'Washington's Rising Star': One-On-One With Sen. Lankford

Thursday, December 7th 2017, 6:12 pm

With recent polls showing Americans' opinion of Congress near historic lows, it's understandable that many here would just assume keep a low profile.

And yet one member of Oklahoma's Congressional delegation, Sen. James Lankford, has found himself more and more in the public eye, and not because he's a lightning rod for controversy.

Sen. Lankford says he doesn't seek the spotlight, but he also doesn't shy away from it, as has become clear from his increasing exposure in national media.

"I'm always surprised when someone in national media calls me to do an interview," Sen. Lankford explained in a recent interview, "because typically national media likes to get the most caustic person out there because it makes better news."

On the day Senators returned from the recent Thanksgiving break, Lankford had a particularly full day of media. News 9 was in Washington and tagged along as Sen. Lankford held a news conference at the Capitol to release his third 'Federal Fumbles' report.

WATCH: Lankford On Wasteful Spending In Washington

"It is a to-do list, of sorts." Lankford said of the report, "it's a way for us to be able to say, 'Okay, what are we finding throughout the course of the year that needs to be fixed', and not just saying, 'That's a mess, someone should [fix] it'...that someone is us."

Following the news conference, at which Lankford was asked many more questions about his position on the Senate's then-pending tax overhaul bill than about his report on government waste, he hoofed it back to the rotunda of the Russell Senate building, where he gave one-on-one interviews to several local and national reporters.

Finally, it was off to CNN's Washington Bureau, by car, for a live interview with Wolf Blitzer. After a brief delay, due to a last-minute decision by Sen. Al Franken to speak with reporters about sexual assault allegations, Lankford dutifully and soberly responded to a dozen questions on a half-dozen timely issues.

WATCH: Lankford On The Oklahoma National Guard In Ukraine

"I'm glad to be able to be that voice and try to be able to speak well and represent our state well," Lankford explained.

When Lankford first arrived in Washington, D.C. in 2011 as a freshman Congressman, the former Falls Creek youth camp director was unproven and virtually unknown. Now, less than seven years later, he's moved to the Senate, sits on two powerful committees, and has earned the respect of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

"He is genuinely conservative, deeply conservative, both fiscally, socially, and theologically," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, "and I am not."

WATCH: Sen. Coons Praises Lankford’s Willingness To Listen, Compromise

And yet Sen. Coons says he has developed great admiration for Lankford. The two co-chair the Senate's weekly, bipartisan prayer-breakfast, and Coons has discovered Lankford to be genuine, thoughtful, and intellectual.

WATCH: Sen. Coons, Lankford Forge Positive Bipartisan Relationship

"And when I hear Senator Lankford being interviewed on national television, “stated Sen. Coons, "when I hear him speaking to small groups of Senators, I listen to him because I respect his views."

In a sit-down interview in Mr. Lankford's office, we probed the Senator's views on a number of controversial issues: tax reform, the deficit, and government waste. He also spoke at length about Russian meddling in the election, which he says is not fake news.

WATCH: Lankford On Tax Reform Legislation 

"The Russians were trying to engage in our election," Sen. Lankford said, without hesitation. "Now there's no evidence that they affected the outcome of the election, and there's been lots of conversation and lots of research on it, but they were certainly trying to engage in our election, and they were actively working on multiple campaigns."

WATCH: Lankford On Russian Meddling In 2016 Election

News 9 asked Lankford if Russian President Vladimir Putin was aware of these efforts.

"I can't imagine that Vladimir Putin is not aware of exactly what his own government is doing," Lankford said, "I can't imagine he would not be aware of that, but I will tell you this is something I want Americans to be aware of."

WATCH: Lankford On Seriousness Of Russia’s Actions

WATCH: Lankford On Response To Russia’s Attempts To Probe State Elections

Lankford says the sort of inflammatory rhetoric that has been used to downplay the issue of Russian meddling is a problem of its own. He says the rhetoric in Washington is loud, divisive, and destructive.

WATCH: Lankford On The Need To Tone Down Partisan Rhetoric

"There are areas of common ground here, but if things have become so spiteful and hateful that you can't work together on the areas of common ground," Lankford noted, "it doesn't help us as Oklahomans; it doesn't help us as Americans."

Lankford's goal of getting more lawmakers to talk to each other and not past each other has not gone unnoticed.

"Here's a guy who lives what he believes," said Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, "and doesn't have to preach at you to demonstrate that -- you just have to watch what he does."

WATCH: Sen. Scott Praises Lankford’s Approach In Congress

Sen. Tim Scott says he watched, as Lankford came, unbidden, to Scott's hometown of Charleston in 2015 to attend the funerals of the victims in the devastating church shooting. He says Lankford stayed at his home and provided a ready ear and emotional support.

"Something you never forget," said Sen. Scott, his eyes welling up, "people that were there when it counted the most and when it was the most painful, and not to give advice, but just to be there with you."

WATCH: Sen. Scott Comments On Lankford And Race Relations

Sen. Scott says Lankford's decency and civility -- so badly needed right now -- have fueled Lankford's rise in popularity.

"And from my perspective," said Scott, "if we're looking for credible leaders of the future, look no further than James Lankford."

Senator Lankford says such talk is flattering, but he's very content where he is right now, and hopes to be able to continue in the Senate.

"There's a long-running joke that every Senator wakes up every morning, looks in the mirror and sees a future president," smiled Sen. Lankford. "I don't; I see a redhead."