Governor Mary Fallin is accustomed to firsts. She first made history in 1995 when she was elected the first Republican and first woman to serve as Oklahoma’s Lieutenant Governor. She held that post until 2006, when, rather than seeking re-election, she ran for the 5th Congressional District seat being vacated by Ernest Istook. Later that year she became the first woman elected to Congress from Oklahoma since Alice Mary Robertson in 1921. This past November, Oklahomans watched another first: two female candidates battling for the Governor’s office. On November 2, 2010, Fallin defeated Democrat and incumbent Lieutenant Governor Jari Askins with 60 percent of the vote and became Oklahoma’s 27th and first female governor.
Born in Missouri, Fallin was raised in Tecumseh, a city of 6,500 situated approximately 40 miles southeast of Oklahoma City. One could say that politics run in her family, as both her mother and father served terms as mayors of the small town. After graduating from Tecumseh High School, Fallin attended Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond and earned a bachelor of science degree from Oklahoma State University. Before her foray into politics, she worked as the district manager of a national hotel chain, got married and started a family. Divorced in 1998, Fallin married Wade Christensen in November 2009. Their blended family includes Fallin’s two children (Christina, 23 and Price, 20) along with Christensen’s four children (Blake, 29; Adam, 27; Brittiany, 21; and Alex, 18).
Family and Faith
Although she holds the state’s top elected position, Fallin’s commitment to her family is paramount. She describes her parenting style as loving, and said that the love and support of her children has been as important for her as her love and support has been for them. “I would never be able to serve as governor without the support, understanding and enthusiasm of my children, stepchildren and husband,” Fallin said. “All of his [Wade’s] support and love have made my job so much easier.” “When you’re running for public office people don’t always say the nicest things about you, and it’s been very important to have a husband who has always been there to encourage and defend me,” she said. While Oklahoma’s very first First Gentleman has been a huge emotional support to Fallin, he’s had to make difficult professional concessions. To avoid even the smallest appearance of a conflict of interest, Christensen gave up a significant portion of his legal practice. Having worked all his adult life to build his own firm, giving up a large portion of it was a major sacrifice, said the Governor. Fallin’s faith is a big part of her life and has helped to define who she is. The importance of faith is something that she’s also instilled in her children. The family attends Crossings Community Church in northwest Oklahoma City, and she said that the most important lesson she has taught her children is to trust in God’s plan. “My faith has been a big part of who I am and has been a guiding light in both good and bad times,” she said. “I’ve had both, and I believe that faith and trust in God will help my children as it has helped me.”
Fallin’s gubernatorial election bid corresponded with one of the deepest recessions in United States history, and she’s well aware of the burden that economic troubles have had on Oklahoma’s families and businesses. With a $500 million budget shortfall, loss of businesses and an unhealthy population (Oklahoma was recently ranked 46 out of 50 for overall population health by America’s Health Rankings), Fallin certainly has her work cut out for her. “To get our economy back on track, we need to ensure Oklahoma has the best business environment possible so that we can bring new jobs and opportunities to the state and retain those jobs and businesses that are already here,” she said.
Her first State of the State address laid out a number of ways to improve Oklahoma’s business environment, including adjustments to the state’s workers’ compensation system, tort reform and a reexamination of the state tax code. Fallin said the public and private sectors can both help the state overcome its challenges, but only when they work together. “The public sector must ensure Oklahoma is primed and ready for job growth and retention so that Oklahoma’s entrepreneurs and small businesses can thrive,” Fallin said. “Government can provide an economic climate conducive to job growth—by keeping taxes low and developing an affordable, efficient workers’ compensation system, for instance—and also plays an important role in helping to create an educated, healthy workforce.” “When we do those things in the public sector, the private sector is able to do a lot of the heavy lifting and generate real growth and prosperity,” she continued.
Fallin sees raising the bar in education and producing the skilled workforce necessary to compete in the global economy as major components in our state’s economic progress. “That means constantly improving our schools and raising our standards for administrators, teachers and students,” she said. “We can do that by pursuing a system where good teachers and schools are rewarded for their work while underperforming teachers are held accountable or even asked to move on.”
She and the Oklahoma legislature are working toward eliminating a practice called “trial de novo,” a legal process that makes it nearly impossible to terminate an underperforming teacher. She calls this a step in the right direction and hopes to sign it into law this year. Another difficulty facing education is the practice of “social promotion”—allowing children to move on to higher grades despite low achievement. A child sent to the fourth grade, for example, who is unable to read and write on a fourth grade level only ensures that he or she will continue to fall behind, she said.
When It’s All Said and Done
In the end, Fallin hopes that the same determination that helped her meet her early political milestones will be what helps propel Oklahoma to a better economic footing. “First and foremost, I want to be remembered as a governor who worked every day to move Oklahoma toward a better and more prosperous future,” she said. “That means leaving a legacy of job creation and fiscal responsibility.”
Danielle Walker is a freelance writer and senior account executive with Limelight Marketing Consultants. She and her family live northwest of Oklahoma City.