Matt Langston sticks to playbook as top adviser for state superintendent Ryan Walters
In 2014, Don Huffines, a wealthy real estate developer from Dallas, was challenging an eight-year incumbent of the Texas state Senate, tapping into Tea Party activism to fuel his underdog campaign.
Running Huffines’ campaign was Matt Langston, a 31-year-old politico who had spent the first decade of his career jumping between campaigns and political communications jobs.
Huffines needed to enhance his media attention while hurting his opponent’s popularity, and Langston believed a flashy attack ad seemed like the perfect way to do both.
Langston and Huffines decided to focus on their opponent’s Italian heritage and crafted a flyer that showed the senator in a dark mobster-like pose with his name in the same font from the movie “The Godfather,” including the puppet strings.
Former Texas state Sen. John Carona, the target of the attack ad, called it “offensive” and others accused Huffines of using racist stereotypes.
But the flyer helped Huffines narrowly win the election for the suburban Dallas Senate seat, and according to people who know Langston, helped solidify in his mind the idea that veiled racist tropes can be an effective form of political messaging.
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For the past year, Langston has worked for state schools Superintendent Ryan Walters, first on his campaign and now as his top adviser at the Oklahoma State Department of Education, overseeing the agency's high-level departments.
Walters has become a highly polarizing figure who talks of ridding Oklahoma of liberal educators, claims schools are filled with pornographic materials and uses racist statements on social media to draw attention.
But many people around the state superintendent say Langston is largely responsible for the combative and offensive messaging style Walters used during the campaign and now in his administration, tactics that Langston built a career on as a campaign manager in Texas and Oklahoma.
Langston won't confirm if he still lives in Texas
The Oklahoman spoke with dozens of people who have worked with Langston on past campaigns, and while many did not want to go on the record for fear of retaliation or to publicly criticize a fellow Republican, most said Walters' political persona seemed very much in line with Langston's history of running campaigns.
Some said Langston was difficult to work with, embraced controversial messaging without much thought and was often aggressive toward members of the media.
Langston declined The Oklahoman's multiple interview requests but did respond to a list of emailed questions, including one question about accusations he was difficult to work with and combative towards journalists.
“Dozens of people including former associates of yours have claimed that you are a (expletive) reporter and that you don't operate in facts,” Langston replied in an email.
In another email, Langston accused the "Wokelahoman" of "writing another piece of fiction" and trying to tear down Walters, although he acknowledged some former colleagues and clients have disagreed with his style.
"I don't get hired for my personality," Langston wrote. "Responsibility, accountability, and demanding results are tough for some former associates and candidates that I've worked with. I take on tough, challenging campaigns and projects. I get hired to produce results not coddle feelings."
Langston also has disputed numerous media reports that the state Department of Education has faced widespread staffing turnover and dysfunction.
“It’s extremely tense,” said Stormie Honeysuckle, a 15-year employee of the agency who was recently fired. “People are worried. You don’t know who’s going to be safe and who’s not going to be safe.”
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Langston has been described as an adviser with many of his duties similar to a chief of staff, a position that Walters has not officially announced. A request for any employment contract for Langston has not been returned by the agency, but Langston uses an official state Department of Education email address.
Multiple agency staff members told The Oklahoman that funding requests and other administrative work is often delayed because of Langston, who many believe still lives in Texas.
Langston did not answer The Oklahoman's questions about living out of state, nor would Walters.
"So, to answer the question, he's a senior adviser with the agency, but I don't like to get into personnel issues publicly," Walters told The Oklahoman when asked about Langston's role and whether he lived in Oklahoma.
When asked to clarify that he believed a person's state of residence is a personnel issue, Walters said, "Yes."
As superintendent, Walters continues campaign rhetoric
In the summer of 2020, local businesswoman Terry Neese was in a tight primary battle with Rep. Stephanie Bice for Oklahoma City's U.S. House seat.
Langston, who was managing Neese's campaign, wanted to air a commercial that would appeal to the Republican Party's base, a group of voters deciding the upcoming primary runoff.
The commercial was filled with typical talk of building a border wall and supporting former President Donald Trump. But it also included Neese talking about defending the Second Amendment and showed her slowly pulling a gun out of her glovebox.
The use of the gun drew a lot of attention and political observers said it showed a quick embrace of a "culture war" issue without really thinking through the consequences.
Bice, who responded with a commercial attacking Neese for not allowing firearms inside her own company, ended up winning the primary runoff and the general election.
Two years later, while running Walters' campaign, Langston continued to push "culture war" messaging, including talk of ridding schools of "woke" policies, a full embrace of the campaign talking points being used by Republicans nationwide.
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But Walters' campaign seemed to go even further as he threatened to fire progressive teachers, described Oklahoma classrooms as engaged in a civil war, and for a time said he would reject all federal funding for local schools.
That strategy resulted in a large victory as Walters was elected state superintendent in November by a 14-point margin.
But much of the controversial campaign rhetoric has continued as Walters became state superintendent, and many around him say it's partly because of Langston's influence and work within the state Department of Education.
That messaging style has frustrated many, including some Republicans who believe it distracts from the party's education policies.
“He’s chosen a path of rhetoric and not actual legitimate education policy,” state Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, recently told CNHI newspapers.
McBride proposed bills this year that would limit the state superintendent's power, and Attorney General Gentner Drummond warned recently that state agencies couldn't enact administrative rules without first receiving a directive from the Oklahoma Legislature, an apparent shot at Walters.
But Walters hasn't reassessed his messaging in light of those efforts.
Earlier this month, Walters tweeted a photo of a white girl washing her hands in a school restroom while two girls of color were behind her. Walters said, "I will always fight for students," along with, "Student Safety over liberal agenda.”
Many saw the tweet as racist, claiming it showed a white student needing protection.
Langston claimed the tweet was about ensuring genders aren't allowed to mix in school restrooms, even though the image did not include a man or a person identifying as a male.
"I do not expect the liberal media or bloggers to understand that keeping boys out of girls' bathrooms is a top issue for Oklahomans," Langston said in an email to The Oklahoman.
The post was reminiscent of another tweet from Walters who in December shared a family photo with a white Santa Claus and the claim: "No woke Santa this year :)." The tweet seemed like a response to Kenny Blair, a Black Oklahoman who plays Santa who had recently been getting attention.
Walters dismissed any accusations of racism.
"It never surprises me that the left finds a way to take everything out of context," he said about the Santa tweet.
The response was similar to Langston's nearly a decade ago when he denied his attack against Carona, the Italian-American senator from Texas, was racist.
“What we’ve done with our messaging is just find a creative way to get the facts out,” Langston said.
Contributing: Nuria Martinez-Keel
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Ryan Walters former campaign manager Matt Langston helping shape image