OKLAHOMA CITY — T.W. Shannon, speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and a fast-rising star in national conservative politics, has a special name for the off-white couch in his state Capitol office.
“The Truth Sofa.”
House members come into his office, sit on The Truth Sofa and tell him ... the truth: Why they can’t vote for leadership bills, why they have to vote for non-leadership bills, why certain proposals are essential to their districts, or their constituencies, or their friends.
Many times, Shannon says, he spends the better part of his day sitting across from The Truth Sofa, listening.
Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon smiles as he presides over the House of Representatives at the Oklahoma State Capitol in Oklahoma City on Wednesday, April 17. JOHN CLANTON/Tulsa World
“I learn more about the world, their districts, their families, and what’s really happening with the member right there,” Shannon said.
As the Legislature moves toward the climax of its annual session, competition for time on The Truth Sofa is rising. Lots of people want a few minutes alone with Shannon, arguably the most powerful man inside the state Capitol.
Just above The Truth Sofa, there’s a mirror.
Rep. Harold Wright (left) of Custer County and Rep. Jason Murphey of Logan County sit on the “Truth Couch” in Speaker T.W. Shannon’s office. JOHN CLANTON/Tulsa World
The young Oklahoma legislative leader has a magic political combination of minority heritage, conservative ideas and a silky smooth presence. Seasoned experts say his political potential is virtually unlimited on the state or national stage.
But Shannon insists that when he looks into that mirror he doesn’t see a future congressman, a would-be governor, or maybe something even better looking back across The Truth Sofa, unless...
Tahrohon, get to class
Doris McNair remembers the image of Tahrohon Shannon walking down the hall at Lawton High School, towering over his classmates in stature and in other ways.
“Of course, he was the tallest one,” the now-retired guidance counselor said. “He was just talking and talking, and I would tell him, ‘OK, Tahrohon, get to class.’ and he’d say, ‘I’m going Ms. McNair. I’m going,’ but, of course, he would just skirt in, because he was so busy, always talking.”
And always smiling. Tahrohon Shannon — he wouldn’t shift away from his tribal name until he got to college — was a “good kid” and always popular, McNair said.
“The girls loved him,” she said with a laugh. “He was just a fun person to be around. He was happy all the time and had a big smile on his face.”
Beyond his young charisma, McNair said, it was clear Shannon had the mental sharpness to be a leader.
“He always had something in his mind that was going on,” she said. “While everyone else was going on about crazy stuff, he was figuring out how he could get this done or get that done.”
A game of 72
Of the 101 members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, 72 are Republicans.
That’s politically comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time.
Sometimes it’s harder to lead a majority of 72 than it would be a caucus with 20 fewer members.
“It’s a big caucus and because it’s a big caucus, there’s a lot of diversity in the people in it,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Cole. “So being able to be united, being able to work well with your counterparts ... those kinds of things are extremely important.”
Oklahoma Speaker T.W. Shannon greets Rep. Mark Murphey of Logan County outside Shannon's office. Shannon leads a majority of 72 Republicans in the state House. JOHN CLANTON/Tulsa World
The Republican caucus ranges from the chamber of commerce types who rail against big government (but have nothing against an occasional big-dollar bond issue) to the Agenda 21 crowd with their echoes of the John Birch Society.
Already conservative, the Oklahoma House took a sharp right turn under Shannon’s leadership.
A Shannon innovation — the States Rights Committee — was the vehicle for a variety of ideas that were quietly put to bed by Shannon’s predecessor as speaker, Republican Kris Steele.
House Democratic Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, said past speakers have left out the extremes of the party and built a voting majority out of the center, which made for a more unified platform, but a more divided chamber.
“(Shannon’s) leadership style seems to be one of inclusion, especially in his own caucus,” Inman said.
During Steele’s speakership, discontented tea party Republicans occasionally joined with Democrats to thwart, or at least slow, Steele’s program.
Shannon has reached out to all elements of the Republican Party — which makes a smoother flowing chamber, but also has meant the House has passed some previously stifled “bad ideas,” such as a proposal to take on the United Nations over its Agenda 21 and its supposed one-world government threat, Inman said.
