For House Speaker, a Different Kind of Challenge

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, ponders a reporter's question at a press briefing May 30, 2012 at the Texas Capitol.
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, ponders a reporter's question at a press briefing May 30, 2012 at the Texas Capitol.

Is Joe Straus actually in trouble?

The San Antonio Republican has been speaker of the Texas House since 2009, when he wrested it away from Tom Craddick, the dean of the House. Straus fended off a challenger in 2011, and now, he has one declared opponent and at least one more in the wings. A leading Democrat, irked that Straus was elected by Democrats but caters to Republicans, has been stoking the complaints. And conservative activists outside the government — a faction that fed the 2011 challenge — is trying to stir up more trouble this year.

That said, it’s hard to knock off a Texas House speaker without a scandal, a party change or a bill of particulars that unites opponents in both parties. And it is difficult to assemble the necessary 76 votes unless the legislators with that big problem agree on how to solve it.

That’s why the safe bet is that Straus will probably win another term when lawmakers convene a month from now.

He’s got two potential opponents. State Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, has filed papers initiating his candidacy and is talking to members and others about changing the House rules and leaders. He wants members to have more say in the business of the House, which has the added benefit of conferring power on the people who’ll be voting on whether that’s a good idea.

And now state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, a fellow Vanderbilt grad and a particular thorn in Straus’ paw, has told the Tribune he’s praying over whether he ought to challenge the speaker himself.

The Democrats are watching. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, has been poking the speaker for months, saying transcripts in the state’s redistricting trials put the blame for “intentional discrimination” at Straus’ door. Simpson, from the other end of the political spectrum, chimed in, saying he was concerned that anyone might have used the Republican supermajority to squelch a political minority.

A Simpson candidacy would test that alliance; Martinez Fischer, a confrontational leader who is sometimes too caustic for even his closest allies, shot his fellow Democrats an email after Simpson’s name surfaced.

“Recent developments within the Republican Caucus suggest there is a dissatisfied constituency from within placing Democrats in a prime position to bring about reform,” Martinez Fischer wrote. “Where there is smoke there’s fire.”

He renewed his complaint that Straus isn’t taking care of the Democrats who helped him win office. “The bottom line is to not be taken for granted. Once the leadership does then others pile on.”

It’s not clear that other members feel so strongly, that there has been a political shift that would undermine Straus or that the Republicans could produce a candidate who could win support from any Democrats.

On the Republican side, one of the main strikes against Straus is that he dealt with the Democrats in the first place. Some of the conservatives outside the House who’ve been working for his political demise say he’s a RINO — a Republican in Name Only — who knocked off a conservative leader with the help of the Legislature’s liberals. Straus’ challengers face a logical problem: To keep the activists happy, they’d have to win the contest with the incumbent by winning in the Republican caucus. To win the Republican caucus, there would have to be a great complaint against Straus. Without that, the only real source of opposition is on the other side of the political ledger.

Two of their strongest leaders — state Reps. Larry Taylor of Pasadena and Ken Paxton of McKinney — are leaving the House for the Senate. Taylor headed the GOP caucus in the House and managed to keep a good reputation with his most conservative members and a number of Democrats at the same time. Paxton was the challenger to Straus in 2011. They weren’t the only leaders on the GOP side, but their departures remove two potentially strong alternatives.

If a challenge is even possible. Straus appears stronger now than two years ago, and the griping about his leadership doesn’t match the problems that undid the speakers before him.

Craddick was ousted by House members who felt disenfranchised, a group that included nearly all of the Democrats and enough Republicans to make it to 76 votes.

He was nearly replaced by a Democrat instead of a Republican. The 2008 election put 74 Democrats in the House and 76 Republicans. One, Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, won re-election only after a recount and then by fewer than two dozen votes. A loss there would have created a House split on party lines, and a jump ball in the speaker’s race. At least two Democrats — Allan Ritter of Nederland and Pete Gallego of Alpine — were holding war councils to try to muster the votes in case of a Harper-Brown loss. She won, and a small gang of Republicans — called the ABCs, for Anybody But Craddick — met privately in Austin, decided among themselves to support Straus in the race for speaker, and started gathering Democratic support. It took several days, and several other candidates got into and out of the race before it ended, but Craddick finally admitted he didn’t have the votes and Straus got the position he’s now defending.

Craddick’s problem was illustrated by a nickname adopted by his foes, who called him auto-Craddick. They didn’t think the members had enough clout, and didn’t like the split between members who were on the team and members who weren’t. The complaints metastasized, and Craddick was replaced.

And the attempts to replace him had been under way for years without result. Straus’ victory in 2009 came after a steady stream of unsuccessful challenges and a regular drumbeat of complaints by his foes. That pattern — a speaker’s race every two years, no matter what — persists today.

Previous speakers had opponents, but didn’t suffer the regular biennial challenges that now plague the office.

Pete Laney, a Democrat from Hale Center and Craddick’s predecessor, lost his spot the old-fashioned way, when Republicans won their first post-Reconstruction majority in the 2002 elections. 

Gib Lewis, D-Fort Worth, didn’t seek re-election in 1993 after an ethics scandal and criminal investigation made him politically radioactive. The open seat prompted a drawn-out contest between several Democratic chairmen in the House; in the end, Laney prevailed.

Lewis’ predecessor, Billy Clayton, survived a federal sting operation — part of the U.S. Justice Department’s Brilab investigations — and won a final term as speaker after he was acquitted of charges that resulted. He announced plans to run for land commissioner in 1982 and later dropped the idea. Lewis won the speaker’s job at the start of the 1983 session. 

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