T.W. Shannon was the youngest Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. In 2014, he ran for U.S. Senate. He now serves as Chairman of the Future Majority Project and as a board member for the Washington, D.C. think tank, CURE.
Harvard Political Review: How can the GOP appeal to African Americans?
T.W. Shannon: I’ve been a conservative and a Republican my entire life. I got my values not from watching commentators on Fox News or CNN. I got my conservative values from my predominantly African American church in Lawton, Oklahoma—Bethlehem Baptist Church. I just believe that the greater the freedom, the greater the prosperity.
As we talk about the historic ills of the African American community, whether it be racism or poverty, the values of the GOP are an important instrument to restoring hope and liberty to people that have been disenfranchised for generations. We have got to do a better job with our messaging, talking about the things where we agree, making sure we are recruiting candidates that reflect those values and candidates that can communicate empathy.
HPR: You graduated with a degree in communications. Why did you start working in politics?
TWS: My undergraduate degree is in communications, and then I got my Juris Doctorate right after. While going to law school, I worked for two members of Congress. I just happened to be walking into the office of Congressman J. C. Watts Jr., who was the fourth ranking member of Congress at the time, one of the most conservative Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, and he also happened to be African American.
After working for J. C. during the time when most people, like I was, were thinking about their own value systems and reevaluating their philosophies, I really identified with his message. His ideas about freedom and liberty resonated with me.
HPR: What caused you to make the jump from working for politicians to running for office?
TWS: It was probably something I had wanted to do for a long time. I had a grandmother, who I knew briefly before she passed away, but certainly her legacy lived on. Although she was not a politician, she worked for a lot of politicians. She did amazing campaign work in the African American communities of Muskogee, Oklahoma, and she also had a certain level of influence to help her neighbors.
Those stories I heard always fascinated me. I thought that could be fascinating. I was involved in school politics, all of the student council stuff, and it was kind of a natural progression. But, again, having a mentor like J. C. Watts was what really got me interested in the process and made me think I could probably do this.
HPR: You eventually rose to Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. What did you find to be the best strategies to effect political change?
TWS: Recognizing that you are in the people business. When you are in politics—and even if you are a mechanic, a businessperson, the profession does not matter—you are in the people business. If you can communicate to people that you care, that is what they first want to know. I learned very quickly that it is a team effort. Politics is group sport. It is the ultimate team sport. You cannot get things done by yourself.
In order to build a team, you have to have coalitions. I was a coalition builder. That was probably the greatest strategy. I was able to empathize with those around me, even those who disagreed with me, and then focus on those things we both mutually believed in.
HPR: You met with President Trump in November shortly after the election. What did you discuss with him?
TWS: Getting a call to come meet with the President of the United States was the thrill of a lifetime. I was literally walking into the gym and Reince Priebus, whom I have known for years, called and said, “Hey, what are you doing?” I said, “Well, if you’re calling, Mr. Chief of Staff, I’m probably about to do whatever you’re about to tell me.” And he said, “Well, get on a plane. The president wants to meet you, we’ve told him about you, he already knew who you were, and he wants to meet you.”
I got a chance to talk about some issues that I thought were plaguing America. One is really close to my heart, which is people who find themselves in generational poverty. How do we move people? How do we begin to move the needle? I have always believed that the best social program is a good-paying job. How do we move people that have historically been disenfranchised, been generation after generation of government dependence? How do we move them to be producers?
I got to share my heart with him, and he was very open to it and liked a lot of what we had to say. I found him to be extremely charming and extremely resolute. This was a guy that knows what he wants to do and I was quite impressed.
HPR: How would you evaluate the White House’s outreach to the African American community?
TWS: It is too early to tell so far. I certainly have seen some great efforts. I think naming Dr. Ben Carson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development was a huge role. Dr. Carson, while some have criticized him for not having enough government experience—I mean, come one, the guy is a brain surgeon. If there is something he does not know, I am confident he can figure it out. I think those were great steps.
I would look at some of the other minorities that are on his team. Some are friends of mine. I believe that the administration is committed to the effort. I looked at what happened during Black History Month, where there was a consortium of historically black college and university presidents who met in the Oval Office to discuss strategies and to repeal some legislation that was enacted in the previous administration that disproportionately affected funding for historically black colleges and universities.
I am very confident. The jury is still out. It remains to be seen how it develops over time, but the initial steps look very positive to me.
HPR: By all measures, our country is heavily divided. How can we overcome partisanship and bridge that gap?
TWS: Some of the ideas about division in the country are overstated. We are a Constitutional Republic, and, as such, we like to have discussions and debates about the issues of the day. That is healthy. Partisanship is a healthy part of the process. A two-party system is, in part, what has helped make this country great, so I am a fan of the partisan effort.
Where I think we have digressed in large part is due to social media and its effects. So much of it has become personal. That part I do not like. Personal attacks and character assassinations: those are not helpful for the process. I do not think those are what the founders intended. But certainly our elections have always been contact sports, so that is not new.
We have to overcome ways of bridging the gap through communication. One of the things that happens so often now is that we are all siloed. If you are a liberal, you probably listen to liberal radio, you probably have liberal podcasts that you listen to, you read liberal publications, and you have followers who post on your social media about liberal causes. Same for conservatives. That is part of the problem. There is a big echo chamber that is happening right now. We have to do a better job of bridging those gaps.
Our universities are a great place to start. In so many of those universities, the conservative thought has been choked out. I have been amazed at the number of people who have told me, ‘I’ve never heard that side of the story. I’ve never heard that argument.’ That did not mean they agreed with it. That did not mean they converted and thought like I did. They are still wrong, but they certainly were given a different perspective that maybe they have not heard. That conversation piece is critically important.
HPR: Would you ever want to run for office again?
TWS: I believe public service is a calling. I have always believed that. While I enjoyed every minute of it while I was doing it, it was probably the hardest thing I have ever done. There may be a calling down the road for me.
I still want to stay engaged as a citizen. I do not think you have to be elected to make a difference. I believe in citizenship engagement, that our republic is dependent upon citizens who engage. I still believe there is a role that I can play.
My wife and I were doing the math the other day. My children in ten years will be out of the house. They will be productive citizens seeking higher education. Maybe there will be another time down the road, but right now, I am enjoying the private sector and being a private citizen.
Image Source: Flickr/Gage Skidmore