The Modern Statesman
Tulsa native Matt Pinnell works to be a lieutenant governor for all Oklahomans
Lieutenant Governor Matt Pinnell | Photo by Ryan West
It’s Nov. 3, 2020: Election Day.
Outside the Oklahoma State Capitol, voters swarm polling locations, eager to conduct their civic duty. Lines stretch for blocks and beyond in a scene that is replicated across the nation. Nearly 161 million Americans will cast their ballot on this day—the highest voter turnout in history. This is one of the biggest events in politics, and the world is watching.
Inside the Oklahoma State Capitol, Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell’s phone is face down on his desk. Not a single social media app is open. His computer is dark and lifeless. Not even a TV is on.
Instead, the No. 2-ranking state politician has disconnected for a few hours to talk about his favorite subject—Oklahoma. He seamlessly transitions between the critical role of tourism to a state’s economy to a branding campaign that saved taxpayers a pile of cash. He lauds the Sooner State’s great outdoors and, of course, talks about the impact of COVID-19.
Through all the conversation, another narrative emerges—one that has gone mostly untold. The story of Pinnell himself. The marketer. The national political fixer. The man behind the man. The reluctant politician who stepped into the spotlight to help lead a state he so obviously loves. This is his story, the story of a modern statesman.
The Pinnell family | Photo by Ryan West
The road to the lieutenant governor’s office
Pinnell is a native Tulsan and proud of it. But don’t cast him as a city boy; that’s an unfair label for a man who loves all things nature. He can speak with expertise about Oklahoma’s 12 unique ecological zones because he’s visited them all. In fact, he’s spent more time in the rural communities than the major metros, having toured all 77 counties repeatedly.
So how did Pinnell go from Tulsa to the lieutenant governor’s office? Well, that’s a journey that begins at Lee Elementary School.
Born to parents who were both public servants—dad an assistant U.S. attorney and mom a physical therapist for DHS—Pinnell spent his formative years in the suburbs. His parents’ decision to pursue public occupations imprinted a desire to support community rather than self.
“My love for public service began with them,” he says. “They were daily examples of self-sacrifice.”
Early in life, Pinnell discovered his knack for working with people. Collaborating with his classmates appealed to his extroverted personality, and he effortlessly gelled with them. In fifth grade, it seemed only natural that he run for class president; his first foray into politics. He won—easily—in a scene that repeated itself in eighth grade at Wilson Middle School and again at Metro Christian Academy. He always ended up in a leadership position, not because of a need to be in charge, but because of his desire to participate.
“I loved building relationships and collaborations around ideas,” Pinnell says. “Those formative years no doubt helped prepare me for what I do today.”
But politics was never the plan. It was center stage—not the debate stage—that captured his youthful ambitions. Throughout high school and into college at Oral Roberts University, Pinnell pursued drama, majoring in the theatrical arts until he was a sophomore. He even considered relocating to Los Angeles to chase his Silver Screen dream. But two events redirected his path. The first was named Lisa.
Trading center stage for a political platform
Pinnell knew Lisa Plaster from high school. She was a year younger and the pair ran in different circles. They knew of each other, but they became friends at Shepherd’s Fold Ranch, a Christian summer camp where they both served as counselors for three years.
“I had 12 boys, whom I guided and taught all summer. I think she saw a different side of me, a nurturing side. She was smitten for sure,” Pinnell says with a chuckle.
For her part, Lisa will tell you Pinnell did indeed capture her attention.
“He’s charming and genuine. People gravitate to him,” she says. “He is this outgoing character who can stand in the spotlight while, at the same time, he wants to bring everyone along and help them shine.”
So, yes, she was smitten. But so was he.
Their first date was—not surprisingly—to watch him as the lead in one of ORU’s dramatic productions. The couple were inseparable and continued to work through college, looking forward to a future together. But would that life include a trip to L.A. where Pinnell would be—as he called it—“a perpetual bus boy”? Not if professor Tim Brooker, Ed.D., had anything to do with it.
Pinnell took Brooker’s government class during his sophomore year, and everything changed again.
