You've Got Mail, Mr. Speaker

Joe Straus
Joe Straus

Steve Toth is the latest politico sending mail to House Speaker Joe Straus in what has become a two-front scuffle over the power in the Texas House. Start with Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, who took after Straus in a letter last summer, badgering the speaker over redistricting evidence that showed some of his staffers corresponding in ways that didn’t help the state’s defense of political maps in court. Martinez Fischer has been openly critical of Straus as speaker, nurturing the idea that Democrats got him elected in the first place and that after the 2010 Republican landslide, he shut Democrats out of the game in the House.

Next came Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, first in interviews and later in a letter, expressing concern over the same redistricting issues raised by Martinez Fischer. His letter was sent last week; it was flushed out when Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, wrote a letter along the same lines this week. And then Toth weighed in; he’s the Republican who defeated Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, in the GOP primary earlier this year.

Dispense with the facial story first: A three-judge federal panel said the Texas maps intentionally discriminate against minority voters and can’t be used. The state is appealing that ruling, running the elections in the meantime with maps drawn by a different three-judge panel. It’s surprising nobody has made a novella of this.

Straus is deferring to Attorney General Greg Abbott on the legal end, telling his growing group of pen pals that the House behaved like it was supposed to and that the maps were legal. Some of his allies are whispering that the letters, particularly from Republicans, are unhelpful to the state’s lawyers, but there’s no evidence of that at this point.

The underlying story is about who’s running the House. Republicans who like Straus outnumber those who don’t and he appears pretty secure in his path to a third term as speaker. That said, the House has started every one of its sessions since 2003 with some kind of race for speaker. They always fall short, except when they don’t. Republicans elected a majority for the first time since Reconstruction in 2002; they followed by electing Tom Craddick, R-Midland.

That change left some sore feelings, and Craddick was under siege — sometimes feeble, sometimes strong — every time lawmakers came back to town. A small band of Republicans teamed with most of the Democrats in 2009 and replaced him with Straus.

Straus started last session with a noisy challenge from the populist wing of the GOP that was riding high after the 2010 election. Their standard-bearers have moved on — Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, is on his way to the Senate — but there’s another challenger in Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola.

And that stack of envelopes in the Speaker’s mailbox.