People move out of the way as Mary Fallin approaches. Not far, just enough to form a halo around her, a ring of attentive witnesses who smile and shift nervously, commoners in the presence of a queen.
It happened again just now. Fallin, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, is visiting the Grady County Courthouse, directly across the street from a Chickasha abstract company that is part of her political opponent's family business.
Fallin meets briefly with Court Clerk Sharon Shoemake, then strolls out to the records desk, encircled by her entourage, and stops.
Five workers — four blond women and a brunette, all over 30 — stand on the other side of the counter. They're pressed close together, as if in a police lineup, looking excited and uneasy at the same time.
Takes about three seconds for Fallin to win them over completely.
"Did you make it to the watermelon festival?" Shoemake asks.
"Yes, I did," Fallin says.
"Pretty warm, wasn't it?" The women laugh at this bit of understatement.
Fallin starts talking. There's something magical about the story she tells, although the words are simple, the delivery folksy and unrehearsed.
Sentences rush out, piling onto each other like logs tumbling from a spillway. Parse them out of context, and there's no beauty at all. Listen as they're spoken, though, and you can almost hear barriers breaking. The women are drawn in, charmed.
"I want you to know," Fallin says by way of agreement. "That was the day it was ..."
"A hundred and five," an aide says.
" ... 105 or whatever it was," Fallin continues. "I walked the whole parade. I walked the whole parade! My staff was about to have a fit. They kept running up to me: 'Drink some water. Drink some water.' They were afraid I was going to pass out, but I walked the whole parade."
"Debbie had a horse and wagon in it," Shoemake says, indicating one of the women behind the counter, but Fallin is on a roll now. No time to stop.
"One of the things I like to do," she says, "I just think it's a good thing to do, is I literally walk side to side, talking to all the people on the street, shaking hands. That requires you to keep a really fast pace because you can't get behind your car. I had a truck in the parade with some people, and I literally walked back and forth. I had about 12 volunteers with me, and they were shocked I was going to walk the parade, so when I started walking the parade, they said, 'We'll just go with you.'"
The women laugh, perhaps imagining themselves marching along with Fallin, shaking all those hands.
She brings it home. "So I had all these people out there in 105 degrees. My campaign people were about to have a cow. Or heat stroke." A beat. "It was fun. We had a good time."
By now, the ice hasn't been broken. It's been shattered, melted away, turned to steam. Fallin isn't a fancy legislator anymore. She's not a fat cat politician.
She's one of us.
That might take her all the way to Oklahoma's highest office.
Long distance romance
It's a hot day in Chickasha — not as hot as the day of the watermelon festival parade, but close. Fallin is wearing a turquoise suit, low heels, turquoise earrings, a wristwatch, a bracelet, a beaded necklace and her wedding and engagement rings.
The latter boasts a sparkler somewhere in the range of two carats, and as she walks from the courthouse to a nearby business, the diamond reflects the sunlight like a beacon.
The sun wasn't visible the day she got the ring. That autumn day was rainy, cold and confusing.
After Fallin announced she was running for governor, Edmond attorney D. Wade Christensen called to arrange a meeting. Fallin, who'd known him for years, took it as a campaign stop and pitched Christensen and his business colleagues on her credentials.
"I had no idea he was actually just interested in me as a dating partner," Fallin says.
A few months later, she ran into him at a charity event. Fallin attended alone. He was there with friends. He asked her to dance. She demurred, citing another commitment. He persisted, asking if he could meet her after her appointment. She agreed.
They talked in a restaurant until it closed. Before they parted, they agreed to ride to church together in the morning. They began seeing each other whenever they had time.
Romance wasn't new to Fallin, but it could be awkward. Her schedule required her to be in Washington much of the time, and Christensen hadn't visited the nation's capital in decades. Beyond that, Fallin had experienced firsthand what it was like to have her private life play out in the public arena.
During divorce proceedings in 1998, Fallin was accused of having an affair with her bodyguard, Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper Greg Allen. A private detective hired by Fallin's husband said she had witnessed Fallin and Allen kissing. Both initially denied they'd done anything wrong, but Allen subsequently resigned after admitting to "unprofessional conduct." He was later reinstated, disciplined and reassigned.
More than a decade later, Christensen proposed on a dreary Tuesday in Washington. Fallin, thinking she was heading to the Lincoln Memorial to meet a friend, instead found Christensen waiting for her. He got down on one knee. She said yes.
"My friends and staff weren't terribly shocked," Fallin says. "My children were shocked because Mommy had been single for so long. Everyone was very happy."
They got married a few weeks later on Nov. 21.
The marriage produced a blended family. Fallin has two children from her previous marriage; Christensen has four. Among the children is Fallin's adult daughter, Christina M. Fallin, a senior at the University of Oklahoma who works as a lobbyist. The younger Fallin likely will be regarded as one of Oklahoma's most influential lobbyists if her mother wins the election.
