Sixteen years ago, OU Health Sciences Center professor and Industrial Hygiene Program Director Margaret Phillips attended a local Democracy for America meeting.
The issue on the table was a proposed sewage treatment plan that would discharge sewage into Lake Thunderbird. Phillips said she and the other attendees were concerned the plan would pollute Norman’s water supply and open up the north side of Norman to increased development.
While the political action committee discussed the plan’s implications, Phillips said a man with silver hair and a nice complexion caught her eye.
“He was kind of sitting there — not saying anything, with this knowing smile on his face,” Phillips said. “Once in a while he would make a comment, and it was always something that was so apt and knowledgeable. I just thought, ‘This guy is really smart.’”
The knowing smile belonged to late Ward 2 Council Member David Perry who, at the time, was simply a Norman citizen concerned about civic issues. Philips, Perry’s wife, said his active involvement in the city only grew with time.
Perry and Phillips' relationship spanned over a decade, and the couple got married Aug. 20. They got to spend only two days together as husband and wife.
At the age of 60, Perry died suddenly on Aug. 22 of complications from a pre-existing heart condition, tragically cutting his legacy short. Phillips spoke in a Nov. 11 interview on the impact he had on the Norman City Council, local politics and the people around him, as well as her hopes for the upcoming city council election Feb. 9.
Perry’s initial passion for politics was fueled by his interest in history and education. Phillips said his New Deal Democrat values reflected those of his hero, former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
“David was conservative in the classical sense that he was very attentive to the lessons of history,” Phillips said. “He felt it was important to know and understand what happened before, and learned from it. … He believed in spending money when it was needed to relieve distress and to invest in development … but he hated seeing money being wasted.”
His compassion for those in need was evident in his initiative to curb homelessness in Norman by providing residents suitable housing. Phillips said he recognized the issue’s weight during the pandemic and foresaw that families would be evicted through periods of economic stress.
Phillips said he spoke with the owner of the vacant Norman hotel and bar Sooner Legends and tried to persuade them to make the space available for homeless families. The owners declined his proposal.
“This is something he was doing before he was sworn in — he was working very hard,” Phillips said. “He knew the city had to address these issues humanely and wisely.”
One of Perry’s signature issues was related to the accessibility of municipal broadband. His idea, Phillips said, was to use Norman’s existing fiber network to provide cheaper broadband networks to residents while also bringing in revenue to the city.
“We have these fiber connections on the traffic lights that have been underutilized,” Phillips said. “With a fairly modest investment, this could be used to deliver some basic Wi-Fi to people, and the network could then be expanded to provide additional tiers of service. The basic Wi-Fi would simply be available for free.”
Taking advantage of this resource would provide internet access to families who cannot afford it and high-speed internet via subscription to businesses and other residents, Phillips said. She said Perry recognized this issue was especially relevant during the pandemic, as children need access to Wi-Fi to participate in school.
“I honestly don't know how the numbers would work out, but even if it wasn't cheaper, instead of that money going to some company out-of-state … it would be going into the city's coffers,” Phillips said. “It would be a revenue source that would help pay for other things that we want as a city. … David wanted the city to have additional sources of revenue, and municipal broadband would be one of those ways.”
Ward 1 Councilmember Kate Bierman said in an interview with The Daily she is in the process of working on a public/private partnership for municipal broadband with OEC Fiber. Her goal, she said, is to provide the service to Norman’s lowest-income residents.
One of Perry’s talents was giving voices to marginalized and underrepresented communities, Phillips said. Perry went knocking on people’s doors instead of guessing their opinions regarding issues like the proposed Noun Hotel or a standalone emergency department proposed by Norman Regional.
“He went out to find what it was they were concerned about (and to) figure out what could be done on development in both of these cases,” Phillips said. “He wanted to know what the people thought and then put his mind to working out the best solution.”
One issue Phillips said she wished Perry could have lived to see through was the Senior Wellness Center project.
The council recently allocated $4.8 million in CARES Act funding toward the center. She said she wonders if Perry would support putting CARES Act funding toward this project.
“I'm sure David would have been very concerned about the potential of more people needing relief,” Phillips said. “There's going to be a lot of businesses that rely on people being gathered indoors that are going to be in a world of hurt. There will be a need for relief for these people. And is more going to come from the federal government? God only knows.”
Congressional leaders are nearing approval for a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package, which is expected to not include any new direct money to state and local governments, according to NPR.
Phillips said working on city council is no easy task. She said she hopes the candidate who replaces Perry will realize the burden of the position.
“I have the greatest honor and respect for our city council members who do that work, show up prepared and engaged, and at the same time they have jobs and kids,” Phillips said. “They have to be someone that we can count on. To show up and do the job.”
Six days after her husband’s death — and minutes after his memorial service — Phillips said she found out a selection committee was being formed to choose a replacement councilmember for Ward 2. She said a councilmember asked her to act as an intermediary for the mayor and suggest candidates.
Phillips said she gathered a list of four people, including Republicans she felt would be open-minded and respectful of voters and young people. She also requested for Perry's son, Britton Perry, to fill the seat.
Phillips said she did not participate in the committee because it would have been too difficult for her to evaluate candidates.
“(As) a recent widow, it was impossible (for me) to serve on the committee to replace my husband,” Phillips said. “I became distraught at one point when I was suggesting names, and I had to leave to compose myself. … I just knew David was irreplaceable.”
Phillips said she assumed the diverse committee would review applications and work toward a consensus. This assumption, however, was not readily attained.
The committee recommended Sean Boyd, The Chickasaw Nation Department of Commerce’s executive officer for marketing and business development, whose name was not included in Phillips’ list. With a vote of 3-2, the Norman City Council denied the committee’s recommendation due to the lack of consensus and weak voting history.
“It should have been a matter of basic common sense that when an unelected group meets to appoint someone to fill a vacancy in an elective office that is, at minimum, you reach consensus,” Phillips said. “It was a failure on the part of the leadership of that committee to put forth a recommendation that wasn’t a consensus recommendation.”
Current Ward 2 Councilmember Joe Carter stepped into Perry’s seat after being appointed by Mayor Breea Clark to serve in the interim Oct. 14.
Phillips said people asked her within a week of Perry’s passing about how she felt about Carter filling Perry’s position. She said although she felt he was validated by the voters, her reply was an automatic “no.”
“I think Joe Carter never looked comfortable in those (2018) city forums,” Phillips said. “I don’t know that he even knocked on many doors himself. … He doesn’t have the level of contact and understanding of ordinary voters that David had.”
Carter felt differently, as he said it felt like Perry was passing the Ward 2 baton to him in his death.
As Feb. 9 approaches, Phillips said she plans on supporting Matthew McGarry because she thinks he is attuned to ordinary people, like Perry. Ultimately, she said she wants the person who becomes the Ward 2 councilmember to have their finger on the pulse of the people.
"The key thing that I want to see in a representative is that they are not beholden to the money party — which are people who are impressed by big checks or people who will do their bidding,” Phillips said. “Their base (should be) among the grassroots and ordinary people. That's who they are, that's who they listened to and that who they feel they have to represent.”
Phillips said Perry was a man of great charisma and humble leadership. His activism and love for city politics is something she said was one of a kind.
Phillips said although her loss is permanent, she knows Perry’s legacy will remain.
“David had so much influence on so many people. I think there are lots of people that he will continue to inspire that we will see … coming up who will stand for his same values,” Phillips said. “There are people now in office who have found inspiration from David, who I expect to advance into a higher office. There is a legacy.”