The Republican woman who wants to be Oklahoma's next governor is already the state's lady of firsts.
Sixteen years ago, Mary Fallin, then a little known state representative, was the first woman elected state lieutenant governor. And in 2006, she became the first woman elected to Congress from Oklahoma in 86 years.
But the 55-year-old, two-term congresswoman insists her quest for state government's highest elected office isn't even remotely about claiming another first--Oklahoma's first female governor.
"I care deeply about the future of our state," she said, attempting to explain why she wants to be governor given the state's dire fiscal and migraine-inducing budget. "I care about our people. I know we can do better."
If Las Vegas were setting odds nearly nine months before general election day, Fallin would doubtless be viewed as a prohibitive favorite. Fallin hasn't officially announced her candidacy for governor, but she's expected to make it official at the end of March.
Her only significant primary opponent so far is an ultra-conservative state senator from Owasso who's little known statewide. Moreover, an early statewide poll reveals she owns a commanding lead in the primary race for her party's nomination and an edge statewide over either of the leading Democratic contenders. Finally, she's making her bid for history in a mid-term election cycle that typically favors the party out of power in Washington.
A coronation in the making?
"I am not taking this race for granted," Fallin told supporters recently during a campaign swing through Enid, a historically Republican stronghold in northwestern Oklahoma. "The biggest risk I face is for people to think it's a done deal and not to get out and work for me."
Indeed, most political analysts--including Republican insiders--not only warn it's way too early to declare anyone a shoe-in, but also note that early polls often prove meaningless, reflecting little more than party allegiance and name recognition long before most voters even begin to size up the field.
As much as anything, Fallin's front-runner status in early polls might be explained by the state's nearly half-century march from solidly Democratic to the reddest state in the union--Oklahoma hasn't supported a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and all 77 counties went for Republican John McCain over Democrat Barack Obama in 2008. Republicans took control of the state House in 2004 and the Senate in 2008. They've expanded their House majority in elections ever since.
Still, Democrats have continued to dominate most statewide offices--and have played even with Republicans in the gubernatorial sweepstakes the past 24 years: Republican Henry Bellmon was followed by Democrat David Walters who was succeeded by Republican Frank Keating who was replaced by Democrat Brad Henry.
As one GOP pundit noted, the already emerging conventional wisdom is Republicans "will run the table in 2010" in Oklahoma. But history suggests any GOP claim to gubernatorial destiny might be no more certain than that of then-U.S. Rep. Steve Largent eight years ago. A football legend with movie star looks, Largent was a heavy favorite who was knocked out by a little-known, upstart state senator from Shawnee, Democrat Brad Henry.
One more possible hurdle: Oklahomans haven't elected a sitting U.S. House member as governor since William H. "Alfalfa Bill" Murray in 1930. Most recently, three congressmen--Wes Watkins (1990), Largent and Ernest Istook in 2006--tried, but failed to make the move from Congress to the Governor's Mansion.
The Start of the Trail
For a front-running candidate, Fallin is an unusual mixture of known quantity and blank canvass, a combination that could be both a blessing and a curse.
The daughter of old guard, conservative Oklahoma Democrats --both of whom served as mayor of Tecumseh, where she grew up--Fallin first registered as Democrat, like her parents, but transitioned to the GOP while a student at Oklahoma State University.
It was a political makeover that proved especially difficult for her father to swallow, though she notes her mother eventually made the switch, too.
After several years as a state employee for the Oklahoma Department of Securities--her mother was a long-time Department of Human Services supervisor--and in hotel management in Oklahoma City, Fallin said she became increasingly aggravated with what she viewed as the Democratic-dominated Legislature's anti-business proclivities. So, she decided to run for state House--and she won, serving two terms representing a northwest Oklahoma City district as one of a very few Republicans in the Legislature at that time.
In 1994, the same year Republican Frank Keating was elected governor, Fallin captured the first of three, four-year terms in the mostly ceremonial position of lieutenant governor, before capturing her current seat in Congress after surviving a six-candidate Republican primary that included Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett.
None of the three offices Fallin has held were necessarily tailor-made for an ambitious elected official looking to create a legacy of achievement--or even make an occasional splash.
Although she emphasizes she passed 16 bills during her two terms in the state House, the reality is lawmakers in the minority party are routinely thwarted from engineering significant legislation. Similarly, her arrival in Congress coincided with Republican losses nationally that gave Democrats increasing majorities in both the U.S. House and Senate.
During her 12 years as lieutenant governor, Fallin mostly spent her time promoting state tourism, small business issues and an anti-union measure known as right-to-work. But she might be best remembered for a nasty divorce from dentist Joseph Fallin that spilled into the headlines and for a failed gambit to take control of the Senate and force a vote on workers compensation reform.
