On a trip across the country to recruit new business to Oklahoma, January-appointed Governor Mary Fallin stopped by Forbes to speak with me last month. Well, more like hobbled. In a flaming-red power suit she limped on two crunches to the boardroom table, still recovering from a July hip surgery. "It's a little embarrassing," she confided. But she's set big goals on her agenda, and a little limp won't stop her.
Fallin, the first female governor of Oklahoma, started her career in the private sector and got so fed up with government policies, decided to enter politics in 1990. She later spent 12 years as a lieutenant governor before being elected to the U.S. Congress in 2006. With her buddy Michele Bachmann, she was one of just two Republican women elected that term. Today, she's one of only six female governors in the U.S.
In her first year, Fallin boasts that Oklahoma's budget is balanced, its unemployment rate is half the national average, it has increased revenue coming in and lowered taxes. Meanwhile, she's jetting across the nation to convince UAV manufacturers and biosciences companies to move to the heartland, which she calls one of America's hidden secrets.
Jenna Goudreau: Take me down the road to the governor's seat.
Mary Fallin: I've been in office in some capacity for over 21 years. I started out as a business manager for a national hotel chain based in Oklahoma. I got frustrated with what was happening in the state capital--the high cost of doing business and a lack of educated workers.
I thought I could make a difference, so I ran for office. I was a young, working mother with a 3-year-old and a newborn when I was elected to the Oklahoma legislature in 1990. Then I became a lieutenant governor and served for 12 years under two governors. I served in Congress for four years, and now I'm the first woman governor of Oklahoma.
And one of just six female governors in the U.S.
Yep. There's not many of us.
As one of this small group, why do you think there are so few?
In Congress, too, only 16% of the members are women. I've been through so many different political races. In one, one of my male opponents would close his debate by saying, "We don't need another pretty face that will cut ribbons at business openings.' There are still comments like that with women in politics. We see that with Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton.
Do women need more time to move up through the pipeline?
They need to run. It's about taking the initiative to try something that maybe no one in your family has ever tried before, to take a risk. You've got to be able to raise money, and you've got to get buy-in.
Are women like Bachmann, Palin and Clinton raising the profile of women in politics?
They're raising the bar. They're breaking barriers. Back in 2006, Michele Bachmann and I were the only two Republican women in the nation to be elected to Congress. We were freshman classmates, and now she's running for president, and I just became governor. We're good friends.
Are you rooting for Bachmann?
I cheer on anyone who has the fortitude to put their name on the ballot. Michele is a very hard worker, vivacious, a good debater. She was never timid about taking the floor of Congress or speaking to the media. I don't think anything scares her or backs her down.
She's got your vote then?
I'm not formally going to support or endorse anyone at this time.
This year, Barbara Walters told me that the balance of power in the U.S. wouldn't shift toward women until we had a female president. Do you agree?
I don't. What's important to have is a president that's focused on jobs, the economy, giving our children a better future and keeping our nation strong and safe.
How would you respond to critics who say the women who are successful in politics are more against the women's agenda than most men?
Hogwash. What is the definition of the "women's agenda?' Is it making sure your children get a better education? I'm for that. Is it making sure we can support our families and have a good quality of life? As a Republican woman, I'm for that. Is it protecting your family and making sure your nation's safe? That to me is anyone's agenda. I'm for all the things any mother would be for.
What do you hope to accomplish in Oklahoma in the next few years?
I'm focusing on jobs and the economy, trying to get Oklahoma back on track and bringing fiscal responsibility to our state's spending. Since session's been out, I've been targeting industries like aerospace and biosciences to retain and recruit good-paying jobs. We've addressed lawsuit reform, workers compensation reform, pension reform. We lowered the tax rate in Oklahoma, and balanced our budget. You have a state in the heartland of America that's a great place to do business.
Maybe you need to show "em how it's done in D.C. How were you able to lower taxes?
Oklahoma has some stability now because we don't have the partisan gridlock like in Washington, D.C. where nothing gets done. I'm looking at the pocketbook issues--whether it's the family or business. When I started doing the budget, I found that we had 76 financial accounting systems used in the state government vs. one. We had different agencies saying they didn't want to use the one system. So I passed a law saying you have to. That's one of the ways we're saving money.
I'm sorry to say that when I think of Oklahoma I think of the Dust Bowl and Okies fleeing to California in The Grapes of Wrath.
That was back during the Depression. There's an interesting phenomenon happening now they're calling the Reverse Grapes of Wrath. Because of deficits, mortgages turned upside down, loss of jobs and high unemployment rates, we're seeing people moving back to the heartland states like Oklahoma where the housing is less and the quality of life is good. In Oklahoma City we have a pro NBA team, a minor league baseball team, Olympic rowing competitions--all kinds of cultural activities and just a 5.3% unemployment rate. It's a hidden secret from the rest of the nation.