T.W. Shannon, who made history Tuesday by being elected the first black speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, pledged to push pro-business and conservative policies to show the rest of the country how they create prosperity and said he would buck intrusion by the federal government.
“We live in a country with an out-of-control federal government that is bankrupt financially and morally,” said Shannon, R-Lawton. “As a result, we have fewer freedoms, we pay more in taxes than we should, and there is little hope of these things changing under our current president and this Congress. So let me say this: The state of Oklahoma will not be following the lead of Washington, D.C. Not on my watch.
“In fact, we will push back at every turn,” said Shannon, who at 34 is also the youngest speaker in the state's 106-year history. “We will fight every invasive regulation. We will refuse each costly expansion.”
Shannon, easily elected to the powerful post, also had a message for the country's first black president, Barack Obama, on how to balance the budget.
“Mr. President, if you're listening, I'll give you a hint: The key is controlling spending, not raising taxes,” he said.
Shannon quoted slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. to address how he would work with Democrats as well as the House Republicans who broke party ranks the past two years and foiled passage of several key GOP-supported measures.
“You will find that I am bold in expressing my vision and dream,” Shannon said. “I will not bend from my determination and principles, but I also believe that this House should not be governed by division. Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘We must live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.'
“We won't always agree on every issue, but I hope we can all agree on this: We are each made in the image of God. As your speaker, I pledge to always treat you in this way, with dignity and respect no matter who you are or which party you belong to.”
Democrats, who are outnumbered 72-29, nominated Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, for speaker. On a party-line vote, Shannon was elected 69-28.
Shannon had kind words for Inman, who was elected to the House in 2006, the same year as Shannon.
“I count on you as a competitor and a friend, not as an enemy,” he said.
Inman said he hoped Shannon would be able to quiet the fringe elements of his caucus and focus on policies that are best for the state.
“If he will stay focused on those issues that will improve education, health care and transportation in the state of Oklahoma, then he will find a willing ally in me as the leader of the Democratic caucus and in my members,” Inman said.
Shannon, only the sixth Republican speaker in Oklahoma history, afterward downplayed his historic election.
“I am honored that the (Republican) caucus would select me,” he said. “This caucus chose me because they think I've got a skill set that can help lead the House and also lead the state. I'm excited to do that. It's going to be a team effort.”
Rep. Mike Jackson, R-Enid, was elected speaker pro tem over Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, during the meeting. The vote was 68-28, also along party lines.
Shannon gave a glimpse of the House Republican caucus priorities for the session, which begins Feb. 4 and runs through late May. They include changing the workers' compensation system, reviewing the tax code, continuing to shore up the state pension system and taking care of state assets, including the crumbling state Capitol.
He said he would work to keep Oklahoma as one of the top states in job growth and one of the lowest in unemployment.
“When it comes to valuing life, we should set an example for the nation as well,” he said. “A society that does not value human life will fail — period. Valuing human life cannot end after a child enters the world, either. We must expand that definition so that we value life at all stages.”
He sprinkled in humor during his talk, saying if God gave him only four months to live he would ask that he be allowed to spend them in the House chamber during the session.
“They're usually the longest four months of my life, without a doubt.”
U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, who hired Shannon years ago to work in his field office, attended Tuesday's session and called Shannon one of the most talented public servants he ever met.
“There was never any question that at some point he would run for elective office,” Cole said. “He was just too talented and too able. This is a more rapid ascent than any of us ever expected. It's a remarkable achievement and it kind of hints at the promise to come,” he said. “I really do believe some day he'll be a governor, a senator, a congressman, something like that.”
Shannon took his oath of office from Judge David Lewis, who last week became the first black to become presiding judge of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. Shannon said Lewis, back when he was a Comanche County special district judge, had encouraged him to attend law school.
Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, called this an interesting time in Oklahoma's history. Also last week, Tom Colbert became the first black chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Even though Shelton, a black lawmaker, nominated Inman for the speaker's position, he said Shannon is a good role model for blacks and other minorities.
“It's tremendous,” he said. “It's the same thing that you see a lot of minorities do when they look at the president of the United States — they see themselves in that person and that's why diversity is good.”