MINEOLA — It was not a Sunday, and he was not standing at a pulpit, but Bryan Hughes was preaching.
Wearing a pinstripe suit and a shiny gold tie, Hughes, a state representative from East Texas, had the full attention of about 20 well-coiffed older women — members of the Mineola Study Club — in Susan Parks’ handsomely decorated living room. The women had asked him to describe his “Aha! moment.”
He recited the story of Joseph from the Old Testament. Joseph’s brothers, jealous that their father loved Joseph best, sold him into slavery. But Joseph rose to prominence after — with God’s help — he interpreted the Egyptian pharaoh’s dream about seven skinny cows and seven fat ones. The dream, Joseph told the pharaoh, was a warning of seven years of feast to be followed by seven years of famine. When the famine came, the pharaoh had stored food away. But Joseph’s brothers nearly starved. They came to him in their time of need. Despite their cruelty, Joseph saved them.
“‘You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good,’” Hughes quoted from the book of Genesis. “I just think, ‘Lord, I want to listen to you,’” he said, his palms and eyes cast up.
Hughes has spent a decade in the Texas House, wooing voters with a smile that seems ever-present and his polite pine-curtain drawl. He is a fiscal and social conservative, but he is not one of the outspoken leaders in the Republican-dominated chamber.
This year, though, months before the general election decides the Legislature’s makeup, Hughes has become a Tea Party favorite in his effort to replace the incumbent speaker, Joe Straus, and usher in an even more conservative agenda.
“I could see how things could be done better,” said Hughes, 43, who filed to become a candidate for the House’s top leadership post on May 29, the day of the Texas primary.
The race for speaker is as inside baseball as politics gets. The leader is chosen by the 150 House members who typically decide the winner well before the lawmakers take their seats each session under the Capitol’s pink granite dome.
With the help of Democrats in the House, Straus ousted Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, in 2009. But Straus, R-San Antonio, has been criticized by some Republican legislators who say he is too moderate and gives too much ground to the Democrats who have supported him. They say he has blocked Tea Party initiatives like a crackdown on immigration and limits on airport security pat-downs.
Straus’ office said his record of conservative leadership is clear.
“Speaker Straus has repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to limited government and spending restraint, and anyone who says otherwise either has a special interest agenda or is not paying attention,” Straus’ spokesman, Jason Embry, said in an email.
In 2011, a group of Tea Party-aligned legislators attempted to defeat Straus, recruiting grassroots supporters to line the halls of the Capitol for the vote. But the opposition was divided between two candidates, and Straus prevailed.
As the 2013 legislative session approaches, Tea Party supporters are getting an earlier start.
“This is a great fight for Texas conservatives to kind of rally behind,” said Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, a conservative, Washington-based Super PAC. FreedomWorks has also been a major supporter of Ted Cruz in the race for U.S. Senate.
Hughes has nearly all the hallmarks of the Texas Tea Party Republican. He deplores most government spending and taxes. He also supports a system that would allow parents to choose which public schools their children attend.
“The government should do a few things, do them well and then get out of the way. Amen?” he told the Mineola Study Club. "Yes!" they replied, with hearty applause.
An ardent opponent of abortion, Hughes supported efforts in the Legislature to deny state financing to Planned Parenthood.
“We believe that that unborn child is a human being with rights that need to be protected,” Hughes said at last month’s Texas Tribune Festival.
If he becomes speaker, Hughes said, he would decentralize the leader’s power. He would not allow committees to stop bills — like the immigration and airport pat-down measures — that have broad support. He would appoint Democrats to lead some committees, he said, but those positions would be limited to reflect the makeup of the House.
Embry said that Straus has been a strong leader on the important issues for the state.
"Speaker Straus is proud of the conservative record that the House compiled last session by balancing the budget with fiscal discipline instead of tax increases," Embry said. "He is looking forward to the next session and focusing on the issues that matter most to the people of Texas, such as the availability of good jobs and the quality of public education."
There is one glaring exception to Hughes’ conservative credentials: his occupation. He is a trial lawyer, a profession whose members are often reviled by Texas Republicans as litigious and greedy, usually with the adjective “liberal.”
Sherry Sylvester, spokeswoman for Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a lobbyist organization that led the charge to limit damages on some civil lawsuits, said the group respects the choice of legislators who vote for the speaker. Straus, she said, is a businessman with a history of supporting tort reform.
“Personal injury trial lawyers have a distinctly different philosophy concerning the civil justice system than does Texans for Lawsuit Reform,” she said.
Hughes dismissed those who call him an ambulance chaser. He said he also represents Wood County, where he lives, in a lawsuit challenging its invocation of God in its motto and prayers at public meetings.
“That’s why I went to law school — to work on cases like that,” Hughes said, adding that he voted for a landmark tort reform bill in 2003.
Hughes said his chances of defeating Straus this year are better than the speaker’s opponents in 2011 because he started campaigning early. It also helps, he said, that in 2013 there will be many new legislators who share his conservative values.
Calvin C. Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, agreed that Hughes’ chances are better, but said that he was unlikely to win. Conscious of demographic trends that indicate Texas will become more Hispanic and perhaps less conservative, he said, many Republicans want Straus to prevent them from passing measures that could haunt them.
“Straus is their best defense against getting carried away,” Jillson said.
As the Mineola study group’s meeting wound down, Claudia Martin, a retiree and a Sunday school teacher, shot her hand in the air.
“Will you run for speaker?” she asked. The small group applauded. Hughes grew up in Mineola, and many of the women in the group have known him for years.
“Yes, ma’am! Thank you for asking,” he said. “Please pray for us. We really believe that’s something the Lord called us to do.”