OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Scott Pruitt’s tenure as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency ended with his resignation, but political experts in his home state of Oklahoma say he could continue his career in public office.
The path could lead him back to Washington.
Pruitt, a former Oklahoma state senator and two-term Republican attorney general, resigned suddenly Thursday amid ethics investigations, including ones examining his lavish spending on first-class airline seats and a $43,000 soundproof booth for making private phone calls.
But even with the bad publicity, Pruitt, 50, has widely been considered a potential candidate for either governor or U.S. Senate. With Oklahoma’s gubernatorial field set for 2018, some have eyed Pruitt as a possible candidate to replace 83-year-old U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe if he decides not to run again in 2020.
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Ethical charges aside, many Republicans in oil- and gas-dependent Oklahoma are focused more on what they consider his accomplishments at the EPA, said Oklahoma Republican Party Chairman Pam Pollard.
As attorney general, Pruitt filed more than a dozen lawsuits against the agency President Donald Trump would later pick him to lead. In Washington, he worked relentlessly to dismantle Obama-era environmental regulations that aimed to reduce toxic pollution and planet-warming carbon emissions.
Pollard said that was the right strategy. Under Pruitt’s leadership, she said, the EPA now is focused on the mission it is supposed to have — one that is friendlier to industry.
“We’re proud of him for that,” Pollard said. “I think Oklahomans still love him, support him and trust him. We’ll give him the opportunity to tell his side of the story.”
Inhofe praised Pruitt in a statement Thursday for doing “great work” leading the agency. A longtime Inhofe staffer, Andrew Wheeler, was tapped to take over for Pruitt as acting head of the agency.
Criticism in the press and animosity from environmental groups are likely not enough to derail Pruitt’s political career, said Oklahoma GOP consultant Trebor Worthen.
“I don’t think that whatever things he may be accused of are things that most Oklahomans are going to hold against him if he decides to run for office in the future,” Worthen said.
Keith Gaddie, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, disagreed. He said Pruitt could overcome criticism from environmental groups and unflattering stories in the media, but not the lengthy list of political scandals that includes asking EPA staff to pick up dry cleaning and trying to obtain a used Trump hotel mattress for his apartment.
“His policy actions as administrator don’t cost him in this state. It’s everything else,” Gaddie said. “There are often second acts in politics, but it’s very hard to come back from 18 months as the principal target of every late night comedian’s jokes.”
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This story has been corrected to show that university professor is not department chairman.