The legislative session will start on Jan. 11 with a contested race for speaker of the House. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, won that post two years ago but faces two challengers from within his own party in Warren Chisum of Pampa and Ken Paxton of McKinney.
Paxton talked to the Tribune by phone on Wednesday about why he's running, the role of outside groups in what has historically been a forum for the most inside of insider politics and whether he thinks he can win. An edited and abridged transcript follows, along with audio of the conversation.
TT: What do you say to your supporters in the face of a vote count of 122 to 12?
Paxton: I'm saying, We're doing good. I mean, it's not just 12. I'm not going to tell you the number, but I will say this: The number is more than Joe had last time when he got elected.
TT: More than the total he had, or more than the Republicans [he had]?
Paxton: More than the Republicans. Not everybody's come out. We're just kind of playing along.
Audio: Ken Paxton
TT: How does this need to play out for you over the next 40 days?
Paxton: Well, the first week, I didn't really get a chance to call many members, and then we had Thanksgiving. I was able to get a hold of some of the freshmen. I started with them just because I didn't know most of them, and I felt like it was going to take some more time to get to know them. It's hard to call somebody you've never met and say, "Hey, will you vote for me tomorrow? Will you sign up today?" I felt like that was going to take more time. I'm still working that.
I've really just started working members, and I'm just going to keep working and see what happens. But I'm very optimistic or I wouldn't be doing this.
TT: What's the pitch? What are the selling points here?
Paxton: The pitch is, on a continuum, we had a historic election where we elected at least 99 Republicans [state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, won her race by 16 votes and the challenger, Republican Dan Neil, asked for a recount, which starts today]. We have an opportunity for a more conservative House — obviously, it wasn't a very conservative House. Given that, and given where Joe is on the continuum — he's not a bad guy or anything, but he tends to be on the liberal end. If he's not the most liberal Republican, he's certainly down at the very bottom. I think we need to have somebody more conservative in leadership. And that means more conservative and more Republican committee chairmen.
TT: Are you saying that the Republican chairs should be more conservative than they are, and that there ought to be more Republican chairs in addition to that?
TT: If you were elected speaker of a House with 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats, would the mix have been the same as it is now?
Paxton: I don't know if the mix would have been the same. I'm sure it would have been different. I think we would have had more Republicans, and the Republicans and the Democrats that we did have would have been more conservative. [Straus'] chairs tend to be more liberal than the overall House. [It's] odd for a Republican speaker to have a more liberal leadership than the overall House.
That's what I'm saying: He's on the continuum of being more left-leaning, when, given where we're at now, that shouldn't be the case. I don't think we should accept that this time.
TT: Are the people in the leadership more a reflection of his own politics or of the makeup of his constituency in the House?
Paxton: I think it might be both. He has that constituency because he is more liberal. Obviously, I wouldn't have had that same constituency, right? I'm not saying every member who supports him is liberal. I'm just saying, as an overall whole, his chairmanships, based on several surveys, have tended to be more liberal. It doesn't mean every one of his members is liberal, because they're not. But a higher percentage than I would have chosen.
TT: What's the effect of all of this on an average citizen?
Paxton: Well, if you look at what happened in Washington, one of the huge issues that Republicans ran on this last time was Nancy Pelosi being too liberal, and we needed a change to Republicans so we would have a more conservative leader. So, obviously, we all know that the leader of the House has tremendous power in the direction of the Legislature merely by who that person puts into positions of leadership.
Just as they cared about whether we had Nancy Pelosi, I would guess — if they're paying attention to what's going on in Texas — they would care if we have a more liberal Joe Straus or a more conservative Ken Paxton.
TT: You announced on Veterans' Day, but when did you decide to do this?
Paxton: You know, it wasn't something that I was necessarily thinking about very much before I announced. What I did think about when we won the 99 was that we should have a more conservative speaker, and nobody really jumped in after the election.
TT: Warren wasn't your guy?
Paxton: I like Warren. I just didn't see a lot of momentum yet, and I just thought it didn't hurt to have someone else in the race. Hopefully, he's gotten some momentum since the election, too.
TT: Do you expect to see more people get into the race?
Paxton: I really don't expect to see more, but you never know. I'm not sensing that, talking to people, and I spent a lot of time talking to people before I got in, because I was looking for other people to get in.
TT: Was there someone you hoped would get in?
Paxton: I had favorites. There were several people I would have been happy about. If they had gotten in, I would have been happy to support them. This is no grand plan on my part to become speaker. It's a grand plan more for a more conservative House than we had last time. It's very simple.
TT: Tell me what you think about the outside groups that have become involved in the race.
Paxton: It's hard to know. I guess you could argue that other speakers were controversial to Democrats, but we haven't had a Republican this controversial in the state in my memory, and maybe never. In the party, I would say that Joe is the most controversial Republican elected official, at least at high level, that maybe has ever happened.
Maybe they would have engaged four years ago or two years ago. I don't know. It's not just groups. There are a lot of Republicans, and that was clear to me even in my own district. It wasn't just groups. I was hearing from my constituents. It became very clear that my constituents in my county and Republicans all over the state were not satisfied with him being re-elected, and I could understand that given the change in the numbers.
If it was 76-74, it would be fairly unrealistic to think that we're going to have a change.
TT: What's been the effect of outsiders on this race, whether by groups or by individuals?
Paxton: It should have an effect, if you care what your constituents think. If they don't care about it, or they're in support of Straus, then my opinion is you ought to listen to your constituents — they control whether you get re-elected. If my constituents were calling and saying they wanted Joe Straus, then I would say I should vote for Joe Straus. By the way, I haven't gotten one of those calls.