Mary Fallin campaigns on experience, issues and charm

Republican gubernatorial candidate Mary Fallin brings folksy appeal to the governor's race.
BY KEN RAYMOND Modified: September 26, 2010 at 12:26 am •  Published: September 26, 2010
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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 governor.



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.

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