In 1998, Fallin was accused of an extramarital affair with State Trooper Greg Allen serving as her bodyguard. She denied the allegation, but the accused state trooper resigned. He later was reinstated and transferred to other duties. Fallin remarried Edmond attorney Wade Christensen late last year.
The Senate battle over workers' comp reform lasted about a week in 2005, but the lasting image, if any, is of Fallin sitting in the Senate president's chair, trying without success to force a vote. The Democratic majority vanished, denying the quorum necessary to conduct any Senate business. Both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate conceded the showdown was a low point.
As a result, Fallin enjoys statewide name recognition, political analysts said, but just what she stands for and what she's accomplished during nearly two decades in public office might be fuzzy to many potential voters.
Charting the Course
"What does the astute reader of the news know about her?" asked Dr. Bob Darcy, a veteran Oklahoma State University political science professor and political analyst for public radio's KOSU-FM. "The answer is very, very little.
"We haven't seen Mary Fallin in the rough and tumble of politics, and we don't have a real idea who she is."
Fallin's congressional campaign advertising stressed her devotion to faith, freedom and family. Her gubernatorial strategy is strikingly similar, as she frequently invokes her "Oklahoma values" and scorns the Washington elite, warning repeatedly against a federal government "takeover" of health care and its encroachment into states' rights and personal liberties.
"I am thrilled to be back in Oklahoma," she told an AMBUCS civic club luncheon at Northern Oklahoma College-Enid. "I had to go back to Washington, D.C. to vote very quickly this week but any time I can hurry right back to Oklahoma it's a good day. Our people here in Oklahoma are a little bit different than those folks up in D.C."
Later in the day, she noted, "The American people are mad. They're very concerned. They don't like deficit spending. They don't want more taxes. They need a job. They want to make their own decisions about health care. They don't want some federal bureaucrat in D.C. making that decision. They're fighting mad."
There seems little doubt that Fallin will be able to raise enough money to sell her strengths as she sees them--she raised more than $313,000 in the last quarter of 2009 for her gubernatorial campaign and has more than half a million dollars available in her campaign account.
The question is whether her opponents will have enough money to help define her in less flattering terms.
The top Democratic contenders, Attorney General Drew Edmondson and Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, are sitting on more than $900,000 and nearly $500,000, respectively. But Fallin's top primary foe, state Sen. Randy Brogdon of Owasso, raised only $31,450 in the last quarter and reported only $45,860 left in his campaign account.
While Fallin is running a more traditional, structured and professionally staffed campaign, political analysts say, Brogdon's campaign is more reliant on volunteers. While he's leased some billboard space to raise his profile, he's engaged in a shoe-leather campaign--showing up at candidate forums, Republican meetings and local parades across the state--and a cyber campaign.
In fact, a recent e-mail he sent to supports sketches out what he sees as the real differences between himself and Fallin, working to depict her as a creature of Washington and an establishment insider in an election year in which the most energy seems to be generated so far by anti-establishment Tea Party activists.
Of course, Brogdon himself is a political insider--a two-term state senator and former elected city official. But it's clear he sees a possible vulnerability in Fallin's two-decade elective career and her campaign treasury swelling with a Who's Who of traditional GOP insiders.
"Too often," Brogdon noted in his e-mail, "elected officials take on the characteristics of their surroundings, not only their allies but also their foes. They learn to speak the political two-step to shield their actions in Congress (and) form their own words in their home district."
Brogdon cited a "stark contrast" between his and Fallin's views "on the role federal government should command in our lives." Fallin, he noted, voted for the financial bailout, while "I have consistently been against the bailout.
"As a business owner for over 30 years, I recognized the devastating attack the bailout would have on the free market and jobs. Because of her vote and the vote of many of her Washington colleagues, the Federal Government seized control and ownership of financial, banking and automobile companies around the country."
Moreover, he wrote, Fallin voted against the federal stimulus plan but then "requested and received millions of dollars of earmarks after it passed. The irresponsible spending of billions of dollars from the stimulus package has created a tremendous debt and put our economic future at risk."
Almost immediately, Fallin's campaign sought to bolster its conservative bonafides with an Internet barrage of its own, tweeting (that's Twitter-speak for the popular social network) that she has received a 100 percent rating from the fundamentalist Family Research Council, a 90 percent rating from the anti-abortion Eagle Forum and a lifelong 96 score from the American Conservative Union--highest in the Oklahoma delegation.
