Monday, May 6, 2013
By M. Scott Carter, Journal Record Capitol bureau reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY – Twice, Mary Fallin has made history. Twice, she changed the world of Oklahoma politics.
In 1994 Fallin, a Republican state representative from Oklahoma City, defied the odds and the GOP establishment and was elected as Oklahoma’s first female lieutenant governor. Fallin had served two terms as a state representative before seeking the lieutenant governor’s office.
Although she hadn’t initially set her sights on a political career, politics seemed to find her.
“I didn’t grow up as a child thinking I’d go into politics,” she said. “It never crossed my mind.”
The daughter of two Democrats who both worked for the state, Fallin grew up watching her parents serve in public office. Her father was elected mayor of Tecumseh. Then, following his death, her mother was appointed to the post.
“From my parents I learned the importance of serving the community,” the governor said.
She also learned campaign and networking skills. Even though she and her parents were members of different political parties, Fallin credited her early exposure to politics as the foundation to a future career.
“I initially registered as a Democrat right out of high school,” she said. “That’s what my parents said to do.”
During that time Fallin traveled with her father, who was assisting in the campaign of a dark-horse state representative seeking the office of governor – David Boren.
“Dad was campaigning for David Boren and he took me to meet him when I was a freshman in college,” she said.
With the example of candidates such as Boren – and her parents – Fallin ventured lightly into politics during college. A student at Oklahoma Baptist University, and later Oklahoma State University, Fallin said she felt more at home with the Republican platform.
“When I was in college, I compared the platforms and saw that I agreed more with the Republicans,” she said.
When Fallin informed her father that she was switching political parties, however, Tecumseh’s mayor was not amused.
“He actually got mad at me,” she said. “He said something like, ‘Well, if that’s what you want to do.’”
After finishing college, Fallin spent time in the private sector. By the time she’d reached her 30s, she said, she was a working mother. She and her husband, Joe, were raising a family.
In 1990, Fallin had decided to run for the Oklahoma House of Representatives. She said she ventured into politics because of the passage of House Bill 1017, a mammoth reform package of the state’s educational system, spawned by an advisory committee created by then-Gov. Henry Bellmon. Bellmon, finishing his second term as governor, worked with the Legislature’s Democratic leadership during the 1990 legislative session to pass the controversial bill.
“House Bill 1017, the education bill, got me interested in running for public office,” she said.
Education reform wasn’t the only issue.
Fallin said the trips she made to workers’ compensation court also motivated her to consider politics. However, even though she’d embraced the Republican ideas of smaller government and few taxes, many conservatives weren’t sure about the feisty, blonde, 35-year-old mother. Her critics grew even more vocal when they learned Fallin was pregnant – and running for office.
“There were some people who didn’t think a pregnant woman should run for office,” she said.
Fallin remained in the race, delivering her son, Price, between the August runoff and the November general election.
To the surprise of many, she won.
Fallin served in the House from 1990 to 1994. Fallin would serve three terms as the state’s second-in-command, often pushing hard against the Democratic-controlled Senate on issues she thought were important. Her tenure would take place during the administration of Republican Frank Keating. Following the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing, Fallin led the effort to rebuild the day-care center lost in the blast.
Fallin also began speaking out on business issues and advocated a now-familiar theme – smaller government, less regulation.
In 2006, she announced she would seek the GOP nomination for Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional seat. As she had in four previous elections, she won.
Four years later, Fallin would return to Oklahoma to run for governor. Once again, she would win, making history as the first woman elected as the state’s CEO.
“It was a great honor to serve in Congress, but I’m thrilled to be back in Oklahoma,” she said. “There is so much gridlock and partisan fighting there that it’s hard to get things done. Oklahoma isn’t like that. Here we work together.”
Her agenda has a familiar ring – advocating for business, less tax and regulation and a small footprint by government.
Since she’s served as the state’s chief executive, Fallin has called on the Legislature to lower taxes and reduce the size of government. She’s also pushed for more authority for the governor’s office, urged the passage of anti-smoking legislation and supported increased funding for mental health services.
In many areas Fallin has been successful. Her call for an income tax reduction was successful this year and many priorities of the governor’s budget were adopted by Oklahoma’s Republican-controlled Legislature.
However, a few of the governor’s agenda items – including one that affected her deeply – didn’t fare as well. In March, a bill to allow communities greater regulation of tobacco products failed to clear a Senate committee. Fallin, visibly disappointed by the bill’s defeat, quickly responded by launching an initiative petition to change the law.
The defeat was personal.
“Both of my parents were smokers,” she said. “Both died early. My father never got to see me elected to public office. For me, smoking hits close to home. Because of that, I want to do everything I can to help educate people about how they can take care of themselves. I know it’s not traditional for a governor to talk about health like that, but I’m going to continue to push about how important the need for good health is.”
Other proposals, including several that would give the governor more authority to appoint the executive directors of state agencies, also died in committee.
Fallin said she – or any governor – needed more authority to correct problems when they occurred in executive branch agencies. Oklahoma’s populist constitution, political experts said, limited the governor’s authority over the executive branch.
“The governor is elected statewide,” she said, “and I think it’s important for a governor to represent the state as a whole. To do that, the governor has to be able to make changes in an agency and has to be able to improve it. Many times my hands are tied. When a commission appoints the director of an agency, the governor can’t make changes when they see the agency heading down the wrong path.”
She said problems with the state’s veterans system were the perfect example of why the governor needs more authority.
“It’s been frustrating to me that I have little authority there,” she said. “The War Veterans Commission has the sole authority to approve the veterans director, but there are things I’d like to do that have been highlighted through a state audit. But right now, my hands are tied if I can’t make those changes.”