When this is pointed out to Fallin, she offers a circumspect reply.
"If I have an opportunity to serve as governor and she's still in that profession ...," Fallin says, then pauses. "We'll have to have a long talk about it."
Candidate has tea party appeal
Fallin's folksy appeal invites comparisons to Sarah Palin, who endorsed Fallin in June.
"Palin is a conservative hero," Fallin said then. "If anyone has taken a stand against big government, big spending and the Washington elite, it's her. We're honored to have her support and ready to join Sarah and conservatives everywhere in taking back Oklahoma and taking back the country."
The affinity between the women is understandable. Fallin, who helped unfurl a "Don't Tread on Me" banner at a tea party rally in Washington, voted almost exclusively along party lines during her four years in Congress.
GovTrack.us, a website that compiles statistics on House and Senate members, rates her as a "far-right Republican" and a "follower," meaning she co-sponsored bills of House members who didn't return the favor.
As a freshman congresswoman in the minority party, she had little chance to make a splash in Washington. But at least four of the nine bills she sponsored were of little consequence, including resolutions to recognize Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford for winning the Heisman Trophy, remember the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing and commend the Oklahoma National Guard for modernizing agricultural practices in Afghanistan.
She is the first Republican and the first woman to become Oklahoma's lieutenant governor and the first Oklahoma woman to win a congressional seat since 1920. (Alice Mary Robertson, who won the 1920 election, ran on a platform that sounds familiar today: "I am a Christian. I am an American. I am a Republican.") Either Fallin or her opponent, Democratic Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, will be the state's first female
Fallin's parents were conservative Democrats, and she registered as a Democrat when she came of age, she says, "because my mother and father said that's what everyone did." Her father, Newt Copeland, was elected as Tecumseh's mayor when Fallin was in college. After a long tenure, he died in office in 1983, and his wife, Mary Jo Copeland, was appointed to replace him. She died in 2005.
Fallin had grown up in Tecumseh, where she says she was a "very clean-cut girl" who "didn't even drink or party." Although she was president of the pep squad and an officer in her senior class at Tecumseh High School, she says she was too bashful to try out for cheerleading. Instead, she played basketball, volleyball and softball, making all-county as a shortstop. Her political interest was piqued when she served as a page in the state House as a senior.
She attended Oklahoma Baptist University for two years, commuting from her parents' home in a green Cutlass with a white vinyl top, before switching to Oklahoma State University. She earned a bachelor of sciences degree in human environmental sciences, focusing on family relations and child development.
She became a Republican while at OSU. She says she compared the Democratic and Republican platforms and realized that her views were more in line with the GOP, a realization that only strengthened as she became a career woman. She worked in the Oklahoma Department of Securities and in hotel management before running for the state House in 1990. She was elected and served two terms.
In 1994, Fallin was elected lieutenant governor, a job she retained for 12 years. Her official biography lists a number of boards and commissions upon which she served and says she "championed the case of small businesses in Oklahoma by fighting the rising costs of health insurance and excessive government regulation." Fallin distinguished herself mainly by wielding the lieutenant governor's limited authority as president of the state Senate; she forced a vote on Right to Work in 2000 and tried to force a vote on workers' compensation reform in 2005.
One of the most intriguing aspects of her political career is something she didn't do. In 2002, when Gov. Frank Keating was term limited from running again, many political observers expected Fallin to seek the governorship. Instead, she backed out to allow Steve Largent, a former professional football player from Tulsa, an easier run at the Republican nomination. Largent, a prohibitive favorite, narrowly lost to Brad Henry, a Democratic state senator from Shawnee, in a three-way race that included an independent candidate.
Fallin prefers not to talk about 2002.
"The past is the past," she says, "and my focus is strictly on the future itself. From a personal standpoint, this is a better time for me to run for governor. I'm very excited that we have conservative leadership in the House and Senate. Having a conservative governor would give us the opportunity to enact some needed reforms."
Big money, long campaign
Before leaving Chickasha, Fallin swings by the Canadian Valley Technology Center for a get-
For years, she was a single mother, juggling a demanding career with the needs of her son and daughter. Now she has a husband, four stepchildren and a vastly improved financial situation.
In 2006, her last year as lieutenant governor, Fallin's salary was $85,500 — the only income she reported to the state Ethics Commission.
Between calendar years 2007 and 2009, when she was in Congress, she earned an average of $193,600 per year, according to personal tax returns provided by her campaign. The money came from her $174,000 salary, a rent house and small investment gains, according to U.S. House records.
Marrying Christensen provided more than emotional benefits. Fallin's assets jumped from less than $110,000 in 2008 to between $1.7 million and $6.6 million in 2009, when she got married, U.S. House financial disclosure statements show.
Christensen has a farm in Custer and Blaine counties that made between $100,000 and $1 million last year, according to a disclosure statement. Fallin is now a partner in the farm, which is valued in the statement between $1 million and $5 million.
