OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Former state Sen. Gene Stipe, "a man of the people" whose nearly half-century tenure in the Oklahoma Legislature ended amid a congressional campaign finance scandal and a series of legal troubles, has died. He was 85.
Barry Moore, an attorney and longtime family friend, said Stipe died Saturday following a long illness at his home in McAlester. Stipe's wife, Mary, his daughter from his first marriage, Beth, and other family members were with him, Moore said.
Stipe, a Democrat, was elected to the state Senate in 1957 and remained in that role until 2003, giving him the longest continuous run as a state senator in U.S. history.
Among sitting lawmakers, only Georgia state Sen. Hugh Gillis' 56 years of legislative service eclipsed Stipe's, according to records of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
When Stipe received the Oklahoma Democratic Party's Carl Albert Award in 1999, former Gov. George Nigh drew applause when he said, "If there ever was a man of the people, it's Gene Stipe."
His resignation came as the FBI probed his connection to illegal campaign contributions to the 1998 failed congressional campaign of fellow Democrat Walt Roberts. Stipe eventually pleaded guilty to federal campaign violations and perjury in 2003 and was given probation and fined more than $735,000.
As a senator, Stipe was considered a champion of working people and was an ardent foe of Oklahoma's right-to-work question that passed in 2001. He was a longtime advocate of increased funding for education and highways, as well as his constituents.
"He did more for the poor people of Oklahoma than anyone I know," former state Treasurer Leo Winters, a longtime friend, once told The Associated Press.
For many years, Stipe would open his McAlester law office on Saturdays and provide free legal advice to southeastern Oklahoma residents.
Stipe was born Oct. 21, 1926, in the town of Blanco in Pittsburg County to Jacob Irvin Stipe and Eva Lou Stipe. In a 1998 book Stipe wrote in collaboration with Ralph Marsh, Stipe called his father, who raised Stipe and his siblings during the Great Depression, one of his heroes.
He was commissioned a Navy ensign in Jackson, Miss., in the 1940s and served during World War II.
In 1948 at the age of 21, Stipe's political career began with an election to the state House of Representatives. Stipe was busy the following year, earning a law degree from the University of Oklahoma, becoming assistant floor leader in the House and marrying his first wife, Agnes L. Minton, who died in 2002.
He lost his first bid for a state Senate seat in 1954 but won a special state Senate election in 1956. He took office as senator in 1957 and was dubbed "dean of the Oklahoma Senate" until his resignation on March 11, 2003, after nearly a half-century career.
In 2007, authorities tried to revoke Stipe's parole when he was accused of associating with a felon, Steven Covington, who was convicted in an odometer rollback scheme. A judge later tossed out the case against Stipe, citing his apparent mental incompetence.
Stipe's 2003 guilty plea marked the first time federal charges against him actually stuck.
In 1968, a federal grand jury in Muskogee indicted him, alleging he evaded taxes on $110,000 of income in 1961 and 1962, but he was later acquitted. More than 10 years later in 1979, another federal grand jury indicted Stipe, alleging wrongdoing during the 1974 financial collapse of McAlester Frozen Foods.
The Small Business Administration had loaned money to the food-processing company, but was unaware that equipment at the company already was mortgaged with another bank loan. In 1981, Stipe was again acquitted.
He also was indicted in 1980 on conspiracy, fraud and extortion charges for allegedly participating in a plan to use his influence with the governor's office in a case against a Colorado man facing extradition. Again, no conviction.
Stipe sought higher office once — losing to then-Gov. David Boren in the 1978 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate.