Stitt's orbit: The outsider's inner circle
Donelle Harder didn't recognize the number on her phone or the person who introduced himself as a member of Kevin Stitt's gubernatorial campaign, calling with an offer to join the team.
"Kevin who?" Harder responded.
It was October 2017, and with the general election more than a year away, Stitt had launched his bid for governor as a political nobody, an unknown name even to a person like Harder, who had worked for U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe and recently moved to Oklahoma to work for the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association.
Harder wasn't interested in returning to politics, especially to work for someone most observers gave no chance of winning.
But she agreed to meet Stitt at an Oklahoma City coffee shop and saw a political novice who seemed authentic in his desire to make Oklahoma a better place.
"He was a raw politician, but on the human side of things I saw a lot of Jim Inhofe in Kevin," Harder said. "What I saw in Kevin that was similar to (Inhofe) was that he was a workhorse, he was collaborative, he enjoyed talking to people and meeting strangers. That's where I knew I could work with Kevin."
A few weeks later Harder joined a campaign that was mostly made up of Stitt's family and friends, an orbit of political outsiders who remain by his side today and likely will play a significant role in how the governor-elect chooses to shape policy and tackle some of the state's biggest challenges.
Without any previous political experience, Stitt surrounded himself with those who knew him best, close companions who encouraged him to trust his instincts, but each having the freedom to offer their own suggestions in a campaign that was open to all ideas.
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Even the few experienced campaigners Stitt brought on board said they recognized his strength as a political novice and deferred to his business-management urges, including when those urges seemed to contradict the traditional campaign playbook.
The inner circle
"I know him better than anyone," said Sarah Stitt, Kevin's wife of 20 years, who played a key role in building Gateway Mortgage Group, the Tulsa company founded by Stitt.
Taking care of six children would limit her involvement on the campaign trail, but Sarah, 40, remained a visible presence at rallies, appeared in commercials, helped write speeches and was in constant contact with her husband.
Sarah, whose parents battle mental illness, said she wants to take an active role in advocating for increased mental health services, including shaping legislation that provides more resources and support for families.
"I'm constantly living in the moment and Kevin never is," Sarah said. "He's always setting goals and putting the strategy together to get there, but you need that balance. I remind him to focus on the moment, but his strength is looking ahead and setting goals."
Sarah said she will offer her opinion as Stitt decides on key staff hires and she encourages him to stay true to his management philosophy of pushing those around him to share their ideas.
"You need a broad spectrum of people on your team," Sarah said. "And that's what he's learned and that's what makes him a great leader."
Stitt's brother, Keith Stitt, an attorney from Tulsa, was also a key adviser during the campaign, accompanying the candidate on trips to meet with longtime Republican activists in the early days of the campaign.
“Kevin's question wasn't whether he could win but whether he could move the needle” as governor, Keith, 48, said in an interview.
Keith helped raise money for his brother in the early days of the campaign and served as a sounding board. He is currently working on details for the inauguration ceremony and celebrations.
Aamon Ross, who Stitt met through a young professional mentoring program, ran the campaign, despite no previous political experience of his own. Stitt entrusted Ross, 43, to hire staff and vendors, participate in campaign meetings and help develop policy proposals.
Corbin McGuire met Stitt in college when the two sold books door-to-door for the Southwestern Company, remaining close for next 25 years. McGuire, 45, helped launch the campaign and raise money at the beginning. McGuire frequently hit the campaign trail with Stitt and is now part of the transition team.
Those close to Stitt said his CEO experience was an asset for the campaign as he knew how to structure an organization, empower a team and quickly troubleshoot problems.
In both his company and his campaign, those close to Stitt said he is comfortable letting different ideas and opinions develop in front of him, often sitting back to observe two employees debate their positions.
Bringing on experience
Stitt's circle of close family and friends gave him comfort, but they also lacked access to an established political infrastructure, especially when it came to fundraising, campaign messaging, or even a detailed map of the fish fries and Main Street parades that require the attendance of any serious gubernatorial candidate.
