Three members of Gov. Mary Fallin's staff who figured prominently in health care discussions

In the 50,000 pages of documents released by Gov. Mary Fallin's office regarding health care reform decisions, the voices of three members of the governor's staff are most prominent.

BY CHRIS CASTEEL ccasteel@opubco.com Published: April 8, 2013

In the 50,000 pages of documents released by Gov. Mary Fallin's office regarding health care reform decisions, the voices of three members of the governor's staff are most prominent.

Denise Northrup, chief of staff

Abrasive, sarcastic and profane, Denise Northrup is perhaps the prototypical chief of staff — a tough and loyal guardian of her boss' time and reputation.

In the aftermath of Gov. Mary Fallin's release of thousands of emails related to health care decisions, the governor's top aide may also be the person with the most fences to mend.

Northrup — who ran Fallin's nearly flawless campaigns for Congress and governor — seemed to forget at times in the governor's office that she was making public documents of her feelings about political opponents.

When she found out that a group of freshmen Republican lawmakers came out against the governor's decision to accept a $54 million federal health care grant, Northrup wrote, “Hope they don't need help w/reelections.”

Then, she added later, “I want to know who the ringleader is — and if its (State Rep.) randy (Grau), I want to know.”

Northrup, 41, who graduated from Jenks High School and the University of Kansas, first worked for Fallin as a low-level aide in the lieutenant governor's office. She is now one of the most powerful people at the state Capitol, with a say in much of the governor's agenda.

She is also the enforcer, or at least she sounds like one in some emails.

After learning that Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman stalled a health care bill backed by Fallin, Northrup wrote to an aide that she was “willing to throw the protem back under the bus'' on education funding.

“Turnabout is fair play,'' she wrote.

Last October, when Fallin was scheduled to speak at the Goldwater Institute Dinner in Arizona, Northrup reacted strongly to the request that the governor attend a separate event on health care exchanges.

“Time out,'' she wrote, “do NOT commit her to doing anything other than the speech for now ... I have no desire for her to speak on health exchanges in this state much less another state!”

In the email exchanges among Fallin staff members about health care, Northrup frequently adds her input but gives a lot of leeway to the aides in charge of policy and press releases.

After more than a year of struggles over a health care law, Northrup's frustration was evident in a July 2012 email.

“I have a 9am (meeting) … on all of this obamacare bulls---,” she wrote.

Alex Weintz, communications director

As Gov. Mary Fallin's main contact with the press, Alex Weintz writes and distributes the governor's public statements and has a strong voice in what Fallin should say, when she should say it and to whom she should say it.

A 28-year-old New Yorker who worked in Fallin's congressional office in Washington before moving to Oklahoma in 2010 to be Fallin's gubernatorial campaign spokesman, Weintz got a big-time dose of Oklahoma politics early in the governor's administration.

It wasn't always fun.

In an email sent to other Fallin aides, two years ago, Weintz wrote that state Sen. Greg Treat had “summoned me to his office with a note indicating he doesn't like my comment in the TW (Tulsa World) about every vote against our bill being a vote to sit on your hands and wait for ObamaCare to be implemented. I am going up to talk to him and wanted you guys to know.”

A few minutes later, he wrote back, “Treat's not even here today and I believe I was just the victim of a prank to see if I would run up 3 flights of steps, which I did. I'll be in my office sweating if anyone needs me.”

If Weintz has any animosity toward the people he works with in and out of the governor's office, it's not evident in his electronic mail. Nor does he use email to complain about reporters' stories or news outlets' coverage in general.

When he was drafting a statement last year about the governor's decision to reject the expansion of Medicaid and creating a state insurance policy exchange, he told his co-workers that he wanted it to be complete and accurate. When that turned out not to be the case, he alerted the governor.

In an email about the governor's performance with national media in the summer of 2011, Weintz gave a typically bloodless assessment, saying “Wanted to touch on some points that may have veered into the unknown, or off message etc, so there are no surprises in the immediate future … Almost everything was fine.”

Katie Altshuler, policy director

Katie Altshuler, part of Fallin's inner circle of aides, has been on the front lines of all of the governor's battles over health care reform, helping to develop Fallin's positions and her public statements.

More than anyone else on the governor's staff, Altshuler had to dig into the details of the complex 2010 law and figure out how Oklahoma would be affected. Emails released by the governor's office show Altshuler was the one who most often made contact with nonpolitical outside organizations with a stake in health care reform. Sometimes it was for information and other times for legislative backing.

An Oklahoma City native and a graduate of Sweet Briar College, Altshuler, 39, worked for former House Speaker Chris Benge before taking the job with Fallin. She also worked in Washington for former Republican U.S. Sens. Don Nickles, of Oklahoma, and Jon Kyl, of Arizona.

Altshuler was a passionate defender of the effort in early 2011 to build a state insurance exchange using federal grant money and gave a succinct response to other aides' concerns that U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn was against taking the grant money.

“Coburn is not in favor of taking the money,'' she wrote. “But he is not in the Governors position. If the law is not overturned we will have to implement obamacare anyway.”

When Fallin decided to reject the grant money and abandon a state exchange, state Democrats accused her of flip-flopping. It was Altshuler who came up with the email response that cheered her co-workers: “I think we want to say there has been no flip flop on obamacare — she voted against it and has always been against it.”

After a year of fighting over health care policy, Altshuler delivered this line last March about responding to a reporter's health care reform question: “I would rather pull my own teeth out then talk to him or any press about this.”

Chris Casteel, Staff Writer


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