An execution this week that went terribly wrong has catapulted Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, a Republican, to the national stage. But there’s more to Fallin than her zeal for capital punishment. The first female governor of Oklahoma has also quashed broader criminal justice reform, refused Medicaid expansion that would cover 150,000 Oklahoma residents, signed 10 new restrictions on abortion and contraception, blocked local minimum wage increases, and slashed education funding.
Before she was anointed a “Mama Grizzly” by former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2010, Fallin served two terms in the Oklahoma House, three as lieutenant governor, and two in the U.S. House of Representatives. Her mother and father both served as (Democratic) mayors of Tecumseh, where Fallin was raised.
Fallin, now head of the National Governors’ Association, is up for re-election this fall and is expected to sail to victory. Last year, she denied having national aspirations: “Maybe someday we'll have a woman president,” she said. “Not me, though.” If she did end up on a national ticket, Fallin would likely tout what she sees as an exemplary record. “We can teach Washington a lesson or two about what it takes to be a successful state and a model government,” she said once. Here is what that means in practice.
Death Penalty. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Oklahoma has the highest number of executions per capita in the country. Fallin laid the groundwork for this week’s debacle in 2011 by signing into legislation that enabled Oklahoma to experiment with the drugs used in lethal injection and to keep the details secret.
In April, when the State Supreme Court issued a temporary stay on the execution of Clayton Lockett, citing concerns about the constitutionality of that law, Fallin decided to ignore it. The Supreme Court's "attempted stay of execution is outside the constitutional authority of that body," she declared. "I cannot give effect to the order by that honorable court." (The Court eventually reached a different conclusion on its own, it said.)
“You have a political figure who unnecessarily rushed forward an execution, under the veil of secrecy, that led to the torture of an individual at the hands of the state of Oklahoma,” Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the Oklahoma ACLU, told msnbc. The ACLU is calling for an independent investigation into Lockett’s execution. An investigation ordered by Fallin will be under her control.
Economy. Fallin, according to Oklahoma Policy Initiative’s David Blatt, has spent much of her term at war against income taxes. “She released a plan back in 2012 that would have led to the eventual elimination of the income tax entirely, based on the far-fetched and implausible idea that we could do away with our largest revenue source without raising other taxes or slashing services,” he told msnbc. “In a state that has failed to take care of its responsibilities to fund education properly, and healthcare, and infrastructure, it is irresponsible to be pushing tax cuts.” Blatt said the state is enjoying an energy boom, “but because of a number of policy choices pursued by those in power, we’re instead facing shortfalls and budget cuts."
Health Care. Fallin has turned down the federal Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. According to Blatt, the expansion would cover 150,000 low-income Oklahomans who currently fall into a coverage gap. At the same time, she has pushed for cuts to existing Medicaid coverage.
The state managed to get a grant to develop its own innovative insurance exchange website, but “when there was vocal opposition from tea party activists, the governor did an about-face, Blatt said. Instead, Fallin gave back a $47 million federal grant.
Minimum Wage. After labor activists in Oklahoma City began a petition drive to increase the city’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, the legislature moved swiftly to crush it. The bill, signed into law by Fallin on April 14, also forbids local policies on vacation and sick days.
Criminal Justice Reform. Oklahoma has among the highest incarceration rates in the nation, and it’s first in the nation (and likely the world) in incarcerating women. But even as other Republican states such as neighboring Texas have moved towards lowering incarceration rates, Fallin’s administration has effectively gutted even the modest bipartisan reform passed by the legislature. According to emails obtained by the press through open records requests and an investigation by Oklahoma Watch, the motivations were political. Separately, the former head of the Department of Corrections said he clashed with Fallin because he opposed the expansion of private prisons in the state.
Reproductive Rights. Fallin signed into law bills that banned abortion after twenty weeks with only the narrowest exception for life endangerment (read about the impact on one woman and her family here), banned abortion coverage on health insurance plans offered under the federal exchange in Oklahoma, restricted the dosage of abortion-inducing drugs in a way contrary to doctors’ recommendations, and made it harder to access emergency contraception. “Fallin's concern for life is very limited,” said Martha Skeeters of the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice. “She supports legislation aimed at restricting women's constitutional right to end a pregnancy while supporting tax cuts and subsidies for corporations that will contribute to a downward spiral in expenditures for schools and social services that give families and children in Oklahoma a chance at a decent life.”
Education. Fallin has made education the signature issue for her National Governors’ Association leadership, billing her initiative "America Works: Education and Training for Tomorrow's Jobs." But her critics point to a different record. “We have cut funding for K-12 education more than any other state on a per-pupil basis since 2008," said Blatt. "Our support for public schools is down by over $200 billion dollars in this period, while public school enrollment has grown by over 40,000 students. We are seeing fewer teachers, larger classes, fewer course offerings, textbooks that are falling apart. We have seen a real erosion of public education in the state.”
Gay Rights. Last fall, after Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel decreed that National Guard members in same-sex marriages be granted equal marriage benefits, Fallin became one of six governors to refuse to process them in state facilities.