OKLAHOMA HISTORY - Edmondson's Gamble Fails
By Steve ByasEdmondson’s Gamble Fails
Upon returning to Oklahoma, Edmondson told Nigh that he would like to replace Kerr himself, and asked Nigh if he would name him senator, should Edmondson resign as governor.
Governor J. Howard Edmondson had plenty to be unsettled about on New Year’s Day of 1963. As he sat in the stands of Miami, Florida’s Orange Bowl, the Alabama Crimson Tide were dominating the Oklahoma Sooners, coached then by the legendary Bud Wilkinson. Oklahoma would eventually lose, 17-0 to Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s team.
But that was not all Edmondson had to be upset about. During the game, he was informed that long-time Senator Robert S. Kerr had died of a heart attack. Not only was he understandably saddened by the death of Kerr, he was concerned about what Lieutenant Governor George P. Nigh might do.
Nigh had wanted to accompany Edmondson on the trip to Florida on the chartered plane, but Edmondson had refused, arguing that there was not enough room on the flight for Nigh, and besides, Nigh needed to stay in Oklahoma in case something came up that required a governor’s immediate attention.
Now something had “come up,” and Edmondson was worried that Nigh might use the opportunity to name Kerr’s successor. Oklahoma law also made the lieutenant governor the acting governor of the state, any time the governor is out of the state. As such, Nigh had every legal authority to fill the vacancy.
Under Oklahoma law, a governor can fill a senatorial vacancy with someone who would then hold the office until the next general election – in this case, in 1964. At that time, the voters would elect a replacement to fill out the last two years of Kerr’s term.
Edmondson quickly found a pay phone and called Acting Governor Nigh. Nigh told Edmondson that he was expecting his call, and he assured Edmondson that he would not exercise his ability to name a successor to Kerr.
But Edmondson was not so sure, so he left the game and flew back to Oklahoma. Even when one of the engines of the two-engine plane went out, and the pilot wanted to land, Edmondson insisted they continue flying.
Upon returning to Oklahoma, Edmondson told Nigh that he would like to replace Kerr himself, and asked Nigh if he would name him senator, should Edmondson resign as governor. Both men had less than two weeks left on their terms of office, and Nigh agreed with the plan. It did not work out very well for Edmondson, however, as many Oklahomans did not like Edmondson’s scheme, and he lost the Democratic Party primary to Fred Harris. Harris then defeated Bud Wilkinson, the Republican, in the general election.
It was a bad year for any Republican to run (less than a year after the Kennedy assassination), and still, Wilkinson barely lost. Had he waited until 1966 (a good year for Republicans) he probably would have won. This led to the saying that Wilkinson had run when he should have passed and passed when he should have run.
Edmondson never again held public office, but Nigh went on to regain his post as lieutenant governor in 1966, and in 1978 won the first of two terms as governor, having already served nine days as governor in 1963.
Steve Byas is editor of the Oklahoma Constitution newspaper and teaches Oklahoma History at Randall University in Moore, OK