In a traditionally low turnout Republican primary, where energized groups like the Tea Partiers can play an outsized role, it is vital, experts say, that Fallin is viewed as being in touch with the concerns of average Oklahomans and not tarred as a creature of the state GOP or Washington elite.
Charging the Helm
In her dark blue business suit and heels, Fallin's attire stands in contrast to the more casually dressed members of her audiences at three Enid events. But she weaves folksy personal stories and observations into her standard stump speech that are clearly designed to connect with everyday Oklahomans.
"I have six children between my husband and I, and one of my No. 1 goals is to make sure they can all get a job, so I don't have to support 'em," she said, drawing more than a few guffaws. "I think probably all of you share that same goal."
At the AMBUCS luncheon, one man prefaced his question by saying, "The other night I saw Sarah Palin being interviewed by Sean Hannity and the night before it was by Glenn Beck. You sound a lot like Sarah Palin."
As the packed ballroom erupted in laughter, Fallin said, "Is that a compliment? So does that mean I'm smart and she's smart or she's dumb and I'm dumb?"
How Fallin and the other gubernatorial contenders are perceived by voters is no small matter, according to longtime Republican political consultant Neva Hill.
"Perceptually, people still see the governor as the leader of the state--they set the tone, they set the stage and they set the vision," Hill said. "When we're in rough seas people instinctively begin to think about that.
"Generally, they want someone who reflects their core values," she said, describing it as the "likeability factor. They (voters) don't care about the details. They're not policy wonks."
Some Republican activists are grumbling privately that Fallin has steered clear of joint appearances. They suspect she has concluded it makes no sense for her as the clear front-runner to put herself on the same stage as Brogdon, a setting that could elevate his status in the public's mind and create unnecessary opportunities for a game-changing flub on her part.
Fallin has said her congressional duties prevented her attendance so far at joint appearances, some of which have included Brogdon, Edmondson and Askins. What really seems to have upset some GOP insiders, though, is that she declined an invitation to attend the party's recent 2nd Congressional District convention. Brogdon accepted and appeared.
"These are the Republican activists, these are the leaders in those counties," said Charlie Meadows, who heads the 12-year-old Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee, which has raised more than $100,000 in support of conservative candidates throughout the years, hosts weekly luncheons at an Italian restaurant near the state Capitol, has more than 200 dues-paying members and a weekly update sent to about 3,000 e-mail addresses.
"There's a risk to not getting out and working hard, there's a risk to not showing up."
Fallin, though, promised supporters in Enid that "you won't find anybody that'll work harder than I will. I will work extremely hard. I will give it 100 percent. I've dedicated almost 20 years of my life now to public service, and I love Oklahoma, and I want to do everything I can to make sure that Oklahoma is successful."
Some GOP insiders said they have no doubt about Fallin's commitment, convinced she's had her eyes on the governor's seat for a decade, if not longer. In fact, it's conventional wisdom within Republican circles that Fallin was dissuaded from entering the governor's race in 2002--the first time she gave it serious thought--to create a clear path for Largent. This time, Fallin would not be buffaloed, saying she was committed to the race even though former congressman and Corporation Commissioner J.C. Watts and current U.S. Rep. Tom Cole were both considering jumping in. In the end, they blinked, and Fallin remained the front-runner.
Fallin said the next governor's "No. 1 responsibility is to focus on jobs, jobs and jobs" by sending the signal that Oklahoma is "ready and open for business" with the "best and brightest educated work force."
She supports the state Chamber of Commerce's top goal--workers compensation reform--and pledges to raise educational standards. She also vows to be the "best business-recruiter-in-chief possible."
With the state forced to cut nearly $1 billion from this year's budget and facing a $1.6 billion hole next year, Fallin also concedes the next governor "will have to make some tough choices when it comes to spending."
State revenues have plummeted because of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, sagging energy prices that caused gross production tax revenues to tank and $771 million in state income tax cuts approved by lawmakers and signed into law by Gov. Henry.
"I'm going to be asking a lot of questions of our state agencies and our state employees," she said. "I think it's important that we provide the essential services to meet the needs of our citizens.
"I frankly think that we should make targeted cuts, that we shouldn't just do across-the-board cuts, that we should look agency by agency, issue by issue, population by population and see where we can do the least harm to people and their lives."
Fallin said she's not "scared of the challenge" because she's now lived through three boom-and-bust cycles in Oklahoma during her adult years.
"I've had to make tough decisions," she said. "I've had to work with the Legislature, Republicans and Democrats; I've worked in minorities--hopefully I'll have a chance to work with a majority. I know how to work both sides of the aisle. I know the state agencies very well. I know the state very well.
"I think I represent the common sense values that are important to Oklahomans and can help lead Oklahoma through a challenging time into a better future."
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