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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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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-together sponsored by a Republican women's group. She waits in the car for a few minutes, enjoying the air conditioning and thinking about her family.

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.

CONTRIBUTING: Staff Writer John Estus


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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