Although Fallin has great respect for the Oklahoma Legislature, she said state lawmakers don’t operate with the same information that a governor does.
“They are just there at the Capitol during the four months per year they are in session,” she said. “But my job as governor is 12 months per year. Working with agencies and commissions never ends. As governor, I have better information and a good grasp of the issues. I’m elected by the whole state and it’s me who is held responsible.”
Fallin takes her responsibility seriously. She said Oklahoma faces many problems in its educational system and her goals are simple: raise academic standards, make schools more accountable and continue efforts to improve education and public schools.
“If we don’t do a better job and graduate more kids from high school and college and CareerTech, then we’re not going to have the type of quality workforce that we need,” she said.
She has also called on the higher education system to deliver more college graduates.
“I want to be a change agent,” she said. “I want to see more degreed completion. We have to have a plan of action. We have to make sure that we are following through and not weakening the programs. We need to make sure they’re working.”
Still, even with the issues, the problems and all that is required to serve as governor, Fallin has retained her sense of humor. Asked if it was more difficult for a woman than a man to serve as the state’s governor, Fallin’s reply is pointed – and funny.
“I don’t know, I’ve never been a man,” she said.
True enough. But Fallin also acknowledges the difficulty and the responsibility of making history as the first woman in Oklahoma to serve as governor.
“There will always be some cynics who wonder if a woman can handle the job,” she said. “And from a woman’s standpoint, you have to earn respect. You have to balance a lot of things, probably a little bit more. There are children to raise, and you want to be a good mother or wife at the same time.”
And even with that role, she said, her family understands they are more important than her job.
Though she’s well-liked and easygoing, Fallin has her detractors. Critics – and there are many – praise her interpersonal skills, but have serious questions about her policies.
Democratic state Rep. Joe Dorman said the governor is easy to talk to, but on policy they rarely agree.
“I don’t feel the governor has been involved in policymaking as much as I wish she would have been early on,” Dorman said. “The governor really needs to be more active in discussions with the Legislature or more than just the budget. She should be involved to try and make bills better.”
The governor should let lawmakers know her concerns about bills early in the process, Dorman said, as those bills are working their way through the legislative process instead.
“She’s done a great job being the state’s spokesman, but I’ve been very disappointed in some of her policy decisions,” he said.
The Senate’s minority leader, Democrat Sean Burrage of Claremore, agreed. Fallin, Burrage said, represents the state well and has worked hard to encourage business and industry to come to Oklahoma. But policies such as the governor’s call for a tax cut were not good politics, he said, and not good policy.
“On tax policy, she was too stubborn,” Burrage said. “A more reasonable approach would have been to wait until next year.”
The governor’s worst policy decision, he said, was the decision not to expand Medicaid spending in Oklahoma.
“It may be the worst one she’s made,” he said. “You have an opportunity to provide medical insurance to maybe 200,000 Oklahomans, all the while we continue to take $3 billion per year from Medicaid. We’ve done that for years.”
For her part, Fallin brushes off critiques of her decisions. She said she wants to improve the lives of Oklahomans and understands that sometimes those decisions are unpopular.
“There are always going to be people who disagree with me,” she said. “Heck, in the past I’ve had others tell me I should stay at home and raise children. But I like to think we’ve moved all past that now. I’ve been at this long enough to know that if there’s criticism it’s just part of the job. You’ve got to be thick-skinned. I evaluate the information and make what I think is the best decision. That’s the way I try to approach the job.”
An approach that’s important when you’re Mary Fallin and you’ve already made history twice.
Just being Mary
OKLAHOMA CITY – When she’s not commanding the state’s militia, meeting with an industry executive or cutting deals with a member of the Oklahoma Legislature, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin often goes back to her small-town roots.
She also goes to the lake, particularly Grand Lake.
“Our favorite thing to do is go to the lake,” Fallin said. “My husband and I try to get away each month. We go up to Grand Lake just to have time together. We like to be out on the water, or take walks. Sometimes we read and watch movies.”
Raised in Tecumseh, Fallin has deep roots in the small, central Oklahoma town and she’s not afraid to just be Mary to her friends and family there.
“She’s always been very approachable and easygoing,” said Gloria Trotter, co-publisher and co-editor of the Tecumseh’s Countywide News. “She is so well-known here and she has so many relatives here that’s it’s not a big deal when the governor comes home.”
For Fallin, that small-town connection is as much a part of her background as her history-making elections and her political pedigree.
“I get a lot of inspiration from Oklahomans,” Fallin said.
She also stays in touch. Trotter said Fallin would often call her during her tenure as lieutenant governor just to see what was going on in town.
“She’d call out of the blue and just wanted to talk,” Trotter said. “She kept in touch. Just the other day I sent her a text and she replied. She stays connected.”
Other times, Oklahoma’s governor can also be found in the kitchen – burning cookies.
“My kids tease me about my black-bottomed cookies,” Fallin said. “It’s sort of a family joke.”
The cookies start out OK, but in between the time the batter is placed in the oven, Fallin is often distracted from her baking. On more than one occasion, the cookies have come out with darker-than-normal bottoms.
“We still eat them though,” Fallin said.
Burnt cookies or not, Fallin said she looks for small ways to relax and enjoy time with her family and friends. She said her faith helps. And she looks for opportunities to work in the yard or visit a flea market.
“I found some really cool used furniture at Langley not long ago,” she said. “I brought it back to the lake house and redid it. I’m a hands-on person when it comes to painting and remodeling. If I could spend more time remodeling houses, I’d love doing that.”
Fallin and her husband, Wade Christensen, have six children. – M. Scott Carter