Matt Strawn knew how to take a gamble way before he took his new job as CEO of the Iowa Lottery, where he watches others bet and makes sure it’s all on the up and up. 

Strawn, a Benton County farm boy, studied political science and journalism in school. He started catching the political bug while working as an intern in Washington, D.C., while he was attending the University of Iowa. He later became a full-blown political junkie while working for a couple of congressmen in Washington, D.C. He added a law degree from the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America.

Later, he would serve as chairman of the Iowa GOP from 2009 to 2012, when he resigned after the party first declared Mitt Romney, and later Rick Santorum, winner of the Iowa caucuses.

When it came time to start a family, Strawn and his wife chose to return to Iowa, where Matt’s business entrepreneurism bloomed. He was part of a team that brought the Iowa Barnstormers back to Des Moines. He also took a chance at a new career, co-founding Next Generation Public Affairs.

Gov. Kim Reynolds eventually approached Strawn to discuss several top positions in her administration. The one that caught his eye: taking over as Iowa Lottery CEO with the retirement of promoter extraordinaire Terry Rich. 

We asked Strawn about his journey.

When did you really get the politics bug?

I didn’t grow up in an overtly politically active family. We had the news on and we were up on current events. But in my junior year at the University of Iowa, I accepted an internship in Washington, D.C., and I was a 20-year-old farm kid on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during the Contract with America ceremony where Newt Gingrinch and the Republicans were laying out their plans for what they would do if they won back the majority for the first time in a couple of generations. That experience kind of planted the political bug in me. 

I largely knew that I was going to go back home to finish my degree, but this is where the action is. The opportunity to return to D.C. after graduation was something I figured I was going to do. So that’s kind of where the seed was planted. 

What were you particularly interested in? 

I was always on that policy-oriented track. I wasn’t a member of College Republicans or active in local campaigns much when I was in college. I ended up spending 10½ years on Capitol Hill. I worked for two members of Congress [Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, both Republicans]. 

What brought you back to Iowa? 

We decided we wanted to raise our kids here. And I was asked to help with Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008. That was short-lived because he ran out of cash, but that was perfect timing to bring me back to Iowa.

What interested you in the lottery job? 

When the governor’s team reached out to me after the election and asked if I wanted to return to public service, the lottery job seemed to be the one that really jumped off the page for a host of reasons. It’s a position that requires some level of entrepreneurship. I have a certain level of comfort with the media and the public-facing components. As we’ve learned in recent years, there is a component for which my legal background serves me well. I thought, hey, you know, that job makes sense. Everybody knows the sizzle. The Iowa Lottery does a number of things fantastically well, and has for years. The sizzle, the promotion, the Woo Hoo! That’s what it’s known for in the community, and that’s what it should be known for. 

And the budget? 

It’s an almost $400 million enterprise, based in Clive, right by Biaggi’s and Granite City. We have regional offices in Council Bluffs, Mason City, Cedar Rapids and Storm Lake. They have three primary functions. They are involved in redemptions [of prizewinning tickets]. Over a certain amount, our players can only collect winnings at a lottery office. A retailer can pay prizes up to $600. A regional office can pay up to $250,000. Anything over that, you need to come to the Clive office. We also have warehousing capabilities. And they are home base for our district sales reps. We have more than 2,400 retail licensees. For the most part, we are a wholesaler. 

How many employees do you have?

115. 

Any early thoughts about goals?

This is an opportunity to serve my state, which is humbling in and of itself. Knowing I’m only the third person in the 34-year history to be given this job is pretty sobering [Ed Stanek and Terry Rich were the others]. Maybe this is inherent in any farm kid who is taught this, but you always leave a place better than you found it. That’s my philosophy coming into this position. From a goal standpoint, the watchwords that guide me every day are integrity and innovation. I don’t think that’s any different than the charges that were given to my predecessors. 

How are you wired?

“It’s relationships and it’s people” is how I approached my initial days at the lottery. I think one of my first priorities was actually getting around, not just the headquarters building but the regional office, and getting to know the people that make the lottery work every day and understanding, you know, the kind of culture and the vibe. 

You get to understand and know your people. Don’t just get to know them as employees or team members. Understand that one has a son or daughter that’s trying to run a qualifying time for Drake in the spring, and which one has a family wedding coming up in the fall. 

My philosophy from a leadership standpoint is, especially coming from a high-functioning organization like I did, is you keep your mouth shut and your ears open. 

What do you do when you aren’t working? 

One of my favorite places on the planet, when I’m not with my family, is Saturday mornings outside of Kinnick Stadium in the fall. I have coached middle school track. I’m on the board of Des Moines Area Religious Council, which oversees the food pantry network. We are very active in Holy Trinity school. n