Shannon said he takes pride in the fact that all factions are represented on his leadership team.
“Obviously you can’t get all 72 around a table, but when you look around that table, I can see every single person in our caucus represented,” he said.
T.W. Shannon was a senior at Cameron University in 2000, when he saw a beautiful woman walking across campus.
It was Devon Murray, a freshman.
He was thunderstruck.
“I saw her and went and introduced myself, and then went home and told my parents and my coworkers, ‘I’ve met the woman I’m going to marry.’?”
He was right.
The two married in 2001. They have two children and work together in a public relations and human relations consulting firm, Shannon Strategies Inc.
Speaker T.W. Shannon speaks to business leaders in the Tulsa area during a Tulsa-Area Chamber event at the Oklahoma State Capitol in Oklahoma City. JOHN CLANTON/Tulsa World
Cole says if you want to understand Shannon, you need to appreciate the role of Devon.
“He’s extremely well grounded in his personal life. Devon really is the love of his life,” said Cole. “You couldn’t have a more supportive spouse or extended family. ... It’s just a wonderful, wonderful personal foundation on which to move.”
“The hardest part of being Speaker of the House is consensus building,” Shannon said.
“I’m good at relationships. It comes easy for me (but) ... the issues are so diverse and none of them are black and white. Usually, it’s the lesser of two evils,” he said.
A successful speaker listens a lot, speaks less and looks for uniting ideas, Shannon said.
“I don’t have a lot of ego in it,” Shannon said. “It wasn’t some thing I set out to do. It wasn’t something I planned to do. ... So I think I can approach it from an objective position.”
“The way I approach people, even those that I disagree with, is that I value their opinions, and I want them as contributing members,” Shannon said. “I think that’s been part of our success. When you’re not intimidated by these people who disagree with you, and you allow them to be free, open and honest about what’s important to them, I think it works. It has to be managed, that’s the challenge.”
House leadership meetings are often heated, Shannon conceded.
“They’re lively. Sometimes they’re long — longer than I would like. But in the end you get a better product,” he said. “Diversity produces a better product.”
The fiery furnace
A handsome young black man from Lawton was applying for an entry-level staff job. He had a good resume, good recommendations and a black face.
Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts — the first black Republican U.S. Representative from south of the Mason-Dixon Line since Reconstruction — said he knew what he needed to do.
He grilled the young man pointedly about his beliefs, his family, his politics and his ability to withstand the taunts of those who would say he was a traitor to his people.
“I definitely put him through the nth degree,” Watts said of that first meeting with T.W. Shannon. “It was Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace.”
From his own life, Watts knew that the novelty of a young, black conservative creates its own spotlight, which could be a good thing for a rising young politician and an uncomfortable one.
A big part of the difference was being prepared for it: Knowing how to respond to jeers with smiles and sticking to principles without getting angry.
The first day on Watts’ staff, Shannon went to a high-class fundraiser for then-U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.
The next day, he was back in Oklahoma, digging a post hole for a Watts sign in the 105-degree heat of Jackson County.
“It was kind of the glamor and the pain of politics all in one,” Shannon said.
Already conservative, the Oklahoma House took a sharp right turn under T.W. Shannon's leadership. Republican Kris Steele. JOHN CLANTON/Tulsa World
Seat at the table: No matter how many people are in the room, there are really only three seats at the table when it comes time to negotiate the state budget — the governor, the president pro tem of the Senate and the speaker.
Gov. Mary Fallin and President Pro Tem Brian Bingman have been there the past two years. Shannon is the new kid on the block.
He wants to be a conservative voice in that process, an advocate of limited government and personal responsibility.
He also wants to be a generational voice, an advocate of restrained state debt because he knows who will end up paying off that borrowing.
And he wants to be an optimistic voice, an advocate of forgetting the breakdowns of the past — particularly last year’s final-days breakdown on a state personal income tax cut.
“I don’t bring any baggage with me and that helps,” Shannon said. “I bring a little more objectivity. Ignorance is bliss sometimes. I didn’t have the front row seat on what happened last year. I think that probably helps.”
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