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Led to serve

Shannon’s political rise began with lessons learned at home

The Lawton Constitution
February 4, 2013

Growing up in a family and church that emphasized service led T.W. Shannon to the ultimate public service: Politics. Shannon, a 34-yearold Lawton Republican, has been Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives for weeks — he was formally elected to his position in January, but had known since last year that he would be Speaker if Republicans retained their House majority — but today he formally becomes the face of the Oklahoma House when the Legislature opens its 2013 session after Gov. Mary Fallin’s State of the State Address.

It’s a road that began in junior high and picked up steam when Shannon worked as a congressional aide for two Fourth District Congressman before tackling his own political goal: The November 2006 election that allowed him to replace the late Abe Deutschendorf as his hometown’s House representative. “It’s something I’ve always felt led to do, an urging to do,” Shannon said of his decision to become a politician, adding he had examples of public service from which to draw: His father was a school teacher; his mother, a social worker. “The idea of helping people interested me, intrigued me.”

Shannon, who holds a juris doctorate degree from Oklahoma City University, said he evaluated his “skill sets” and decided politics is what he wanted to do with his life. The District 62 House seat was an easy choice.

“It’s the chamber closest to the people,” he said.

Shannon said he drew from various sources when preparing for his role as the Lawton-area representative. While he “took from Abe’s example of serving his constituents,” he also had the political influences of former U.S. Congressman J.C. Watts and current U.S. Congressman Tom Cole.

“That was my first exploration into politics,” Shannon said, of his work with the Republicans who have represented Oklahoma’s Fourth Congressional District for the past 17 years. “My first day on the job, I was staffing an event for J.C. Watts and (U.S. House Speaker) Dennis Hastert. That was my first day in politics.”

Shannon is quick to note that not every day is that glamorous: The next day, he was a staffer working “somewhere out in Oklahoma, putting out signs. It was 180 degrees,” he joked.

Shannon said he learned something from both men: “J.C. was the great communicator. Tom Cole is the great strategist,” he said, adding he is turning those experiences to his own benefit, “especially with my new role. If I get stuck, both are willing to lend a hand. That’s been a vital experience.”

“Once you cut out eating and sleeping, you have time”

It’s a long way from the politics of his school years. Shannon said while he was involved in some level of student government through secondary school, that wasn’t so obvious in college, where he was earning his degrees while working full time. It took a degree of balancing, but Shannon said he has applied his father’s teaching
from the first day he entered the work force, as a 16-year-old at the Burger King on Cache Road: “You’re gonna be here, you’re gonna work. That was a good lesson I carried with me. I’ve always gotten up early.”

It was a skill that allowed him to work with legislators in the daytime while earning his law degree at night. It also helps him balance the demands of the Legislature with his role as husband and father.

“Once you cut out eating and sleeping, you have time,” he joked. “You make time for priorities, find that balance.”

Shannon said he and his wife Devon, college sweethearts, have been married for 11 years “and politics is our third child. We’ve been doing this balance. We’ve got it down to a science.” Balance means pledging to spend time with his children and a date night once a week with his wife, whom he credits with helping him find the balance he needs.

“It helps when you’re in your home town, with a family support system,” he said. “It’s always been a balancing act. Sometimes, we get out of balance.”

Balance means something else as the years have passed. Shannon was a young married man with an infant daughter (Audrey Grace) when he ran for District 62 in 2006. By this last campaign, he was the father of two (son T.W. II joined the family three years ago). Children bring a new perspective, he noted.

“Absolutely. Every parent will say that,” he said. “You’re a little self-absorbed, especially during your college years. Once you have those dependants, it makes you see the world in a totally different way.”

Seeing the world a different way becomes more important in an era where local politicians are balancing the needs of their state against the dictates of federal government, said Shannon, who noted Oklahoma can’t wait for the federal government to lead.

“If reform (happens) in this country, it will happen at the state level,” he said, noting Oklahoma Republicans are trying to stay focused on how their agenda in the coming session will affect the next generations.

Pragmatic conservative

That agenda will have a decidedly conservative slant. A self-described pragmatic conservative, Shannon also is a man who has many “first-tos” attached to his name. An African-American who is a registered member of the Chickasaw Nation, Shannon is the first African-American to be Speaker of the Oklahoma House (and only the second African-American Republican in the Oklahoma House), the first African-American to represent a southern Oklahoma District, the first House Speaker from Lawton and the House’s youngest Speaker. But, how would Shannon describe himself?

“First, I’d label myself as a conservative, with Judeo Christian values,” he said. “With ‘the first,’ it usually means there are reasons you shouldn’t have been there, it shouldn’t have happened. I’m honored it happened, (but) keep it all in perspective. I was sent there by the people of District 62 to do a job.

“Regardless of being the first or second, people expect you to deliver a government that works and a government that makes less intrusion into your life.”

Shannon said others think about his young age (he’ll be 35 this month) much more than he does. For example, Chancellor Glen Johnson had held the title of youngest House Speaker in state history.

