For Pinnell, Oklahoma salesman is 'the job I wanted'

Republican Matt Pinnell speaks after winning the race for lieutenant governor.
Republican Matt Pinnell speaks after winning the race for lieutenant governor.
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Days after pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, as many of the nation’s top businesses were feverishly looking to distance themselves from the former president, PGA of America announced it would remove one of its premier golf tournaments from a Donald Trump-owned course in New Jersey.

Amid a political firestorm, Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell saw a business opportunity.

“What about Tulsa?” Pinnell thought when he discovered the nation’s top golf association was going to be in need of a new course.

Pinnell's calls to PGA officials and leaders of Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa paid off as a couple of months later it was announced as the new home for the 2022 PGA Championship.

"I ran for lieutenant governor to be the chief salesman for the state," Pinnell said. "That's the job I wanted."

As Pinnell nears the end of his first term as lieutenant governor, the Tulsa Republican recently ruled out a run for U.S. Senate, a race that could have made sense for the 42-year-old who has previously worked as a state party chair and a senior operative for the Republican National Committee, positions that would have brought funding and connections into the crowded field of candidates.

Instead, Pinnell is currently seeking reelection as lieutenant governor and is the only candidate currently raising money, according to state campaign finance records, which show him with nearly $1 million.

"The issues that they are debating at a federal level are not issues that get me up in the morning excited about going to work," Pinnell said during an interview from his office on the first floor of the state Capitol.

Pinnell also didn't see a Senate schedule fitting with his family, which consists of his wife, Lisa, and four school-age children.

But Pinnell hasn't dismissed a run for governor in four years.

"A future run for governor is certainly something we will look at," Pinnell said.

Looking for growth from Texas

Pinnell said he wanted to be more than a figurehead as lieutenant governor, a goal he believes he has achieved as the governor's Secretary of Tourism, Wildlife and Heritage.

While the governor oversees the tourism director, Pinnell has worked closely with the agency, which recently came under fire with claims of excessive spending from a legislative committee.

Pinnell doesn’t oversee the tourism department’s budget but said he generally agrees with the direction the agency is headed.

“I got in the weeds on how we were promoting this office, how we were spending that very limited budget,” said Pinnell, specifically speaking to the department's promotional budget, which is capped by the state Legislature.


Jennifer Mullins, director of the travel promotion division of the tourism department, said Pinnell has been a constant presence.

“The Fishing Trail, the Route 66 Passport, some of the big initiatives we have been able to launch are things he has brought to us,” Mullins said.

In three years as lieutenant governor, Pinnell has helped oversee a state rebrand, courted events, and pushed the Department of Commerce to increase its focus on recruiting businesses and residents from Texas.

Gov. Kevin Stitt has pushed the state to compete for businesses from states like California and Illinois, where he believes burdensome regulations might make Oklahoma an appealing destination.

But Pinnell said he believes the majority of Oklahoma's growth in the coming years will come from its neighbor to the south.

"We will go to these quote-unquote anti-business states, whatever that means," Pinnell said. "But I still believe some of the most fertile ground for us over the next decade will be the state of Texas."

Working in the 'messy middle'

Pinnell's political resume is one of a staunch conservative and his reelection website fits the current Republican playbook. The first “pillar” outlined on his campaign website says he will fight against the “radical left” and that he has “championed ... legislation that bans the teaching of Critical Race Theory in our classrooms.”

Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell speaks at the opening of the Oklahoma State Capitol Museum on March 22.
Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell speaks at the opening of the Oklahoma State Capitol Museum on March 22.

"Pinnell continues to pander to Stitt and (the) ultra-right people of his party," said Alicia Andrews, chair of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, which has been criticizing Pinnell over the recent report questioning spending by the state's tourism agency. (Andrews said she was unaware of any Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor)

But Pinnell, at times, talks like a politician more comfortable in the middle.

"I am proud to be a conservative in Oklahoma, but I will tell you that a consistency with me is I have always tried to lead by bringing people together," Pinnell said.

Asked to better clarify his political beliefs, Pinnell brought up Georgia pastor Andy Stanley and a recent address he gave to his state's legislature, calling lawmakers who pander to the extremists of their party "terrible leaders."

“The messy middle is where the problems are solved," Stanley said in his address.

"I believe in working in the messy middle," Pinnell said, referring to Stanley's address.

Selling Oklahoma

The event and business recruitment sector is one that increasingly demands a move away from extremist policies, as America’s corporate community has felt more pressure in recent years to alter business decisions based on political issues. Not only did Trump lose the PGA Championship, but Atlanta lost last year's Major League Baseball All-Star game in response to restrictive voting laws passed by state lawmakers.

Oklahoma has seen some veiled threats that events would be pulled from the state, including last year when the NCAA hinted it might remove events if a bill limiting transgender persons from competing in high school and collegiate sports was passed, which was eventually approved by lawmakers this year.

Pinnell said he isn't too concerned about Oklahoma's politics detracting from its ability to attract events.

“This cultural war, whatever you want to call it, the back and forth over woke policy, we will see where that goes in future years," Pinnell said. "But Texas has got silly laws that they're passing and so is Florida, but they also promote their states and highlight the good things that are happening in their states."

Pinnell points to the new convention center in Oklahoma City as a space that will elevate Oklahoma's ability to host larger events and he wants the state to go after events, even if they seem like long shots.

“We are going to make a pitch for both of those conventions in future years,” Pinnell said, referring to the Republican and Democratic national conventions.

"I want to continue selling Oklahoma to the world because we have a lot more strengths than we used to."

This story is provided in part through a grant by the Kirkpatrick Foundation. To support work like this, please consider purchasing a digital subscription today at

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Pinnell ends first term seeing a state with 'a lot more strengths'