T.W. Shannon is headed for big things in politics, that much is certain. Shannon is a rising star in the Republican Party — handsome, articulate, driven and, at just 34, he's speaker-designate of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. When he bangs the gavel next year, he'll become the first black House speaker in Oklahoma.
When he first won election to the open state House District 62 seat in 2006, Shannon defeated a well-known local Democrat and became just the second black Republican elected to the Legislature. He got 58 percent of the vote in a district that at the time had roughly 3,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. Clearly, he knows how to get things done.
He learned at the knee of two giants in the Oklahoma GOP, J.C. Watts and Tom Cole. Watts was the first black to win statewide office in Oklahoma when he was elected to the Corporation Commission in 1990, on his way to four terms in the U.S. House. Cole, who represents the 4th Congressional District in Congress, is the dean of Republican Party politics in this state and architect of many a successful GOP campaign. He might get the chance to guide Shannon's own path to Washington someday.
But first Shannon must lead — really lead — the Oklahoma House, one of the most challenging jobs in state government. Republicans hold a supermajority in the 101-member body, but factions within the GOP have made it a hornet's nest at times. That was particularly true for the outgoing speaker, Rep. Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, who regularly knocked heads with far-right conservatives more concerned with ideologically driven issues than anything else.
That wing of the caucus takes credit for getting Shannon his new gig — Steele's preferred successor lost to Shannon in a close caucus vote. It will be interesting to see whether that group as a result carries more sway with Shannon than it did with Steele, whose chief aim was always to produce strong policy. Asked about that possibility during a meeting last week with The Oklahoman's editorial board, Shannon said only that he wants to ensure all voices in the caucus are represented. “If you create an environment that encourages discussion and debate, you get a better product,” he said.