everyday citizens who worked for over a year vetting different projects that could be voted on — including the flagship, the BOK Center. We knew the education projects were very exciting to people and very well supported.
The arena was a tougher sell. There were a lot of naysayers who didn’t believe Tulsa could support an arena of 18,000 seats or more. (They thought) we wouldn’t be able to get the acts that Oklahoma City was getting, that Little Rock was getting, and bigger cities than that.
We had to overcome that. And we did it by having this very transparent, yearlong process and putting the package in four votes. The arena was included with the education projects, which we believe helped push it to success. It all passed by more than 60 percent and was a great victory for Tulsa and Tulsa County and, just as a lifelong citizen of Tulsa, it was thrilling for me.
What was your motivation to run for and serve as mayor?
We really wanted to see something exciting, a new point of pride for Tulsa. We knew we had to catch up and exceed other cities our size or we weren’t going to be able to attract the jobs or attract the companies and people, like young professionals, here.
Talk about some of the resistance you encountered trying to pass Vision 2025.
There was a great deal of support and excitement with a great number of people and groups but there was also very conservative bloc of people in town, Republicans, which I am, that didn’t like any type of tax increase, whatever the reason. They had supported me in my election, but when we moved forward with Vision 2025 all of a sudden it was like, ‘we don’t like that.’ I lost political capital in the process. But I knew it was the right thing to do for Tulsa and that’s what drove me. ... I knew what it could do for Tulsa and it’s certainly come to fruition.
Do you believe Vision 2025 has fulfilled expectations?
Absolutely. It’s always critical when you’re asking the taxpayer and the citizen to take money out of their pocket to keep the promises you make … The key piece of the BOK Center was the management team SMG. I took a great deal of criticism in hiring them because they were already managing the Oklahoma City arena and many people here thought we’d be second fiddle. But we had them come and make presentations and I was impressed. They deserve a ton of credit and John Bolton, the manager, for managing it the way they have and making it a success.
The truth of the matter is, everyone (suburban communities) got something and that was important. Every community got a major construction project out of 2025 and that’s why everyone got on board — they all had a stake.
Who else deserves credit for helping bring Vision 2025 to fruition?
At the time, the leadership team included the regional mayors, the county commissioners, business leaders, city councilors and neighborhoods. We dug down to make sure we had core support in the neighborhoods. The chamber played a role in fundraising for the marketing. … I give a tremendous amount of credit to Howard Barnett who chaired that finance committee … I give a lot of credit to the business community for getting behind it. I certainly give credit to all the leadership at the various institutions. I also give the leaders for all the cities and various institutions credit for getting the job done. If any one of them had failed, it would have been a good attack point. … I admire (former) mayor Taylor and I think she had a lot to do with the implementation of Vision 2025. We’re friends and she did what needed to be done. That was important.
Was being the front man for the project something that came naturally to you?
One of the gifts that God gave me was the gift of persuasion and advocacy. Having been a district attorney and a trial attorney was helpful in being able to give speeches ... You had to get out on the campaign trail. We had numerous meetings with citizens and I had a certain speech that I gave of “Why?”
We also had economic numbers. One thing I remember well is David Boren from OU. He came to town one night in support of it. And he had determined that the OU clinic by itself would have a $300 million economic impact. Well, that one project alone almost carried the entire cost, based on economic impact, so we had numbers to give the people, too.
In fact, it was very important that for each project we had a budget that was real, could be completed, and would be successful.
Did you enjoy your time as mayor?
Well, it’s a tough job. Probably the toughest job there is. And I think that primarily relates to the form of government we have as opposed to Oklahoma City and other cities.
The strong mayor form means you are actually managing the city, running the city departments every day plus being the economic development director, plus cutting ribbons and giving speeches. So, it’s 24-7, 365.
I think Christmas morning was the only time I didn’t have to answer a press inquiry. The only day of the year I was left to be alone with my family!
Since you left office, what have you been doing?
Practicing law. I basically had to rebuild my law practice. When I left to run for mayor, I had a very successful law practice, but four years away from it, clients can’t wait four years for you. So I had to rebuild it, which has been a tremendous challenge.
Looking around town, what do you think Tulsa needs today?
I’m just very excited about where Tulsa is right now, particularly with the downtown revitalization. Exciting things are happening there and I think they are transforming the area into what we’ve always wanted to have, a vibrant place to go and be with family and friends, and be entertained.
What does Tulsa need?
I think Tulsa needs to keep moving forward in downtown revitalization. I’ve always believed that is a core need and we have to keep growing that. I’m excited about the River Parks and this new Gathering Place. I think the George Kaiser Family Foundation has to be given tremendous credit for its investment in the River Parks and this new gathering place.
Any advice for the next mayor?
You’re going to work hard. Make sure you have time for yourself and your family. Take time to go work out, keep healthy and I guess most importantly, don’t let the criticism get you down. Because most Tulsans are going to support you and believe in you at all times. Don’t let the handful of nasty emails or phone calls get you down. Just keep plugging away.
I think the next mayor is going to be charged with the task of putting together another capital improvements package like 2025 and that may include the river and other improvements that we need.
Would you consider any future political office?
I’m enjoying practicing law. I have not ruled out any elective office but I’m primarily interested in elected offices in the legal arena such as any kind of a judgeship. Of all the jobs I’ve had, my term as a special judge here in Tulsa County was one I really enjoyed and I felt I was really good at. … I enjoy the courthouse. I enjoy law.
Who do you support for mayor?
I’m probably not endorsing anyone. I think they’re both excellent choices and they’re both friends of mine and I think either one of them will do a good job. They each have their pros and cons and most of them are pros.
Interview has been condensed and edited for length.