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New Oklahoma House speaker faces challenges within own party

T.W. Shannon will be the first black speaker of Oklahoma's House of Representatives. He said his goal is to be a voice of reason and to ensure all in his GOP caucus are heard.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Published: December 17, 2012
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The biggest obstacle facing Oklahoma House Speaker-elect T.W. Shannon in the upcoming session may not come from the other side of the political aisle.

Shannon, who is expected to be formally elected speaker of the House of Representatives in early January, will have to keep factions from being divisive among the largest number of House Republicans to ever serve in the lower chamber.

“My goal next session is to hopefully be a voice of reason and also to be continuing to push for a conservative agenda that also provides for economic growth in the state,” said Shannon, R-Lawton. “I'm confident we'll be able to do it.”

Shannon will be the first black speaker of the House and, at 34, he'll also be the youngest to serve in the powerful post. He said he will work to ensure that all voices are heard in his caucus. Republicans for the next two years will have a 72-29 majority.

Shannon told The Oklahoman he is driven to pass legislation to improve Oklahoma's economy, and is aware that members of his caucus have a wide range of priorities that at times will be counter to the majority of the membership.

“What I've tried to do is elevate the level of discussion so that we stay focused on the issues that are important to the people of Oklahoma, not the personalities that may proffer those divisions,” he said. “I don't have any ego in this role of speaker so people who disagree, I welcome it. It's helpful to have competing ideas. At the end of the day, though, people expect you to come together and come up with solutions. We can have disagreements and we will, but we have to be about solutions.

“As the leader, my goal is to always keep the goal in mind,” Shannon said. “It's easy for people to get sidetracked on rat-chasing rabbit trails when they lose focus of the goal. If I can keep the goal before members that we want to improve the prosperity of Oklahoma, I think that's how you do it.

“The bottom line is I don't get to pick who comes to the Legislature,” Shannon said. “I have to use who the people send, and I plan to use them.”

Shannon said the increase in Republican legislators in the House and Senate after November's election indicates voters want limited government and economic prosperity in the state.

Past struggles

Former House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, struggled during his two years in the leadership post with far-right conservative members who this past year resorted to working with House Democrats to derail or at least mire down the GOP leadership's measures. That faction of the House Republican caucus takes credit for Shannon's election last year as speaker; Steele's preferred successor lost in a close caucus vote.

In November, House Republicans clearly reaffirmed the selection of Shannon as House leader. Members voted unanimously to change Shannon's title from designated House speaker to speaker-elect.

A retreat for GOP House members earlier this month at Medicine Park went well, according to several members who attended it and a similar retreat two years ago in Bartlesville. They said this year's retreat was calm, compared with a protest outside the Bartlesville retreat by about 60 social or constitutional conservatives, including one dressed as Santa Claus, who worried the House Republican leaders were not conservative enough.

Shannon said last month's retreat focused on discussing issues and coming up with an agenda for the session, which starts Feb. 4 and goes through late May.

“We didn't get into personality disputes,” he said. “Our caucus retreat positions us nicely to show that we're going to be the chamber of not just ideas but solutions that we've been talking about for a really long time.”

House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, said Shannon can be an effective leader because he's levelheaded, smart and has an affable personality. He said he believes that Shannon wants to work with all members in the House, from the far-right members of the GOP caucus to Democrats.

“He wants to work with everyone and we're going to do all we can to ensure that that good working relationship continues,” Inman said. “While we won't agree on every subject, we think that there are some common-ground areas when it comes to education or when it comes to public transportation and infrastructure that we can work together and kind of get beyond the fringes that exists in politics and just do what's right by Oklahoma.”

Two-party system

Shannon said he supports the two-party system and will allow Democrats to be heard.

“The voters made a decision that they clearly wanted Republicans leading the discussion, leading the charge and that's what's going to happen,” he said. “But that doesn't mean that's at the peril of Democrat influence because they certainly should be a part of the conversation because it's a better conversation when you've got a two-party system.”

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