In late 2017, the search for a campaign consultant sputtered as Stitt wasn't pleased with any of the several candidates he had interviewed, another indication of his desire to personally connect with those around him.
Cam Savage, who had managed several state and national campaigns out of a small Washington, D.C.-based firm he co-founded, was asked to meet with Stitt in Tulsa, a meeting he took out of a courtesy to a friend already working with the campaign.
"What drew me to Kevin was it was clear he didn't really know anything about politics, but he understood why he wanted to run. He had a very clear reason for doing it," Savage said.
Savage said the absence of political insiders around him at the time created a more authentic environment.
"This was an egoless room," said Savage, adding that Stitt's campaign seemed to lack the internal drama and showmanship common in other campaigns.
"That was really attractive to me and I wanted to be a part of it, even though I knew it would be very difficult (to win)."
Stitt faced nine other candidates in the Republican primary, including a couple of well-seasoned political professionals who appeared to lead the pack.
Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb had spent the past several years crisscrossing the state to promote his qualifications and continue building a roster of volunteers and donors.
Mick Cornett was the longest serving mayor of Oklahoma City, a former chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and frequent speaker at Republican conventions.
Stitt had personal wealth and a legitimate claim of being an outsider during a time of intense voter frustration with the state Capitol.
But before he could make his case against Lamb, Cornett and the rest of the field, Stitt had to boost his name ID, which he did by hitting the road and talking with as many voters as he could.
"I told (Stitt) that if you go out and do this it will probably make you a better candidate, but if you win it will absolutely make you a better governor," Savage said. "He really took that to heart, and from then on there was no group too small. He would go anywhere people would talk to him."
Stitt's advisers recommended that he not get too deep into policy issues as he talked to voters, especially when it came to education, which was not viewed as a winning issue for a Republican candidate. Stitt's general election opponent, Democrat Drew Edmondson, presented himself as a fierce public schools advocate and had a passionate base of educators in his corner.
"Kevin said, 'I don't understand the politics of messaging, but education is important and we are going to talk about it,'" Harder recalled.
Stitt instructed his team to quietly schedule meetings with superintendents and teachers, including those who had publicly come out against him.
Ideas from those meetings led to Stitt's education platform, which included another teacher pay raise, streamlining the teacher certification process and moving away from annual accreditation requirements for high-performing schools.
Harder said Stitt's instincts were to keep talking about the issues that were important to Oklahomans, letting the feedback shape the direction he would take as governor.
Stitt's campaign overcame its lack of experience to win a primary runoff and then the general election by 12 percentage points. Now, the governor-elect and his inner circle face the challenge of forming a government for the first time.
On the campaign trail, it wasn't uncommon for someone to have to explain policy issues to Stitt, including how commutations work or how higher education funding is administered, according to people close to his campaign.
While Stitt's team describe him as a curious and fast learner, he will have to lean heavily on the people he hires for key staff positions, individuals who will be hugely influential in how information and policy proposals are presented to the governor-elect.
Stitt's circle has expanded in recent weeks with the creation of a transition team, along with the formation of seven committees that will begin drafting policy positions.
But his original inner circle remains intact and nearby, providing feedback as Stitt conducts interviews with potential staff members and prepares to become Oklahoma's 28th governor in January.
"There's a saying that 'personnel is policy,' and I think that's true," said Alex Weintz, a partner with FKG Consulting and the former communications director for Gov. Mary Fallin. "Who you appoint to these positions, and who you pick in your inner circle, makes a huge difference to the trajectory of the administration."
Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. Casteel covered the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City. From 1990 through 2016, he was the... Read more ›
Ben Felder is an investigative reporter for The Oklahoman. A native of Kansas City, Ben has lived in Oklahoma City since 2010 and covered politics, education and local government for the Oklahoma Gazette before joining The Oklahoman in 2016.... Read more ›