By Sean Murphy
OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma House elected T.W. Shannon Tuesday as the state's first black speaker, and the Lawton Republican vowed to reach across the party aisle and focus on making the state more prosperous and business friendly.
A member of the Chickasaw Nation and at age 34 the youngest-ever Oklahoma speaker of the House, Shannon downplayed the significance of his race after the House voted 69-28 along party lines to select him over Del City Democratic Rep. Scott Inman.
"This caucus chose me because they think I've got a skill set that can help lead the House and also lead the state, and I'm excited to do that," Shannon said after his historic election. "Hopefully I can bring a perspective that represents all people, because that's what I think people are looking for."
Shannon already had been elected by his Republican colleagues as the speaker-elect, and Tuesday's vote was more of a formality before the start of the legislative session on Feb. 4.
Shannon set a bipartisan tone in his speech to the House when he described Inman, who will lead the 29-member Democratic caucus, as "one of the most gifted and talented members in this building."
"While I know we will disagree on policy ... there's not going to be one time where I doubt that you and I share one goal and one goal only, and that's the mutual desire to see our kids live in a more prosperous Oklahoma," Shannon said. "I count you as a competitor and a friend, not as an enemy."
Inman described Shannon as a friend and said in a statement that he was "looking forward to our caucuses productively with one another as we cast off the fringe elements that have held our Legislature hostage in recent years."
Although Republicans outnumber Democrats 72-29 in the House, Shannon will be forced to wrangle with a GOP caucus that has often been fractured in recent years as its right wing has grown with an infusion of tea party-aligned members. Inman last year often joined forces with some disgruntled Republicans to help derail legislation supported by then-Speaker Kris Steele.
Rep. Eric Proctor, the deputy Democratic floor leader, said he believes some of those opportunities will present themselves again for Democrats this year.
"It's going to be very difficult for 51 members of that caucus agree," said Proctor, D-Tulsa. "They're going to have to have Democratic help to get through the process.
"Our caucus is always willing to work with anybody who's willing to move the state forward. That's really our role. The House Democrats are the conscience of the state Capitol. To be successful, Speaker Shannon needs a diligent, loyal opposition, and that's what we're going to be willing to provide him."
Shannon said his top priorities for the upcoming session will be to focus on overhauling the state's worker's compensation system, reducing the tax burden, and shoring up the state's pension system. These goals, he said, will help to improve the state's economic climate and lead to growth in business and industry.
The new speaker also decried what he described what he described as an "out-of-control federal government" and promised to push back against intrusive federal mandates that could hinder state progress and result in fewer personal freedoms for Oklahoma citizens.
"The state of Oklahoma will not go down the path of Washington, D.C., not on my watch," Shannon said.
He also criticized a growing sense of entitlement among generations of Americans who depend too much on the government for their subsistence.
"We have seen that dependence on government leads to poverty, addiction and human failure," Shannon said. "The best social program in the world is a high-paying job."
Shannon was sworn into office by Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals Judge David Lewis, a former Comanche County judge who Shannon said encouraged him to attend law school.
After his election, Shannon received a standing ovation and hugged his wife and two children, who were on the floor for Tuesday's votes. U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, for whom Shannon worked as a field representative before being elected to the House in 2006, sat in the gallery.
"It says a lot of wonderful things about the state that we have an African American and tribal member holding this job, a lot of good thing about his (caucus) that chose him, and a lot of great things about the Republican Party," said Cole, also a member of the Chickasaw Nation, who is beginning his fifth term in Congress. "But mostly it says a lot of great things about T.W. and his family. He's a quintessential Oklahoma success story."
Also on Tuesday, the House voted to select Rep. Mike Jackson, R-Enid, as House speaker pro tem in a party-line vote over Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs.
In the Senate, Sapulpa Republican Sen. Brian Bingman was voted into a second term as Senate president pro tem, while Claremore Democratic Sen. Sean Burrage will again serve as Senate minority leader.