“He was that professor. We all have that professor who inspires you. He saw something in me. He believed I could have a career in politics, so I minored in it,” says Pinnell who majored in advertising and public relations. “He had a passion in politics. He always said, ‘Go volunteer. It doesn’t matter what party. Go volunteer.’”
So, Pinnell joined the Scott Pruitt campaign for U.S. House of Representatives and thus began his baptism into grassroots politics. He hammered in hundreds of yard signs during the sweltering summer heat, organized parades and hit up Main Street, watching and learning. It was a close race that Pruitt ultimately lost, but, for Pinnell, his life’s course had been redirected. He quickly traded in L.A. for D.C.
Lt. Gov. Pinnell works diligently for Oklahomans at the Oklahoma State Capitol. Photo taken prior to onset of pandemic. Courtesy photos
Campaigns and children
Pinnell graduated from ORU in 2002 and shortly thereafter proposed to Lisa. The pair were married and by the next year they loaded up a U-Haul and moved to Washington, D.C. Pinnell worked on Capitol Hill conducting government relations for two trade associations while beginning to build his national network.
“The diversity in D.C. was amazing. It was a great season of life,” Pinnell says. “But we never experienced the same hospitality and values we had here at home. Then one day Lisa came to me and said, ‘I’m pregnant and I’m ready to move home.’”
Pinnell reached out to mentor Scott Pruitt, who immediately hired his young protégé as campaign manager for Pruitt’s bid to become lieutenant governor. Lisa was five months pregnant and making their home in Tulsa when Pinnell again hit the campaign trail.
Pinnell spent every day in his truck in rural Oklahoma. He traversed all 77 counties in a race that Pruitt would eventually lose to Todd Hiett. Losing stung, but Pinnell had built a network across the state that yielded dividends a decade later.
Daughter Kate was born in 2006 and like all new fathers, Pinnell’s priorities crystalized.
“Fatherhood changed me in a lot of ways. What kind of world do I want her to be raised in? I became more tenacious to change Oklahoma for the better. I wanted to leave her a state that she could be proud of and get a job in.”
After the Pruitt campaign, Pinnell became executive director/director of operations for the Oklahoma Republican Party working for Gary Jones, which led to a personal run for state chairman in 2009. Again, politics and personal life were braided seamlessly as the Pinnells welcomed son, Graham, just weeks before his father became the youngest Republican Party chairman in the country.
As it turns out, this trend of elections coinciding with births of children held true for all the Pinnell children. Pinnell was involved in some election somewhere when each of his four children were born.
Pinnell oversaw the 2010 and 2012 election cycles for the state Republic Party, and son, Thomas, arrived. The next year he helped run the Republic National Convention (RNC) then became the director of state parties for the Republican National Committee for both the 2014 and 2016 election cycles.
“I would drop into a state that might be struggling and help build plans,” he says. “I loved every minute of it.”
Pinnell’s name was floated as a potential chairman of the RNC in 2016. As the Pinnells waited to see if their journey included a return to D.C., youngest daughter Claire joined the family.
“My wife is a superwoman,” Pinnell says. “She was eight months pregnant with Claire. We were fostering a baby and she was opening her own business. We had a lot of good families support us, but she is the engine that makes our family run.”
The RNC chairman never materialized, so Pinnell weighed his options. Possibilities abounded but then he took an unexpected phone call.
Along came John Tidwell
During the Pruitt campaign years, Pinnell had a political rival—the yin to his yang. John Tidwell worked for fellow Republican John Sullivan. Their candidates competed in 2001 in district primary, and they competed as man-behind-the-man.
“We were mortal enemies,” Pinnell says, smiling. “But we became good political friends, then real friends. In 2017, John called me and said, ‘I know you. I know the lieutenant governor’s job and it fits you better than anyone.’”
Tidwell explains his motivation for the call: “Politics is all about relationships. That’s what drives it. Matt’s a terrifically relational guy. He’s earned the respect of everyone he works with. He was the perfect fit.”
Pinnell dismissed the idea at first. He had not personally run for office since high school and everyone in the lieutenant governor’s race was already an elected official. Then he did a little research, grew excited and sat down with Lisa.
