House Democrats Aiming to Get Back Into the Game

Joe Straus became the speaker of the Texas House in 2009, when Democrats and Republicans had nearly even numbers in that body.

Every deal had to be brokered. Party lines were soft.

Republicans clobbered the Democrats in the 2010 elections and ran over them in Straus’ second term as speaker. They had a supermajority, and they acted like it.

As a bloc of votes, the Democrats were broken. Demoralized, they never coalesced behind any particular leader. They had a caucus head in Rep. Jessica Farrar of Houston. And they had a brawler, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio. But the Democrats did not show up as a unified force in 2011.

Now they get to choose between cooperation and resistance, and you can find Texas Democrats in both camps. The trick for their leaders is to figure out where they want to go. In Straus, they have a speaker who is probably less of what they fear from the right than any of his would-be replacements might be.

If Republicans who don’t like Straus are right, he is more moderate than the rest of the party. And if that’s the case, how could the Democrats do better? On the other hand, they are Democrats: any Republican successes weigh against them, and some would prefer to oppose Straus and Company no matter what.

Some important things have changed since the last time around.

The 2010 election left Republicans with the idea that they didn’t need to compromise on anything, what with a supermajority and the national mood coming out of those midterm elections. Moderate Republicans mostly stuck with their party even when they didn’t like what was being served, because the alternative was a potentially risky primary in 2012 with a more conservative Republican at home.

Two years ago, the governor was putting together his bona fides for what turned out to be a presidential run. Remember that list of “emergency issues” at the beginning of the session two years ago? Sanctuary cities, photo identification for voters, state-mandated pre-abortion sonograms and eminent domain protection were all tailored to please Republican primary voters.

The formula is different this time. Republicans don’t have a supermajority in either chamber of the Legislature, and the governor hasn’t declared anything worthy of emergency status that must be handled in the first two months of the session.

The Democrats are also in a better place. They have recovered from the spurning of 2010. Their overall numbers still stink, but not as much as before. Republicans suffered some lumps in the presidential race. That party’s urgent designs on Hispanic voters — spurred by the presidential results — has made some Republican lawmakers more interested in dealing with Hispanic lawmakers of either party.

Instead of Republicans pillaging and looting in a 2011 Texas House that had previously been evenly balanced, this session finds Democrats seeking a way back into power and Republicans trying to woo Latinos and also needing alliances with Democrats on some votes.

The early days of a legislative session are marked with warm and optimistic feelings, so it’s hard to tell how the relationships will go. But even if the parties hated each other, they would have to work together on some things.

It’s a Republican room — 95 members versus 55 — but some things require 100 votes or more. The Republicans can't get there alone, but members from both parties wonder whether anyone can pull together a regular Democratic voting bloc.

The Democrats started the session by electing Rep. Yvonne Davis of Dallas to lead the caucus. She is not known as a great orator. You are unlikely to see her very often on television — she doesn’t particularly like having her picture taken. But she is one of the best in the House at working members and votes on the floor, putting deals together, and she can raise money for the caucus.

And Martinez Fischer, who heads the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, which includes 37 of the 55 Democratic members, is still around.

Last week, he was part of a bipartisan group working to restore some of the education cuts made last session. Davis was working the floor on a linked appropriations bill.

Straus and the others are in there, too, wondering if it will be different this year. Will anyone follow the leaders?

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