Politics, baseball and Jesus.
That’s what Scott Pruitt and his friend and campaign manager Matt Pinnell talked about as they crisscrossed Oklahoma in 2006 trying to get Pruitt elected lieutenant governor.
Politics, baseball and Jesus.
With his energy and persistence, they have carried Pruitt to victory and nursed him through defeat. And they have him on the verge of running the agency many view as the embodiment of government regulation run amok, the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I hadn’t met anyone who made me want to do politics for a career until I met Scott Pruitt,” said Pinnell, who since first hearing Pruitt speak in the early 2000s has become prominent nationally as a Republican campaign operative.
“I was blown away,” Pinnell said. “He was very articulate in presenting conservative values. He insisted we should take conservative values into the marketplace of ideas, that we should encourage debate and let the marketplace decide.”
On Wednesday, Pruitt will face the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works for a confirmation hearing that won’t be easy but is almost certain to ultimately go his way.
It is a remarkable rise for a former two-term state senator whose career could have ended with that 2006 lieutenant governor’s campaign.
Having given up a safe state Senate seat to run for lieutenant governor — and perhaps set himself up for bigger things in 2010 — Pruitt narrowly lost the Republican nomination to Todd Hiett in a runoff. Five years earlier, in 2001, he had finished a disappointing third in a congressional special election, and this second loss beyond the boundaries of his Broken Arrow state Senate district caused some to question his ability to win on a bigger stage.
Pinnell laughed at the suggestion Pruitt might have been discouraged.
“The day after he lost that lieutenant governor’s race, Scott was back at it,” Pinnell said.
One of Pruitt’s other passions, baseball, offered a safe haven while he regrouped.
In 2003, Pruitt and businessman Bob Funk, a prominent Republican donor whom Pruitt would refer to as a mentor, had bought a controlling interest in the Oklahoma City RedHawks minor league baseball team for a reported $6.8 million in cash.
Pruitt, who news reports said owned 25 percent of the club, became managing partner. He remained in that position until 2010, when he and Funk sold the team for an undisclosed amount.
A high school baseball and football star in Lexington, Kentucky, Pruitt lettered one year as a second baseman at the University of Kentucky before finishing at nearby Georgetown College. His dream of playing in the Major Leagues, preferably for the Cincinnati Reds, never materialized, but in Pruitt it is easy to see a little of the Reds’ relentless, hard-nosed star Pete Rose.
Like Rose, Pruitt was a switch-hitter. But while Pruitt may have hit from both sides of the plate as a baseball player, as a politician he takes all of his swings from the right side.
And he usually swings hard.
Pruitt entered the political arena in 1998 by challenging a four-term incumbent, Sen. Gerald “Ged” Wright, in a Republican primary, and defeating him soundly.
Pruitt said the election was not about Wright but about advancing conservative values. Some said he won by activating the “religious right” and turning his church into a campaign headquarters. Pruitt denied this, but it would not be the last time he was accused of foisting his religious views on the people of Oklahoma.
In any event, Pruitt wasn’t content to just win. He pushed the envelope; if something was controversial, chances were Pruitt was in the middle of it.
For instance, abortion at that time was an issue lawmakers of both parties preferred to avoid, but one of Pruitt’s first bills — and the first to receive much notice — would have required male partners to be notified before women could undergo the procedure.
The bill went nowhere, but it moved Oklahoma in the direction of the more restrictive abortion laws passed since, and it established the strategy of picking courtroom fights to highlight the issue and sway public opinion. Two years later, Pruitt authored the first “parental consent” bill signed into law in Oklahoma.
At 30, and five years removed from the University of Tulsa law school, Pruitt was the youngest member of the Senate in an era when term limits had not yet come into play. He and Glenn Coffee of Oklahoma City, who a few years later would become the state’s first Republican president pro tem, were the first in the new wave of GOP lawmakers who would soon seize the levers of state government.
“He was always well-prepared. He did his research,” Coffee said. “He’s a true believer, a policy wonk. His goal (as senator) was to be a change agent for a more positive future for Oklahoma.”
Ready to fight
Pruitt contented himself with running his and Funk’s baseball team after the 2006 runoff loss. Except for serving as chairman of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign in Oklahoma, he kept a relatively low profile until announcing his candidacy for attorney general in March 2010.
With Democrat Barack Obama in the White House pushing federal intervention in health care, energy and more, Pruitt quickly overwhelmed the opposition with his promises to fight back on every front.
In office, he eliminated the AG’s environmental law unit and formed a larger “federalism” team to find ways to sue the federal government.
“Still, my most proud moment in politics is when I got to introduce (Pruitt) as the new attorney general,” Pinnell said. “I knew what kind of attorney general he could be, and that he would become a national figure and because he would push back on the policies of the Obama administration.”
Through a Trump transition team spokesman, Pruitt declined to be interviewed for this story, but his supporters praise him for honesty, integrity and a commitment to principle over expediency. In all of his fights with the Obama administration, he has said they have been about “rule of law” and government overreach rather than policy.
“Scott is a man of really strong personal character,” Coffee said.
Opponents, though, say Pruitt’s genial persona and smooth defense of his positions mask a self-serving streak and a penchant for intrigue that have led him to become involved in some shadowy political dealings that do not match his “rule of law” mantra.
As attorney general, Pruitt expanded the size and scope of the office and regularly touted its success at prosecuting relatively small-time workers compensation, insurance and Medicare fraud cases.
Meanwhile, he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, including in 2014 when he had no re-election opponent.
Perhaps most embarrassing, the New York Times revealed Pruitt signed and sent to federal regulators a letter ghost-written by an energy company executive.
Wednesday, Pruitt will almost certainly be asked to explain his activities leading the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a nonprofit associated with the Republican Attorneys General Association. Set up to fight federal laws and regulations, the fund does not have to list donors but is known to have taken in almost $2 million over a two-year period and to have received at least $175,000 from Freedom Partners, a member of the Koch Brothers’ constellation of political organizations.
The Republican Attorneys General Association, which Pruitt also headed for two years, has received at least $4 million from energy industry sources.
None of this seems likely to deter Pruitt’s confirmation. He may not have reached the Major Leagues, but he is on the cusp, as his future boss President-elect Donald Trump would say, of the big leagues.