OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — As the Republican Party has grown in Oklahoma and expanded its majorities in the Legislature, the House GOP caucus in particular has grown more fractured with a tea party-aligned right wing calling for action on social issues like guns, abortion and illegal immigration often battling with chamber-of-commerce-style moderates who want to focus mostly on pro-business measures.
First, an agreement to cut the income tax that had been pushed hard by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin fell apart when members of the 67-strong House GOP caucus balked at the proposal. Then nearly 20 House Republicans joined with Democrats to initially derail a budget deal before a handful of Republicans switched their vote.
With House Speaker Kris Steele being forced from office because of term limits, the job of shepherding the diverse caucus next year is expected to fall to House Speaker-Designate T.W. Shannon, a 34-year-old Republican from Lawton who is in line to become the first African-American speaker in Oklahoma’s history.
A former administrator for the Cherokee Nation and field representative for U.S. Reps. Tom Cole and J.C. Watts, Shannon said he embraces the diversity of the growing GOP caucus and sees it as a strength moving forward.
“You look at the Republican caucus now — you’ve got a mix of urban and rural. You’ve got both genders represented. You’ve got people of different socio-economic backgrounds. And you’ve got people on different ends of the philosophical spectrum, which is great. That reflects how Oklahoma should look,” Shannon said. “There’s no question when you’re having policy discussions, there are disagreements, but that’s a good thing. What always worries me is when a leader stands up and there’s absolutely no opposing voice whatsoever. That’s when people should be really concerned.”
And while Democrats and Republicans alike praise Shannon for his ability to relate to the rank-and-file members, he narrowly won the caucus vote over Steele’s choice for a successor, Rep. Jeff Hickman of Darcoma, with the help of the right-wing members. Shannon also has yet to lead the caucus that could be as many as 70 strong after the November elections and with an even larger tea party presence.
The right wing of the caucus proved a thorn in Steele’s side throughout his tenure, often teaming with the 31 Democrats to shoot down proposals he backed.
“I see that happening again next session because T.W. Shannon can either be loyal to the chamber of commerce or to the right wing of the party that got him elected speaker. He can’t be loyal to both,” said Rep. Eric Proctor, a Tulsa Democrat and the deputy minority floor leader in the House. “He can’t make both of those groups happy, and I predict he’ll side with the chamber.”
And while Steele’s critics were relentless, the soft-spoken Methodist minister was able to accomplish some of his major goals, including a major shake-up of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and an overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system designed to slow the state’s exploding prison population.
Steele, who was often likened to a cat herder because of the challenges he faced overseeing the GOP caucus, acknowledges the influence of tea-party-style candidates is pulling the House further to the right. But he stopped short of criticizing the group or its influence on Republican Party politics.
“That group of legislators is obviously very vocal, and I think it’s growing not only in Oklahoma but in states across the nation,” Steele said. “But I think that our party is big enough to have differing opinions and to have that diversity.
“When we have healthy discussion and civil discourse, I think it leads to better policy. I think that our party is plenty big enough to be able to absorb differing opinions.”
Steele also was hesitant to dole out any advice to his likely successor.
“Trying to remember back to when I was the speaker designate and at the same point that Representative Shannon is now, I remember that a lot of people offered advice and I appreciated that,” Steele said. “But more than anything, it’s important that a speaker makes his own decision and focuses on the issues that truly matter and will help the people of Oklahoma.”