His Job Safe, Straus Now Faces Session's Hurdles

Speaker Joe Straus walks toward the House on Jan. 8, 2013, the opening day of the 83rd Texas Legislature.
Speaker Joe Straus walks toward the House on Jan. 8, 2013, the opening day of the 83rd Texas Legislature.

With the latest threat to his leadership easily dispatched, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has proven once again that he can hold onto the third-most powerful post in state government despite a vocal contingent of critics in his party’s conservative wing.

But as he heads into the state’s 83rd legislative session, he faces what may be a greater task — tackling issues that have been thorny for Republicans in the past, including public education and plans for water and transportation infrastructure without further alienating the far right. In a recent interview in his Capitol office, Straus said addressing what he called the basic needs of the growing state was essential not just for Texans, but for the Republican Party.

If the party did not seek to attract anyone beyond its traditional primary voters, he said, it must face the possibility that its statewide dominance could come to an end.

"I’m somebody who wants to build the party, to see the Republican Party grow and not just be satisfied because you got 50 percent plus one,” he said.

On Tuesday, during his acceptance speech, he called on lawmakers from both parties to work together to make what he called the “core responsibilities of government” a priority.

He said the state’s biggest challenges were “not fiscal in nature” and pointed to its rapidly growing population and changing demographics, with increasing numbers of children with limited English skills and economically disadvantaged backgrounds in public schools.

The remark contrasted with Gov. Rick Perry’s speech that day, which focused heavily on the need to keep spending down. But Straus has stopped short of saying whether the $5.4 billion sliced from public schools during the last legislative session should be restored — a position that would put him directly at odds with the governor, who said recently that the state’s financing for public education has been “pretty phenomenal.”

Straus’ political resilience so far is in part because of the makeup of his district, which includes the well-heeled Alamo Heights neighborhood. His constituents, while conservative, tend toward mainstream Republicanism. He has also learned to wield the power of his position while earning a reputation among his house colleagues as a largely fair and reasonable leader.

But that has not prevented him from facing the indignation of conservative grassroots activists, whose opposition still presents a serious roadblock to primary candidates. They have targeted Straus since he came to power with the help of Democrats in 2009 by defeating Tom Craddick of Midland, the current dean of the House who was the first Republican to lead the lower chamber in more than a century.

This session, he faced a challenge to his speakership from David Simpson, a Longview Republican who is just starting his second term. It was the latest in a series of attempts to undercut Straus from the right that included a May primary opponent backed by FreedomWorks, the deep-pocketed national Tea Party organization. Simpson, the second candidate to vie for the spot in advance of the 2013 session, withdrew his bid on the first day.

Michael Quinn Sullivan, the president of Empower Texans, a conservative group active in state politics that opposes Straus, attributed the speaker’s staying power to the inside-baseball dynamics of the speakership, which he said meant candidates were responsible to other lawmakers rather than to the electorate.

The antagonism some of the Republican Party faithful feel toward Straus was apparent in June at the biennial state party convention that drew roughly 10,000 people to Fort Worth in June — the same gathering where his name drew jeers in 2010. Several regional Tea Party organizations provided stickers bearing his likeness with the slogan “Oust Straus,” and they could be seen on numerous lapels and blouses in the convention hall.

“It’s a question of his record, and until now, he and his leadership team as often as not have been obstacles to reform,” Sullivan said.

The causes of their lack of affection can be difficult to pin down. During a challenge to Straus’ speakership ahead of the 2011 legislative session, party activists circulated emails emphasizing the Christian faith of his opponents. But the same theme did not emerge during the latest attempt to unseat Straus, who is Jewish.

Prior to this session, his critics instead accused him of obstructing pet legislation for conservatives — like stricter immigration laws — and they questioned his commitment to issues like reducing government spending and ending abortion. Those attacks also failed to gain traction, perhaps because under Straus’ watch last session, the lower chamber passed a long-struggling voter ID bill, an abortion sonogram law and an austere budget that ultimately slashed $15 billion from government spending.

Straus said he was aware of his detractors, who he said were “the same people who say no to everything.”

“There are some ugly voices out there,” he said, “and there are some people around the state who seem to have made a very small cottage industry out of opposing me, but they haven’t gotten very far.”

While many of those voices are on the right, Straus also faces some opposition on the left. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat who has supported Straus in the past, has become a loud critic. Martinez Fischer said he wanted to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt on his plans to rise above partisan battles to take on major state needs. But he said that was difficult to do after the 2011 session, when Straus led a bitterly divided chamber that passed historic budget cuts to government services.

“It appears to me that Joe Straus is going to spend a lot of time looking over his shoulder,” Martinez Fischer said. “There is a lot of extreme conservative ideology surrounding this Capitol, and it appears for now Joe wants to be the adult in the room. I don’t know how long that will last.”

Now a seasoned leader with a robust campaign war chest, the San Antonio Republican should have ample possibilities for his second political act. But what is next for Straus may instead be a waiting game — and could depend on whether he can outlast conservative activists’ control of the state Republican Party.

At the moment, Straus is careful to keep the exact nature of his future ambitions obscure, and said he said he remained committed to his current position.

“I’m one who does believe that doing the best job you can do in the job you are elected to do is the best way to have options down the road,” he said.

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