Here’s a name you’ll probably be hearing again: T. W. Shannon.
Only 35 years old, Shannon, a protégé of former congressman J. C. Watts, is serving as speaker of the house in Oklahoma. The charismatic Shannon, who was highlighted as one of ten conservatives under 40 to watch at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, is working hard to boost the Sooner State.
“If we’re really going to get this nation turned around, No. 1, we can’t wait for the federal government to lead,” Shannon says in an interview. “I believe reform is going to happen in the halls of state government.”
His top accomplishments, he says, include cutting taxes (the state income tax is set to decrease to 5 percent from 5.25 percent for the top bracket in 2015 and will possibly drop further in 2016 if revenue levels are high enough) and passing legislation that sets aside 1 percent of Oklahoma’s TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) federal funds for public-service announcements promoting marriage, which he believes could help people climb out of poverty.
It’s accomplishments like these that have begun to give Shannon a national profile. Gregg Keller, an adviser to the American Conservative Union, is extremely enthusiastic about Shannon. “This is a guy who has spent his speakership and his career in public life trying to make government smaller, more responsive, more efficient,” Keller says. “He works really hard to try to get people off welfare and welfare-assistance programs.”
GOPAC president David Avella also speaks highly of Shannon, who serves on the group’s advisory board. “Speaker Shannon focuses his leadership on lowering taxes and making sure that Oklahoma state government doesn’t spend more than it brings in, the very principles that conservatives across the country want to see their elected officials support.”
Shannon caught the political bug early, when he served as class president during high school. “I’ve always been interested in how you can help the most people and have the most impact,” he says. Shannon’s experience in high school, working minimum-wage jobs at Burger King and a movie theater, helped him recognize the value these kind of jobs have for Americans struggling to get a foothold. “Every time the minimum wage is raised, jobs disappear,” he says. “Those are entry-level positions, and most people don’t work there forever.” Throughout college, Shannon continued to work various jobs, including selling radio ads.
After college, he wanted to be a speechwriter in Washington, D.C. But when he went to J. C. Watts’s office, résumé in hand, he was told there were no openings in the D.C. office — but if he wanted to work in Oklahoma, they had a campaign position open. So Shannon opted to attend Oklahoma City University Law School and work for Watts. Now he laughs off his former wish to live in D.C., saying he has no regrets: “It’s a great place to visit, but no place I ever want to live.”
He learned a lot from Watts, whom he enthusiastically describes as a man of faith and someone who taught Shannon — who married his wife, Devon, his second year in law school — that it is possible to be both a dedicated family man and a politician. “I got to see a guy who just balanced it all — he balanced faith, family, and career, all in that order,” says Shannon, who now has two children of his own.
Watts also talked to Shannon about being a black Republican. “He was very direct about making sure that you don’t get pigeonholed, that you have a much broader perspective than just your skin color. Certainly [while] it’s a part of who you are . . . it doesn’t define everything about you.”
Shannon also worked for Representative Tom Cole (R., Okla.) and the Chickasaw Nation. (Shannon is Chickasaw himself.) “I thought I had gotten over the political bug at that point,” he says. But instead, after prayer and pleas from others, he opted to run for a state House seat in 2006 and won, becoming, at age 28, the first Republican to represent that district. In 2013, he became speaker.
Shannon is enthusiastic about his work in Oklahoma, calling the state “an example for the rest of the nation.” “People are hungry to see what it looks like when you don’t spend more than you make, when you have traditional values, when you believe in the value of hard work and you’re not looking for government handouts,” he says, noting the contrast between Oklahoma and liberal states such as California and New York.
Shannon is noncommittal about whether he has any plans to run for federal office in the future. “It’s not something I’ve ruled out, but it’s not something I’m planning for, either,” he says. But there’s no doubt that, once again, Shannon will find himself fielding pleas from others who want to see him run. “We believe and hope,” says GOPAC’s Avella, “that he has a very long tenure helping to lead the Republican party.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.