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A House of Strangers Calls for a Shrewd Leader

Races for speaker of the House are based on relationships. How does that work when there are so many freshmen and sophomore members in the House?

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, smiles at the end of a press briefing May 30, 2012 at his Capitol office.

While the voters were having their say on Tuesday, State Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, sent a note to his fellow House members saying he would be running for the chamber's top job. A few days later, he sent another one that started to lay out his case against Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. He said the election results showed the incumbent’s weaknesses — mainly that he didn’t protect legislators as well as Hughes thought he should have.

These elections are weird; like running for class president. Every candidate knows every voter. Every voter knows every voter. It’s more about power than popularity, but it’s all about relationships. Hughes is attacking Straus for not protecting the rest of the kids in class. The implication is that Hughes or someone else might.

Redistricting years are precarious for speakers. The changes in the political maps force turnover. The people who put Straus in place aren’t all coming back. Thirty House members decided not to seek re-election, and with runoffs still ahead, voters have already added seven more to those ranks. And the last class of new representatives was unusually large, mainly because voters used the 2010 general election to purge as many Democratic lawmakers as possible.

It’s possible that half of the House will consist of freshmen and sophomore members next session. In a place that runs on relationships, that’s a lot of strangers.

Some of them are replaced by allies and future allies, some by potential foes. Because these are political people and they’re in this for a shot at the power they need to get things done — whatever those things are — they’re each guided by ambition. Supporting the right leader means better positions, more power and better ability to get things done. It takes time to figure out what everyone wants, how to help the ones you can help and how to neutralize the rest.

Straus isn’t in any particular danger at the moment, but this is one of those posts where defending the position — maintaining power against continuous challenges — is part of the job.

Hughes is one challenge. Another started earlier and ended Tuesday. Opposition from the other political party is no surprise, but it’s unusual for a speaker to draw an opponent in his own primary. Matt Beebe, a San Antonio businessman, filed against Straus and, with significant third-party support, ran a vigorous and time-consuming campaign against him.

Straus spent a lot of money, worked hard, and won handily, with 62.9 percent of the vote. Before he had much time to savor that, he was answering questions about what kind of night his team had. Three of the Republican House members who were defeated were committee chairs, lieutenants to the speaker. Two more chairmen face runoffs. Straus had a couple of wins, too: Two representatives who didn’t support his re-election as speaker in 2011 were ousted by voters.

Straus has been hounded by outside parties since 2009 when he and a coalition of angry Democrats and disaffected Republicans unseated Speaker Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican popular with conservatives. Straus won re-election in 2011 despite a challenge by conservatives promoted by outside groups who slurred him as a moderate. One of the loudest critics, Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans, helped promote Beebe’s challenge to Straus in the primary.

And on Wednesday, Straus lashed out at Sullivan — a move that left some of his friends wondering why he was adding fuel to the fire.

“He was spectacularly unsuccessful,” Straus said. “And frankly, I don’t consider him much of a factor. His biggest problem with me is that I keep succeeding. We’ve got a conservative House here, and he’s not part of it.”

It is a conservative House — that part is right. Straus easily won re-election, so there’s that. But Sullivan and others helped take out some of Straus’ allies in the primaries, and are a more effective foil than others — Democrats, for instance — against the leadership. It’s clear that many Republican House members fear them and their influence with other conservative groups in Texas.

Straus wants to reduce Sullivan to an inconsequential noisemaker. Sullivan contends that Straus isn’t listening to the voters.

Who will House members listen to?

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