“People focus too much on race,” says T.W. Shannon, a sixth-generation Oklahoman and member of the Chickasaw Nation. What’s more important, he says, is “what you believe and how you’re going to govern.”
At just 34, Tahrohon Wayne Shannon is Oklahoma’s first African American Speaker of the House, its youngest ever, and the first African American Republican speaker in the country since Reconstruction, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
He’s also part of the Republican Party’s effort to advance a more diverse public face, after America elected — then re-elected — its first black president. Last November, Barack Obama won 93 percent of black voters and 60 percent of those under 30 years old, sending the GOP a clear message that it needs to break down demographic barriers.
GOPAC, an organization “dedicated to educating and electing a new generation of Republican leaders,” invited Shannon to speak at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in suburban D.C. over the weekend.
At a panel discussion called “10 Conservatives Under 40,” he tells the audience, “You might know Oklahoma is “the reddest state in the nation, a place where President Obama lost every single county. Even against Mitt Romney.”
That gets a laugh. But the joke is “only 47% funny,” he says.
Six-foot-four, Shannon projects the style of his home in Comanche County on the Texas border, with a confident saunter and a measured drawl as comfortable as a campfire on the range.
When the subject of race comes up, Shannon contends there’s more than one kind of diversity. “In Oklahoma, we’ve got urban areas, rural areas, Native American tribes, oil and gas activity. We’ve got a lot of opinions and ideas,” he tells the Daily Caller. The biggest obstacles to prosperity, he says, are the status quo, low expectations, and federal intrusion and confusion. “We can’t wait on the federal government to lead,” he says. “Reform will come at the state level.”
With 37 states controlled entirely by Republicans or Democrats, Shannon has good reason to believe they will be laboratories for policy experimentation along party lines, while the federal government remains stalled in bi-partisan gridlock.
Shannon stresses his state is not competitive for Democrats at all. “Oklahoma hasn’t voted for a Democrat to be President since Lyndon Johnson,” he said in a CPAC address. “And if that doesn’t make you believe how conservative we are, I have two names for you: Jim Inhofe, and Tom Coburn.”
He calls J.C. Watts, Oklahoma’s former African American GOP congressman, who first hired him, a mentor. When asked about other political figures who inspire him, Shannon names Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor. That would not have been the first response of most attendees at CPAC, where libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) won a straw poll as the preferred next presidential candidate.
Shannon says he likes Bush’s stance on education. It’s a tragedy, he adds, that the number one determinant of a child’s life trajectory should be his zip code.
Shannon envisions reform centered on his concept of “civil society” that includes two-parent households, churches and other community institutions, as well as small businesses like the public relations company he runs with his wife Devon. (They have two young children.)
Shannon has advanced bills to prevent Medicaid funding of the morning after pill, start a pro-marriage state ad campaign, tie food stamps to work and reduce his state’s income tax and fees. He notes that Oklahoma has the fourteenth-lowest combined state and local tax rate in the nation, low unemployment and high job growth as major successes.
Though the results of the last presidential election suggest many Americans do not share the Republican message, Shannon is certain voters would support a platform based on work and family if Republicans could find an able messenger.
“We’ve been too comfortable with being right on issues,” he said. “We have to go out and communicate better.”