POSTED ON NOVEMBER 14, 2012:
Progress, Thy Name is Oklahoma?
First African-American House speaker faces difficult choices ahead
Remember the hilarious -- and apt -- Onion headline the day after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008?
Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job
Republican state Rep. T.W. Shannon surely can relate.
Shannon, an African-American and Chickasaw, is the Oklahoma House of Representative's speaker-elect.
He will wield the Big Gavel starting in January, leader of a GOP caucus that now owns a commanding 72-29 advantage over Democrats.
Sounds like a recipe for smooth sailing, doesn't it?
Not exactly. What's more likely is that Shannon will have no choice but to pursue a zig-zag course, dodging intra-Republican caucus turbulence that would test the most experienced commercial airline pilot.
Less than a decade into its legislative dominance, the GOP is learning the hard way what Democrats -- who once were in charge -- know all too well: Big numbers aren't necessarily an advantage.
Nowadays, in fact, big numbers often translate into big headaches.
Maybe it's term limits that have changed the political culture in Oklahoma -- when the most you'll get is 12 years, you're less inclined to revere seniority or be patient.
Maybe it's that the Republicans have a larger extremist wing than Democrats -- a couple of dozen or so, depending on the issue, that often aren't in touch with reality and are even less likely to play nice with the corporate-backed powers-that-be.
Whatever the case, Shannon has his work cut out for him, something akin to the proverbial, impossible task of herding cats.
We know this because the day after the election, and the day before House Republicans voted to move Shannon from speaker-designate to speaker-elect, the GOP's uber-conservatives demanded that Shannon and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman fight the "thug-booted" federal government and the Affordable Care Act.
After only two years as Senate leader, we already know that Bingman cowers to the far right whip.
We don't know what Shannon might do if confronted with a similar circumstance, but we know this: he is a young man with great political ambition.
It is well known in Oklahoma Republican circles that he is being groomed to either succeed longtime 4th District U.S. Rep. Tom Cole -- or U.S. Sens. Tom Coburn or Jim Inhofe.
His rise to the speakership was meteoric, only two terms under his belt (though term limits certainly have changed the arc to power).
The speakership, though, may not be the best position from which to plant the seeds and cultivate higher political ambitions.
Yes, you can control the legislative agenda. Yes, you can reward friends and punish enemies -- up to a point. Yes, you have almost unfettered access to the top political rainmakers -- the big cigars that effectively control teams of deep-pocketed campaign donors.
But speakers make enemies. Serious enemies.
They have to tell lots of people no. They sometimes pressure lawmakers to vote against their principles or their district's interests. They bruise egos with committee assignments.
Shannon may have the numbers to ignore the wingnuts who made Outgoing House Speaker Kris Steele's life miserable, especially if he can cement a cordial working relationship with the House's 29 Democrats. But he could find himself in treacherous waters if he infuriates the uber-right tea party types, who in turn forge an alliance with Democrats who might be more than happy to watch the GOP's Next Great Hope twist in the wind.
How Shannon responds to the hard-right's demands presented at the Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee meeting in Oklahoma City will be especially telling.
They urged Shannon and Bingman to continue the state's fight against ObamaCare and to renew efforts to ban Sharia law -- both colossal wastes of state taxpayer money.
First, about 700,000 Oklahomans are without health care -- which contributes to terrible health outcomes when compared to other states and is an enormous burden shouldered by the taxpayers.
Second, Sharia Law has never been an issue in state court and federal courts ruled Oklahoma's preposterous voter-approved ban unconstitutional.
The way the uber-right tells it, however, the Nazi-ish federal government soon will start rolling tanks down Main Street. The John Birch Society liveth!
One of the main problems Shannon faces is that he has to keep the wingnuts in his caucus under control, while also moving the GOP into the 21st century.
Yes, the Republicans tightened their grip on government in Oklahoma. But the results nationally suggest that even Oklahoma Republicans better come to grips with the fact a more culturally, racially, and ethnically diverse electorate is emerging.
Oklahoma is often behind the curve when it comes to cultural trends and societal change. But it eventually reaches us. And it may be soon, given the growth in Hispanic population.
If you look at the red-blue maps from the presidential election, it's a solid red South, stretching from Georgia to Texas. But if you look closer at demographics and voting patterns in Georgia and Texas -- and even in Arizona -- the Republican hegemony may be nearing its end.
Latinos nationally voted for Obama 3-1. So did Asian-Americans. Blacks remained at more than 97 percent. Young people turned out in higher numbers for Obama than in 2008.
Those groups not only helped Obama win the swing states and rack up more than 300 Electoral College votes, but also helped him capture the popular vote.
In Oklahoma, white voters still dominate balloting -- a percentage 8 points or so above the national average. But Hispanic growth, the passing of older generations, the emergence of Generation Y, and the increasing political involvement by the state's federally-recognized tribes suggest the GOP has work to do even here.
Shannon could be a key. If he can effectively muzzle the wingnuts, if he can bolster the state's commitment to public education and equal opportunity, if he can prove to be a unifying rather than a polarizing figure ... the sky may be the limit.
If he fails ... well, the Republicans have total control of state government. There will be no place to hide. No one else to blame.
Remember this: Two decades ago, the Democratic dominance of the legislature was almost equal to the Republican dominance today. Six years ago, Republicans controlled the presidency, the Congress and the U.S. Senate. Now they've lost two consecutive presidential elections, they're the Senate minority and their margin in the House was trimmed in this year's elections.
Political change is no longer glacial. It's at warp speed.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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