Michael Quinn Sullivan is the president of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and Empower Texans, conservative nonprofits formed to promote smaller government, free markets and individual liberty, and the head of the related Empower Texans PAC, which works on legislative races for candidates whose views line up with its own. The groups were active throughout the election year and now are in the middle of the race for speaker of the Texas House — a contest in which two Republicans (so far) are challenging GOP incumbent Joe Straus of San Antonio. Warren Chisum of Pampa and Ken Paxton of McKinney contend that Straus, whose initial victory relied more on Democrats than on Republicans, isn't sufficiently conservative. Sullivan has encouraged a challenge without endorsing a candidate and while pulling up just short of saying Straus should be defeated.
Sullivan visited the Tribune's offices for an interview on Thursday. An edited transcript, full audio and a video clip follow.
TT: Third-party groups are involved in the speaker's race at a new level this year. Can you describe why they should be involved and how this works?
Audio: Michael Quinn Sullivan
Sullivan: This is a very important decision. It's as important as anything else the Legislature does, and the people should be allowed to be involved in that discussion and debate, as with any other piece of legislation. It should be troubling to those of us who tend to like public dialogue and enjoy free speech and, particularly, political speech that we would ever say that people shouldn't be able to exercise their voice in our democracy. When you start hedging down that way — which we did in Texas, unconstitutionally, for 35-ish years — you start wondering, well, then, what's next? Should maybe people not speak about taxes, or property rights or water rights? Where do you start drawing the line? And I think that Judge [Sam] Sparks is absolutely right in his ruling that people should be allowed to express their viewpoint and engage, just like they would on any other legislative issue.
TT: So the argument is that this is just another legislative vote and that people should be able to lobby it like anything else?
Sullivan: I would argue that it's not just like any other vote — it's perhaps more important. The office of the speaker is the third-ranking constitutional officer. The powers of the speaker are very broad. The speaker appoints the committee chairs, has something approaching absolute power over the floor. That's pretty stout stuff that directly impacts every other policy decision made in the following 139 days of a legislative session.
TT: Straus was elected by a House with a narrow Republican majority. Talk about why there should be a challenge now and what should change.
Sullivan: When you look at the dynamics of this election cycle, Texans pretty strongly rejected Democrats. I think you could say that's the one thing all of us would agree on: Texans said "no" to Democrats. They also seemed to be saying "no" to liberal public policy. The strength by which, then, they approved Republican candidates and especially Republican candidates who were speaking with strong conservative language should be taken as a signal that the people of Texas are interested in very strong conservative leadership.
Certainly, I think, Joe Straus gets that. If you see it no other way than in his Drudge Report and various internet ads that he has, that list, "pro-life, low-tax champion, conservative Joe Straus." That certainly isn't the way Joe Straus was advertising himself in the lead-up to his involvement in politics. The Dallas Morning News and others made a big deal about how he was a moderate, that he wasn't one of these wild-eyed, radical conservatives, that he was a very reasonable moderate. Well, now, suddenly, he wants to be associated more with where clearly a majority of Texans are, which is a very strong conservative bent. That, then, leads to a question of well, maybe we do need to have a discussion about who should be the speaker. Texans, I think, certainly are saying we need a more conservative speaker. Is that Joe Straus? Well, I think Joe Straus needs to make that case.
When you look at the way he became speaker, with 65 Democrats and 11 Republicans, that makes a lot of people question where his loyalty is going to continue to be.
TT: Do you think that election two years ago was more about his politics or about antipathy toward his predecessor?
Sullivan: I think it was probably a mixture of both. It wasn't like there was this huge clamoring for Joe Straus. It's historically interesting to note that at this point two years ago, there were nine candidates for speaker of the House, and Joe Straus wasn't one of them. When I hear folks today, going into Thanksgiving week, saying, well, Joe Straus has a lock on being speaker of the House — I suspect [former Speaker] Tom Craddick was thinking something similar going into Thanksgiving week two years ago.
TT: What do you think is the difference between a conservative Republican and a moderate Republican in the way the House is managed?
Sullivan For people like me, who Speaker Straus refers to as outside forces — all these new voters who are trying to hijack what has been an insider deal — this is a question of policy outcomes. What are we getting hearings on? What are we not getting hearings on? It certainly raises questions when you look at the House Ways & Means Committee, which may be the most striking example. I'm not sure when and where it makes sense to make a liberal Democrat the chairman of the tax-writing committee. That just raises all sorts of questions and flags, and sirens go off. It really calls leadership into question. If you say you're a conservative, whether you're a fiscal conservative or a social conservative, all of them tend to circle around the flag of good, right-thinking tax policy.
In that Ways & Means committee, there were no hearings on things like ending diversions to the gas tax. We didn't even have an opportunity to debate permanent exemptions for small businesses. You go down the line of things that simply were ignored, and that was because of the chairman that was selected.
I think it's going to be incumbent upon him to demonstrate in some way — other than "trust me" — that this would be a very different Joe Straus speakership. For the moment, all we have is what he has done, and that leaves something to be desired.
TT: Do you think Joe Straus is a conservative?
Sullivan: I think Joe Straus has always described himself as a moderate. I'm happy to let him define himself. If Joe Straus is in the middle of redefining himself politically, I welcome that. I think it's great. As someone who doesn't back away from the label of ideologue, I welcome someone who wants to be associated with the ideas and principles that energize me. If that's the direction Joe Straus is moving, that's excellent.
TT: Do you think he should be speaker again?
Sullivan: I think Joe Straus has a high, high bar to make that case. He's going to have to do, I would suggest, a lot better job explaining how he's going to be a different speaker.