“Now, I am,” Shannon said matter-of-factly, noting he also is the first Republican Speaker who hasn’t served in a Legislature where Republicans were the minority party (Republicans have controlled the Oklahoma House since 2004). “All that is interesting trivia. The truth is: We’re going to be judged on the decision we made, how we shape the future of Oklahoma for our children and grandchildren.”

And, Shannon doesn’t see what some critics have seen: An “obvious” conflict between the facts he is African-American and Republican.

“I don’t see any conflict at all,” he said. “The values I learned, (from my) parents and my church, the ideas of less government and personal responsibility, individual liberty, your entrepreneurialship, those values come from my church, which is a predominantly African-American church.”

Just as family, church is important to Shannon. He is a third generation member of Bethlehem Baptist Church who is raising a fourth generation in the church. His grandparents became members when they arrived in Lawton in the 1940s and “we’ve been members ever since. It’s a unique and remarkable place.” And, members play a role in Shannon’s life beyond Sunday services. Church members were key in Shannon’s elections and Shannon credits their prayers, their willingness to knock on doors and “their writing checks.”

While God is first, family is a strong second, and Shannon has said he and his wife were in the enviable position of having both sets of grandparents nearby. That is no longer true. While his parents continue to live in west Lawton — in his House district — his wife’s parents returned to their home state of Louisiana after his motherin-law accepted a job transfer. He said he continues to draw strength from raising his family in his home town.

“It helps when you are in the community you grew up in,” he said. “The decisions you make, it affects real people. People that you shop with, that you grew up with. They’re not reserved about telling you what they think. If I make a decision they don’t like, I get a call on my cell phone.”

Those calls should be ramping up this week, as the Oklahoma House and Senate swing into their four-month legislative session that must end, under the Oklahoma Constitution, by the final Friday in May. Shannon said the most difficult task ahead in this session is anticipating the uncertainty from Washington, D.C. and its impending fiscal cliff, explaining that uncertainty makes it difficult to make decisions.

Oklahoma’s momentum

“That’s why you prepare,” he said. “We’ve been a beacon of opportunity, especially in the last few years. We’ve surpassed most of the surrounding states. We need to continue the momentum, be able to prepare for the future. That’s tough to do right now.”

Starting on the fourth of his six possible terms, Shannon knows there will come a day when when he won’t be a House member. His election to the Speaker’s post has heightened speculation that he is destined for and interested in politics outside the Oklahoma Legislature, but Shannon, who also has a consulting business, isn’t certain he wants to commit. He said his original plan was to serve three terms in the House, then focus on private business. That was the plan — until House members asked him to consider running for Speaker.

“I prayed about it and I did it,” he said. “My goal is to do two terms as Speaker, then re-evaluate at the end. I enjoy public service, but it’s not something I want to do forever. I’m just as anxious to get back to being a private citizen.”

The future, advice from a 7-year-old

So, if Shannon hadn’t followed his political path, what would the former congressional aide and onetime chief administrative officer for Chickasaw Nation Enterprises be doing? He suspects it would involve the corporate world, in the areas of marketing or public relations.

“I enjoy people. I enjoy mass communications. On some level, I enjoy problem solving,” he said.

He also deeply enjoys being a family man whose two children play a role in all aspects of his life, from church to Legislature. His daughter, barely out of the infant stage when he was sworn into office in 2007, might be picking up some cues from her father.

“I got some advice from my daughter, the day I as sworn in (as Speaker),” he said, telling of an exchange he had with his 7-year-old that Jan. 8 morning — “When I’m shaving, we have chats.” — when she asked him how he was feeling, then noted, “don’t be so serious. Just remember George Washington: He wasn’t supposed to win that war.”

Shannon, with a smile in his voice, noted, “She’s starting to get it a little bit.”

His son has a different view: “He just wants me to be home a little more. We’re going to work on that, too,” he said, noting that despite the hectic pace of the legislative session, he will try to keep that balance between work and family. “Historically, I’ve driven home every night. We’ll kind of play that by ear. My goal is trying to have at least one meal a day with the kids, breakfast or dinner. I’ve been able to be successful. We’ve been kind of down this road before.”

He noted that he will have his family to draw upon, starting with his parents. His father Wayne retired from Central Junior High School; his mother Joyce handled medical assistance for the Department of Human Services. Wayne Shannon, a graduate of the historic Douglass High School, is a product of Lawton, making T.W. Shannon a third generation Lawtonian raising a fourth generation. He also is a sixth generation Oklahoman.

Shannon and his wife, a military transplant who arrived here in sixth grade, graduated from Lawton Public Schools (he is a Wolverine; she, an Eagle) and met while students at Cameron University. Shannon readily admits he likes living in his hometown.

“Lawton is a terrific place, especially once you start raising kids,” he said.

He also says his upbringing and experiences will help him guide the diverse House for the next two years.

“At the end of the day, I think this role is really about bringing people together and building a consensus and communicating that message to the masses,” he said. “We’ve got the right team, we know that. There will be successes. While (there is) diversity, it creates a certain level of discussion, when we don’t have a homogeneous group.”