In March 2010, Mary Fallin was a tea party hero, marching from her congressional office to the Capitol on a sunny Sunday afternoon to vote against the health care reform bill known as Obamacare. She paused to speak to a huge gathering of protesters on the Capitol grounds — the roots of a political movement that saw the health care bill as a gross intrusion of the federal government into private lives.
A year later, Fallin was the new governor of Oklahoma and dealing with those same forces from a different perspective.
Just weeks into her administration, she was confronted with the issue of whether to accept a $54 million grant to establish a key part of the bill she opposed — an online exchange, or marketplace, for purchasing private health insurance plans.
Separately, but simultaneously, she was pushing legislation related to the exchange.
She and her top aides had adopted what they considered a pragmatic approach: If Oklahoma didn't set up its own exchange, the federal government would force one on the state. And, at a time of budget shortfalls, the state could use the federal grant to do the work it would have to do anyway since Obamacare was the law of the land.
What they found out, quickly, was that the anti-Obamacare people in Oklahoma — and that included not just tea party organizers but established conservative voices — saw her pragmatism as surrender.
Indeed, almost a year to the day that Fallin voted against Obamacare in Washington, anti-Obamacare protesters targeted her at a speech she delivered in Tulsa.
Emails released by the governor's office show the struggles with private citizens, state lawmakers and influential conservatives during an intense few weeks in the spring of 2011 as her top aides tried to defend their positions. They ultimately abandoned the grant and the legislation — and then refused to concede they had changed their position.
February — Fallin announces acceptance of grant
Oklahoma won a $54 million federal grant — applied for by former Gov. Brad Henry's administration — to establish a health care exchange.
Fallin's top aides recognized there would be opposition to accepting the grant because of its link to Obamacare. Communications Director Alex Weintz suggested that the governor issue a statement on a Friday afternoon announcing the acceptance. Friday afternoons are a time when news releases are often ignored or given short shrift since reporters are generally busy working on weekend stories, or gone.
“The current plan is to release this Friday afternoon, but to have it ready before then (today) in case anyone starts attacking us for it,” Weintz wrote.
The statement that Fallin would accept the grant was released on Friday, Feb. 25.
March — Decision challenged
Less than a week after announcing the acceptance of the grant, state Rep. Mike Ritze, a Broken Arrow Republican, issued a news release challenging the decision.
Katie Altshuler, Fallin's policy director, sent an email to other top Fallin aides saying an adviser to Oklahoma's House speaker “thinks we might need to get out in front of this and wondered if we might be interested in doing a joint press conference so we can better shape the message before legislators start making up their minds about this ...”
The governor's office was then hit with phone calls from irate citizens, opposition from the Tulsa County Republican Party and conservative think tank opponents (the DC-based Heritage Foundation and the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs).
Fallin's aides tried to stop the bleeding, first by drafting a letter to legislators portraying state exchanges as an “extraordinary opportunity,” but legislators were hearing otherwise back home.
Rep. Seneca Scott, a Tulsa Republican, forwarded an email to the governor's office from a large employer in his district complaining about the exchanges. Sen. David Holt, an Oklahoma City Republican, emailed Altshuler to say he was troubled by the grant. And Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa, sent an email about his concerns regarding Tulsa County GOP opposition to the exchange bill.
“I've gotten quite a bit of concerned feedback from supporters in my district on HB 2130,” McCullough wrote to members of the governor's and House staff. “Now (Randy) Brogdon and the Tulsa County Platform Committee are officially against it ... I'm not trying to cause trouble by saying anything, but we may need to get out in front of this before it blows up ... It's never good to lose a major county party apparatus on something as big as this.”
Fallin's then-secretary of state Glenn Coffee responded, “Again, we need to get aggressive with our media strategy as well.”
On March 23, Fallin's staff got a warning from a state lawmaker that a Tulsa tea party group was planning to protest outside a speech she was making the following day.
On March 24, the same day as the protest, Fallin aides scrambled to save their exchange legislation amid growing concerns from state senators. They reached out to lawmakers and to outside groups with an interest in the bill, but a key senator stalled action because of concerns about the grant.
A week later, the Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman announced that the exchange legislation as written was dead and that the $54 million grant should be rejected. Fallin's office started receiving form letters opposing the grant that were organized by a group the governor's staff linked to tea party members.
April — Fallin rejects grant
Fallin's office received form letters organized by the Oklahoma Campaign for Liberty saying, “Oklahomans overwhelmingly rejected Obamacare. I don't want to create a federally supervised health insurance system in Oklahoma. I ask that you reject the $54 Million bribe from the Obama Administration and oppose HB 2130.”
Responding to the effort, Altshuler said it was “essential” the governor's office establish “some way forward this week.”
On April 6, retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Lee Baxter, of Lawton, a member of the board of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs sent emails to Coffee and Fallin Chief of Staff Denise Northrup warning that the grant money issue was hurting Fallin with the conservative think tank and the large donors behind it.
“Despite all intentions and all efforts, the Governor is facing being labeled as ‘bringing Obamacare to Oklahoma' if we stay with the federal money,” Baxter wrote. “She will be perceived, even tho it is NOT TRUE of abandoning the anti Obamacare position … I have NEVER seen pushback like OCPA is getting from it's members and large donors like they are getting on this issue and they are insistent in their positions.”
Having lost the Senate on the exchange bill and facing continued backlash on the grant, Fallin's office prepared on April 13 to announce that the state would not accept the $54 million grant and that the governor and legislators would take a new approach to setting up an exchange.
Less than two months after announcing that the state would accept the grant, Fallin rejected it.
When reporters asked for a response to Democratic lawmakers' charges that the governor had flip-flopped, Altshuler wrote to fellow aides, “I think we want to say there has been no flip-flop on Obamacare — she voted against it and has always been against it.”
“Yes,” Northrup wrote, “no flip-flopping.”