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Former US Sen. Jim Inhofe, defense hawk who called human-caused climate change a 'hoax,' dies at 89

OKLAHOMA CITY — (AP) — Former Sen. Jim Inhofe, a conservative known for his strong support of defense spending and his denial that human activity is responsible for the bulk of climate change, has died. He was 89.

Inhofe, a powerful fixture in Oklahoma politics for over six decades, died Tuesday morning after suffering a stroke during the July Fourth holiday, his family said in a statement.

Inhofe, a Republican who underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery in 2013 before being elected to a fourth term, was elected to a fifth Senate term in 2020, before stepping down in early 2023.

Inhofe frequently criticized the mainstream science that human activity contributed to changes in the Earth’s climate, once calling it “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

In February 2015, with temperatures in the nation’s capital below freezing, Inhofe brought a snowball on to the Senate floor. He tossed it before claiming that environmentalists focus attention on global warming as it kept getting cold.

As Oklahoma's senior U.S. senator, Inhofe was a staunch supporter of the state’s five military installations and a vocal fan of congressional earmarks. The Army veteran and licensed pilot, who would fly himself to and from Washington, secured federal money to fund local road and bridge projects, and criticized House Republicans who wanted a one-year moratorium on such pet projects in 2010.

"Defeating an earmark doesn't save a nickel," Inhofe told the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce that August. “It merely means that within the budget process, it goes right back to the bureaucracy.”

He was a strong backer of President Donald Trump, who praised him for his “incredible support of our #MAGA agenda” while endorsing the senator’s 2020 reelection bid. During the Trump administration, Inhofe served as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee following the death of Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called Inhofe a good friend whose work benefited all the nation.

“Jim’s diligent stewardship of massive infrastructure projects transformed life across the Heartland,” McConnell said in a statement. “His relentless advocacy for American energy dominance unlocked new prosperity across the country and his laser focus on growing and modernizing the U.S. military strengthened the security of the entire free world.”

Republican Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford called Inhofe a “true patriot” and an “institution.

“His passion for our military, aviation, energy, infrastructure, Africa, and our personal freedom was vital for our state and our nation,” Lankford said in a statement.

In Oklahoma, Inhofe helped secure millions of dollars to clean up a former mining hub that spent decades on the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list. In a massive buyout program, the federal government purchased homes and businesses within the 40-square-mile (104-square-kilometer) region of Tar Creek, where children consistently tested for dangerous levels of lead in their blood.

Inhofe championed veterans and firmly believed in the “American Dream,” said Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, who ordered flags on state property to fly at half staff through Wednesday.

In 2021, Inhofe defied some in his party by voting to certify Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election, saying that to do otherwise would violate his oath of office to support and defend the Constitution. He voted against convicting Trump at both of his impeachment trials.

Born James Mountain Inhofe on Nov. 17, 1934, in Des Moines, Iowa, Inhofe grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and received a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Tulsa in 1959. He served in the Army between 1956 and 1958, and was a businessman for three decades.

He won legislative seats in the ’60s and unsuccessfully ran for governor and Congress in the ’70s. In 1978, he became Tulsa’s mayor, and held the job for three terms.

Inhofe went on to win two terms in the U.S. House in the 1980s before winning a bitter U.S. Senate race in 1994. He would be reelected five times.

Former longtime Democratic Sen. David Boren said he and Inhofe worked together in a bipartisan manner when both were in the state Legislature. He later defeated Inhofe in a race for governor.

“While we ran against each other for governor, we were opponents but never enemies and remained friends,” Boren said in a statement. “I hope we can rebuild that spirit in American politics.”

Inhofe lived up to his reputation as a tough campaigner in his 2008 reelection bid against Democrat Andrew Rice, a 35-year-old state senator and former missionary. Inhofe claimed Rice was “too liberal” for Oklahoma and ran television ads that critics said contained anti-gay overtones, including one that showed a wedding cake topped by two plastic grooms.

Inhofe’s bullish personality also was apparent outside politics. He was a commercial-rated pilot and flight instructor with more than 50 years of flying experience.

He made an emergency landing in Claremore in 1999, after his plane lost a propeller, an incident later blamed on an installation error. In 2006, his plane spun out of control upon landing in Tulsa; he and an aide escaped injury, though the plane was severely damaged.

In 2010, Inhofe landed his small plane on a closed runway at a rural South Texas airport while flying himself and others to South Padre Island. Runway workers scrambled, and Inhofe agreed to complete a remedial training program rather than face possible legal action.

"I'm 75 years old, but I still fly airplanes upside down," Inhofe said in August 2010.

He later sponsored legislation that expanded the rights of pilots when dealing with Federal Aviation Administration disciplinary proceedings.

In 2016 Inhofe, then 81, walked away from a forced landing during severe weather in northeastern Oklahoma.

Inhofe is survived by his wife, Kay, three children and several grandchildren. A son, Dr. Perry Dyson Inhofe II, died in November 2013, when the twin-engine aircraft he was flying crashed near Tulsa International Airport.

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Retired Associated Press journalist Tim Talley was the principal writer of this obituary.

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