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Oklahoma City – Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett is a fourth-generation Oklahoman who was born and raised in Oklahoma City. Cornett earned a degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma. He then began a successful career in television and newspaper work, covering everything from sports to city hall. Cornett’s political career started in 2001 when he was elected to the Oklahoma City Council, defeating a two-term incumbent councilmember. He was elected mayor in 2004; won re-election in 2006; and became, in 2010, only the fourth mayor in Oklahoma City’s history to win a third term. The Republican mayor, who heads the nation’s 29th largest city, has been active in the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ organization and helped secure Oklahoma City as the 2010 site of the conference’s annual meeting. After losing 40 pounds himself, he challenged his fellow residents to lose one million pounds and reduce obesity. And with more than 45,000 joining the challenge, they’re now nearing their goal.
After being a journalist for several years, you entered politics in 2001, winning a city council seat. Why the change?
Well, I had always been interested in politics and I thought when my television career was completed, I might try that. So, when (journalism) kind of ran its course in 1999 after 20 years, I started looking at different opportunities. And I had really become enamored during my last assignment in television with city hall. I was exposed to city government at a very intense level and really had come to the conclusion that that was where the action was. And it really fit.
There are no term limits in Oklahoma City. Are you planning on running for a fourth term?
I don’t know. I’ve got two-and-a-half years left on this job and I have not made a decision. I really still do love the job passionately. I really think that it’s where a person can make a difference and I’m enthusiastic every day being involved. So, I certainly haven’t lost the passion yet. I guess we’ll just wait a year or two down the line and see what it feels like then.
You worked about 20 years as a journalist. Now that you’re on the other side in city hall facing reporters, how is it working?
Well, I have a really good relationship with them. I like the fact that I’m easy to work with. I also like that I never turn down interviews. I think the media is actually an opportunity for us to talk in an unfiltered manner straight to the citizens. With the social media today becoming more and more of a factor in information gathering, I think it’s more important that elected officials get out and talk and explain their vision more and more because social media just doesn’t have a journalistic credibility that former media had. It makes it easier for misinformation to gather steam and be empowered.
You’re the son of a postman and school teacher. How did they influence you in journalism and then politics?
Well, you know our parents’ work-ethic was really strong. I don’t ever remember them missing a day of work. And I haven’t missed one either. I think I inherited that sense of duty, that sense of giving back to your community from my parents. My parents didn’t necessarily tell me how to live my life. They just showed me. I owe them a great deal. They were outstanding parents. I know I was lucky to have them.
You’re a Republican. How would you rank yourself in the political hierarchy of liberal to conservative?
In Oklahoma City, I’m considered a centrist. But Oklahoma is a very conservative place. And so nationally I would be considered a conservative – considered right of center. I think any executive branch elected official needs to get to the center to get things accomplished. My passion is for this city to get things accomplished and move forward. I’m not interested in butting my head against the wall in frustration. So, we will move and get things done. And I think that’s been our track record.
Endorsing any Republican candidates for president?
Well, I’m still gathering information on all of them. I’m probably geographically tied to Rick Perry and a lot of his beliefs. I’ve always admired former Gov. (Mitt) Romney and what he accomplished as a chief executive. My political hero is Newt Gingrich and to the extent that he might still be in the race, I’m philosophically tied to Newt. If I could wave a magic wand and have one candidate rise to the top, it would be him.
What is your opinion of the Obama Administration?
I think that the commitment to infrastructure is an area where I can agree with him. I think that it is a necessity. We’ve got to start investing in infrastructure. I applaud the attention to infrastructure. I think the federal government needs to take a stronger role. How to pay for it is a different question. I might disagree with him on how we find the money, but as far as the attention to infrastructure, I couldn’t be more supportive.
I admire a lot of his leadership capabilities. I think he was handcuffed to a certain extent for his first couple of years because of (House) Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi. I think that hurt his ability to get things accomplished in some sort of centrist way. He’s kind of had a rough time. But I still think there’s hope for him in his last year or two and if he gets re-elected, then we’ll see going forward.
But, he’s been good for city government. He’s worked with us. He’s listening to us. It’s a little bit of contrast to the Bush White House where President (George W.) Bush was a former governor and wasn’t necessarily listening to mayors. I think we’ve had a welcome mat in the Obama White House that we didn’t have in the Bush White house. I believe that the Obama White House listens to mayors and cities. Even if we don’t get what we want, it’s refreshing to be heard.
How is Oklahoma City looking economically?
We have the strongest economy per capita in the country. We have the lowest unemployment in the United States among large cities. Certainly, the malaise that the rest of the country is experiencing is not a part of our culture here. People in Oklahoma City hear about the national economic woes but they’re not experiencing them.
In April 1995, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was nearly destroyed by a truck bomb. In all, 168 people, including 19 children were killed in the explosion and its aftermath. Where were you when the building was bombed?
I was a television sportscaster in April of 1995 and at the moment the bomb went off, I was at home and felt my house shake and it kind of awoke me. I had worked late the night before and was still actually in bed at 9 o’clock the next morning.
I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I turned on television just as a matter of helping me wake up and getting my day started. And within minutes I started seeing my co-workers at the TV station and then my competing stations start to tell the story of what was going on downtown.
Timothy McVeigh was convicted in the bombing – the worst terrorist strike on U.S. soil until the September 11, 2001, attacks. He was put to death in June 2001 and one of his co-conspirators, Terry Nichols, received life imprisonment in June 1998. What do you think about the outcome?
I believe a person who has been found guilty of first-degree murder for 168 people has given up his right to live. And I would have extended that to Terry Nichols who is serving life in prison. I would have preferred that he received the death sentence, too.
You’ve lost about 40 pounds and translated that into challenging Oklahoma City residents to reduce their weight as well in an attempt to cut the rate of obesity. Mind saying what you weighed, how much you lost and why you inspired your constituents to join in?
No, I don’t mind at all. I’ve long since come out of my comfort zone in talking about my own issues because it seemed necessary to kind of help the city deal with its own health issues. In the frame of 2007, I weighed 217 pounds. So I was sitting at 217 when I decided I was going to lose some weight and I ended up losing 40 pounds over 40 weeks.
Along the way, I came to some conclusions about how city government could play a better role in the health of its community including making infrastructure changes and raising awareness of the dangers of obesity. So, by New Years Eve of 2007, I called a press conference and put the entire city on a diet and announced that we were going to lose a million pounds.
We established a website and we’re now over 900,000 pounds lost, so we’re very close to that goal that we established three-and-a-half years ago of losing a million pounds. I think that people are much more aware of the dangers of obesity today than they were then.
Did some people consider you something of a nag?
I think most people were inspired that I was willing to tell my story about a very personal issue that I’ve had – a long issue with obesity. I think most people felt it was about time somebody did something, because we were in denial in this community. Obesity had become a subject that we were uncomfortable talking about. By really forcing the conversation it has allowed people in all walks of life to feel a little more comfortable about talking to their family and friends about it instead of being in denial and somehow if we ignore obesity it’s going to away by itself. It clearly is not.
You were a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama during the 2010 State of the Union address because of your health work. Would you secretly have wished that she was the wife of a Republican president at that point?
(laughs) That would be unfair to have wished that. I was just extremely pleased to be in her company and to be there on that day. You know, when you’re in that room and in that environment it’s a very patriotic emotion. You just take a big gulp — ‘wow, this really cool.’ Those are memories that I’ll take to my grave.
What’s your favorite NBA team?
That would be the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Photo By City Of Oklahoma