Woodward, Okla. — OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The 72 Republicans in the Oklahoma House of Representatives will meet behind closed doors on Monday and cast secret ballots to decide who will become the next speaker of the House, one of the most powerful positions in state government.
The two men running for the post — Reps. Jeff Hickman of Fairview and Mike Jackson of Enid — grew up less than 15 miles from one another in tiny Alfalfa County in northwest Oklahoma, and each refers to the other as a friend.
Hickman, 40, went to high school at Cherokee and was a few years ahead of the 35-year-old Jackson, who attended nearby Burlington, but they ran into each other frequently at FFA events, basketball games, and speech-and-debate competitions.
"I've known Rep. Jackson since we were both very young," Hickman said. "His parents are constituents of mine. His grandmother is a constituent of mine. He's been a friend for a long time."
A third potential candidate, Rep. Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City, withdrew his name from consideration last week after acknowledging he didn't have enough votes.
The speaker of the House, a position vacated last week when Rep. T.W. Shannon stepped down to focus on his U.S. Senate race, joins the governor and the Senate president pro tem at the negotiating table for the $7 billion state budget and helps shape the political agenda for the state. The speaker, who earns an extra $18,000 over his base House salary, also oversees the House's roughly 115 employees and $16 million annual budget, and appoints chairmen and members of various committees.
Hickman and Jackson have numerous similarities, and the race is expected to be a close one. Neither is an ideologue, and each has a reputation as hardworking, well-liked, approachable representatives.
The two were freshmen legislators together after the elections in 2004, the year Republicans took control of the House for the first time in modern history.
Hickman worked as press secretary for University of Oklahoma President David Boren, a former U.S. senator and governor, while Jackson served as a field representative for current U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe. Both have pledged to run again for another two-year term as speaker if elected to the post, and each said they have no interest in getting elected with the help of the chamber's 29 Democrats and serving as a coalition speaker.
"At the end of the day, we're all Republicans, and the people of the state have asked us to govern, and we're going to get that job done," Hickman said.
Jackson currently serves as speaker pro tem, the No. 2 position in the House, and was one of Shannon's top lieutenants. Hickman previously served as speaker pro tem under former House Speaker Kris Steele, and Hickman lost to Shannon in the speaker's race two years ago by a razor-thin margin.
For his part, Shannon said he had no interest in influencing the outcome of the race.
"I'm not getting involved in that one," Shannon said. "I have one vote on Monday, just like every other member."
The leadership structure would remain virtually unchanged if the body elects Jackson, who praised Shannon for his ability to lead a caucus with a wide political spectrum, including a boisterous right wing.
"It would basically be a continuation, but I'm not T.W. Shannon," Jackson said. "If they decide to elect me, I would have to lead the caucus the best way I see fit, and get input from the members of our caucus as well."
While Jackson said he feels confident with the number of supporters he has in the caucus, he acknowledges there is "some fluidity" to the race.
One key group critical in determining the outcome will be the 13 Republicans elected in 2012. Although each one cast a vote for speaker after their election, this time they've gotten to know each of the candidates, their strengths and weaknesses.
"We've been up there long enough to kind of see the way things are going," said freshman Rep. Bobby Cleveland. "And we've become a pretty close group of guys, and one lady."
Rep. Jon Echols, another Republican freshman, said his 12 colleagues have shown to be very thoughtful and deliberative in their approach.
"There's a strong argument that the three most powerful people in state government are the Senate (president) pro tem, the speaker and the governor," said Echols, R-Oklahoma City. "This race matters to the people of Oklahoma, and that's why I'm impressed that this freshman class is really taking their time to be deliberate about this decision."
After the new speaker is elected during Monday's closed-door meeting of the House Republicans, the full 101-member House will formally elect the speaker when the session convenes in the afternoon.