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Janelle Stecklein: CNHI: Mike Hunter: From 'humble beginnings'

Janelle Stecklein: CNHI: Mike Hunter: From 'humble beginnings'

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter discusses his first year in office during a recent visit to the Enid News & Eagle. (Billy Hefton / Enid News & Eagle)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Meet Mike Hunter for the first time, and it’s hard to ignore that his impeccably tailored suit is finished off with a pair of polished cowboy boots.

For years, Hunter said he was afraid to don that footwear. A college mentor once told him they marked him as a fourth-generation Oklahoman, raising wheat and cattle on his family’s rural Garfield County farm. That mentor told him how he dressed was was just as important as his intellect, and those boots were preventing him from transcending his “humble beginnings.”

“So it really scarred me, I guess, for years, but I’ve just gotten to the point where I’ve always loved cowboy boots, and I’m to the point where I’m not too worried about my image,” Hunter said recently during an interview inside his Oklahoma City office, which overlooks the state Capitol.

Now 61, Hunter has embraced his childhood. He’s merged it with a lifetime of experience that’s taken him from the halls of the Oklahoma’s state Capitol to Washington, D.C., and finally back home again to become the state’s top law enforcement officer — attorney general. He now manages as many as 195 employees and oversees a $38.4 million budget.

Those cowboy boots contrast a keen legal mind and decades of experience that make him well-suited for his post, supporters say.

“(Attorney) General Hunter’s knowledge of the Constitution and the law has proven very valuable in resolving issues important to our state and its citizens,” said Republican Gov. Mary Fallin in an email. “He is a tremendous advocate for Oklahomans, and works hard to protect the basic legal rights for Oklahomans.”

Fallin appointed Hunter to the job after former Attorney General Scott Pruitt resigned to head the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Married with two grown sons, Hunter said he’s waited decades for the chance to occupy the large office that’s he’s decorated with family photos, sports memorabilia and knickknacks that have personal significance.

“This is the job I’ve always wanted,” the Edmond resident said. “It’s taken me 24 years to get a chance to do this job, and I intend to hang on to it for a while.”

He took over the agency nearly 11 months ago, and approaches each day with a sense of urgency.

“I’ve never necessarily viewed the obsession with urgency as a vice,” he said. “I believe in deadlines. Most problems don’t improve with time. I come into the office every day feeling an urgency to get problems solved.”

In a little less than 11 months, he’s already declared war on opioid manufacturers. He’s launched salvos against public utility companies wanting to increase rates. And he’s helping officials fix the state’s broken death penalty policies in hopes of restarting executions by the end of the year.

“He was always prepared, informed, tough-minded and willing to forcefully present his opinions without fear or favor,” said former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating in an email from Antarctica where he’s currently traveling.

Hunter served as Keating’s secretary of state and then as his chief operations officer at American Council of Life Insurers and American Bankers Association.

“He was quiet and listened to every variety of opinion,” Keating said. “He didn’t miss a thing. Whatever he touched resulted in action and careful success. There was never a whiff of self or deceit about him. His focus was on policy, and invariably the result was better public policy.”

Hunter said he believes his legal and management experience are strengths he brings to the job.

As he’s watched the opioid addiction epidemic sweep across the state, Hunter said it is time to hold manufacturers accountable for misleading doctors about the addictiveness of the drug.

He’s sued four of the nation’s largest opioid manufacturers. Hunter said he’s confident the state could receive a judgment in the billions. If that happens, he envisions that settlement being placed into a trust fund to help pay for the ongoing costs of corrections, health care, treatment and law enforcement for decades to come.

And as the lawsuit winds its way through the courts, he wants Oklahoma leaders to implement new policies that will make it more difficult for addicts to access the drugs, including improving prescription monitoring, electronic prescriptions and getting more resources in place for treatment and rehabilitation.

“As a former legislator, I always hated when people would identify a problem, but not have a solution,” Hunter said.

Hunter is pushing for a 10 percent tax on opioids that would generate as much as $40 million a year to fully fund drug courts and help support addiction and rehabilitation programs.

Meanwhile, he also continues to work with the Department of Corrections to revamp the state’s execution procedures following at least two troubled efforts — including one that left a man writhing on the execution gurney and another that nearly resulted in a man being executed with the wrong drug. He said there’s a 50 percent chance executions could resume later this year.

“I would say that we’re close to finalizing… the execution process in the state,” Hunter said. “It’s not ready today, but I feel like sometime in the next few weeks we will be finalizing our report.”

But still, Hunter said one of the most important things he does as attorney general is represent Oklahomans to try to prevent utility companies from increasing rates without cause.

He’s currently trying to get utility companies to reduce rates due to corporate tax breaks that companies are now receiving because of President Donald Trump’s recent tax reform measure.

“If you’re in the private sector and your rates are reduced and you’re not subject to monopoly regulations, you can make a decision about increasing salaries, expanding your workforce, lowering costs,” he said. “For them (utility companies) to cash in because there’s corporate tax reform is inconsistent with the regulation of government monopolies.”

Still, he hopes his sense of humility makes him suited for the job.

“We always challenge ourselves with not getting carried away with the apparent authority we have,” Hunter said. “The people we serve all have names and faces and lives and dreams. And we should never become numb to that.”