“It didn’t shock her,” he says. “We prayed about it. She asked why I wanted to do it. I would not have run for office if it weren’t the right office. When you look at the lieutenant governor’s role, it was my dream job. She got it.”
Pinnell describes running for lieutenant governor as one of the most difficult political undertakings of his career. He went back to his political roots. He jumped in his truck and—just like the Pruitt campaigns—he crisscrossed the state.
“I was up before the sun every day,” he says. “I knew I had to outwork every other candidate.”
He showed up at every chicken dinner. He shook every hand that was extended. He talked about the need to generate tourism and keep rural Main Streets prosperous. His slogan—“If you want to sell, vote for Pinnell”—and his brand of personal politics resonated. He wanted to be a lieutenant governor for all Oklahomans. He visited all 77 counties. He won all 77 counties, and in January 2019, Pinnell was sworn in as Oklahoma’s 17th lieutenant governor.
Now it was time to get to work.
Photo taken prior to onset of pandemic. Courtesy photos
Pinnell serves as the secretary of tourism and branding, and the head of the Department of Tourism and Recreation. Tourism is Oklahoma’s third largest industry, bringing in more than $750 million annually. When Pinnell starts talking tourism he gushes.
He rattles off statistics like a drum line: 12 unique ecosystems, 39 sovereign nations, the most drivable miles of Route 66, the Chisholm Trail, 35 state parks and don’t forget the buffalo.
“No state can match our heritage and history,” he says. “We need to highlight everything that is here. We’ve skipped over the step of inviting people to our state, and that’s what we’re doing. If you want to see the real America, come see Oklahoma.”
Pinnell’s focus on marketing has manifested in social media contests that have drawn tens of thousands of submissions, tourism summits, and the creation of the Oklahoma Fishing Trail and the Grand Slam competition.
His most ambitious undertaking was the statewide rebranding effort. Gov. Stitt declared his desire to make Oklahoma a Top 10 state in every possible area, and Pinnell believed Oklahoma could achieve that status in tourism, but it needed a fresh face.
“Tourism is the front door of economic development,” Pinnell says. “You visit here and you fall in love with our people and towns, but you have to be drawn here first.”
Pinnell led a year-long effort wrangling a group of volunteer creatives to rebrand the state. On Feb. 12, 2020, Stitt and Pinnell unveiled Oklahoma’s new brand and logo, which ties together iconography that reflects the state’s diversity of landscapes and people, military service, and Native American heritage.
The new slogan: Imagine that! “sounds like something Will Rogers would say,” Pinnell adds, pointing out that every dollar spent on tourism has a $150 return on investment.
“All the tourism creates more jobs, better roads and bridges, better healthcare and education. It’s driving a different narrative for people who are looking to relocate.”
Governing in the age of COVID-19
There is no “average” day for a lieutenant governor. The position includes serving as chair, vice-chair or a member of 10 different state agencies. On any given day Pinnell will meet with department heads, take constituent meetings and handle any number of ceremonial duties. Mix COVID-19 into the equation and the last year has been a blur of activity and decisions.
As state and national governments grapple with managing a pandemic, Pinnell saw an opportunity for those who wanted to get out but do so responsibly. The Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department launched the #OKHEREWEGO campaign in May 2020 to encourage outdoor tourism while observing social distancing
“COVID-19 has been hard on everybody. It is the tragedy of our time,” he says. “Like everyone, we want our families and neighbors to be safe. We also know that people need to get outside and that Oklahoma offers one of the best places in the country to be in nature. From Black Mesa to Beavers Bend State Park, you can have an amazing time and be safe.”
Pinnell credits the campaign as helping small businesses and hotels survive.
Throughout the latter months of 2020, Pinnell has focused on supporting small businesses in rural Oklahoma to garner start-up capital and keep Main Streets alive.
“There is a rural revival going on in this state and country,” he says. “Young couples want to raise their families in a small town. For us to continue to do that, we have to work with rural towns to develop accelerators.”
Then Pinnell paused and thought for a moment, before adding: “I want a kid in rural Oklahoma to know if they want to stay in rural Oklahoma that I’m going to help them do that.”
Sounds like something a statesman would say.