Outsiders Have Something in Common — Squeaky Wheels

Group of House members gather around the back mic before vote on supplemental bill  HB 10 which ultimately cleared the House on February 21st, 2013
Group of House members gather around the back mic before vote on supplemental bill HB 10 which ultimately cleared the House on February 21st, 2013

The model for Jonathan Stickland isn’t what you might expect.

The freshman state representative is a conservative Republican from Tarrant County and a thrower of political bombs — usually from the podium toward the back of the House’s center aisle from which members question legislative authors and presiding officers.

The questions can be political or substantive; they’re always pointed. Members who want to know about policy implications of this or that go to the back mike. Members who want to call out the speaker, whether their intent is hostile or helpful, also go to the back mike.

The last guy to have the unofficial post of reliably noisy House outsider was state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio. TMF, as he is known, had tried to prod the House with the only tools available to political minorities — by not going along to get along, by making everyone focus on that crazy person who’s messing up their business, by throwing sand in the gears. He has moved on to another role, quietly dealing with the speaker and other Republicans in the current governing coalition in the House.

On the other side, shut out on all but the most partisan things, is a small group of very conservative Republicans. The loud one? That’s Stickland.

As a freshman, Stickland didn’t spend a lot of time at the back mike, but he did spend more time there than you would expect from a new member of the House. He was elected in 2012 and took the oath of office in January.

Among his allies and foes, he has made a name for himself and hopes to do the same outside the Capitol. He’s part of the third-biggest faction in the House: the populist conservatives who are bucking the traditional “moderate” wing of the Republican Party of Texas, and who often find themselves on the losing end of votes.

In the 2011 legislative session, Republicans had a supermajority, outnumbering Democrats 102 to 48, and really had no reason to deal with them on most issues. The working coalition was contained within the Republican Party, with the traditional folks in one seat and the populists in the other. The Democrats were in the back seat.

The 2012 elections changed that. The Republican supermajority disappeared. This is still a Republican property: the House split was 95 to 55 during the regular session. But the traditional Republicans — House Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio is one — found a different ruling coalition this year. During the regular session, it was the Democrats and the traditional Republicans working together, with the populists on the outs much of the time.

In 2011, with his team in the ditch, Martinez Fischer was the face of the opposition. His mere presence in line to use the back mike was enough to make House leaders grimace. He and other Democrats, assisted by a team of aides that included a couple of the Capitol’s top experts in House rules, pestered the majority and slowed the machinery of the Legislature in a way that sometimes forced Republicans to accommodate their wishes.

That doesn’t always work, and it doesn’t usually last long when it does. In 2011, the Legislature cut billions from public education spending in the face of a tight, recession-induced budget. Legislators passed redistricting maps that attempted to institutionalize their supermajority. The opposition was fully engaged, if often flattened, by the Republicans.

The Democrats had some small but significant gains in last year’s legislative elections, coming into the 2013 session with about the same number of Democrats and traditional Republicans in the House. Before Mark Strama of Austin resigned this summer, there were 55 Democrats in the House. Earlier this week, state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, presented a list of 53 Republicans who have endorsed his 2014 bid for attorney general.

Stickland is neither a Democrat nor an endorser of Branch’s statewide campaign. He’s just the guy at the back mike, clogging up the works when he can, and trying — like Martinez Fischer and others before him — to slow down legislation that isn’t going his way in a House that seems inhospitable to some of his political ideas.

And he’s hoping for an election year that will put him or one of his allies where Martinez Fischer was this year.

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