“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.”