She also shares in her husband's investments in mutual funds and money markets and lives in his 4,000-square-foot home in Edmond, which is valued at $416,000.
On Sundays, the blended family gathers at that house to cook out and talk. Christensen does much of the cooking, grilling hamburgers and steaks a few times a week.
"I've introduced him to a Crockpot and how you can turn that on in the morning and have food ready when you get home at night," Fallin says. "We've been making homemade ice cream. Our children enjoy that, and we do, too, although it's not good for our waistlines. I'm just trying to do what parents do."
But few parents are greeted with applause when they enter buildings, and fewer still bear the burden of expectations that Fallin — and Askins — carry. The eyes that turn toward them with admiration are also filled with hope and fear.
Inside the vocational technology center, Fallin stands in front of 30 or so people, all of them white and most over 50. Several wear yellow T-shirts identifying them as members of the Grady County Tea Party group. (Although Fallin actively courts tea party voters, she stops short of saying she is part of the movement. "I consider myself just to be a conservative," she says later. "I hope I'm conservative for all the people, whether it's Republicans, Democrats or independents. Or tea party people.")
Fallin talks for about 14 minutes, saying that the economy is her top priority: creating new jobs and attracting employers to Oklahoma. She touches on education (less administration, more teaching), the budget, her conservative voting record, her biography and the importance of small business in rural communities.
"I saw a poll not too long ago that asked our citizens around America if they thought our nation was on the right track or the wrong track," she says, "and unfortunately a larger percentage of our nation feels that America is on the wrong track ..."
"Amen," a man in the front row grumbles.
" ... with the debt and the deficit and the public policies that we're seeing coming out of Washington, D.C.," she continues, weaving a series of buzzwords into one remarkably complex sentence, "with the takeover of our health care system — we're moving more toward a universal, socialized type health care system — with the taxes we're seeing out of Washington, D.C., with the threats to our Constitution, our states' rights, interference with various business entities and interests, so a lot of people are concerned about where we're going as a nation, and I believe it's the governors who are going to get us back on track."
When she expresses admiration for Arizona's tough immigration laws and Gov. Jan Brewer, applause breaks out. It's not the loudest ovation, though. That one comes a little later.
"I've had some people ask me the major difference between me and the other person in this race," she says. "I'll give you one very core difference. There's several policy differences between the two of us, but one key difference between us: I did not vote for Barack Obama."
Amid the clapping and laughter that follows, a man's voice bellows: "Somebody did!"
"So you can have a governor that understands Barack Obama's way is not good for Oklahoma," Fallin says, "or you can have one that will follow him lock and step. I'm not going to be that person."
"You can't spend your way out of debt," the man says, identifying himself as a farmer.
"Amen," Fallin agrees. "You can't borrow, tax and spend your way to prosperity. That's the Washington way."
This is the Fallin way. Finished talking, she remains in the front of the room until she has shaken every hand and listened to every compliment, complaint and concern. An aide drives her home. Tomorrow she'll be up early again for meetings at her Oklahoma City campaign headquarters. Then it'll be off to another city, another town. More handshakes. More talking.
Conversation with Mary Fallin
Q: Red or blue?
A: Red. That is my campaign color, and it's one of my favorite colors. And it's a power color.
Q: Book or movie?
A: Watching a movie might be more relaxing. It's something I could do with my husband and family.
Q: Steak or tofu?
A: Being a rural Oklahoma girl and my husband growing up on a farm, we like steak.
Q: Home or away?
A: I'd rather be home any day with my husband and my children. I try to spend as much time as I can at home. We love to have our family Sunday dinners. In fact, last Sunday, we made some homemade ice cream and chocolate chip cookies.
Q: "Mad Men" or "The Office?"
A: Are those TV shows? I actually have not seen either one of them. Wait, is "The Office" that show where everyone talks so funny? ... That was on last night. I have watched "The Office." I don't particularly like it.
Q: "Twilight" or Harry Potter?
A: I don't care for that Harry Potter at all. Twilight? Is that like "The Twilight Zone?"
Q: No, it's more about vampires.
A: Oh, I don't care for vampires, either.
Q: Football or soccer?
A: Football. ... We spend a lot of Friday nights at football games, and I love to go to OU and OSU football games, too.
Q: Beer or wine?
A: How 'bout margaritas?
Q: Frozen or on the rocks?
A: On the rocks. I don't like to have a brain freeze.
Q: Creation or evolution?
A: I believe in creation.
Q: Science or religion?
A: I am a woman of faith, and my faith is very important to me. It's a daily part of my life. So religion and preserving our freedom of religion is a very important value to me as a public official. That's standing up for our constitution.
Q: Along those lines, what do you think about the controversy over the so-called ground zero mosque?
A: I think they shouldn't build a mosque close to the 9/11 grounds because it's a place where many Americans lost their lives in a huge tragedy for our nation. I think it's insensitive.