Some conservative critics of Republican House Speaker Joe Straus say he’s too moderate to run the Texas House. But the man they hope will replace him is carrying around two words that aren’t generally associated with conservative causes: trial lawyer.
State Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, who has filed scores of personal injury lawsuits over the years, has received at least $68,000 from trial lawyer interests — including the Texas Trial Lawyers Association — in his past runs for office, according to records at the Texas Ethics Commission.
Now those donations and the personal injury suits could hurt his chances of moving up the GOP leadership food chain. The vote for speaker is expected to be held Jan. 8, the first day of the 2013 legislative session.
Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, a top Straus backer, said he is getting calls, visits and emails from constituents urging him to vote against the incumbent. He said the pressure is coming from Tea Party-aligned groups who want Straus defeated.
But when Keffer tells them Hughes has been a personal injury trial lawyer, they tend to back down, he said.
“People are surprised,” Keffer said. “When I bring up that I don’t support a trial lawyer, they say well, we don’t, either. It’s just not very well known.” Keffer said he had no problem with Hughes’ line of work but expressed concern about installing a trial lawyer at the helm of a chamber that passed sweeping lawsuit restrictions in 2003.
Hughes voted for final passage of the tort reform measure, known as HB 4, but not all of the amendments that business interests wanted. In a telephone interview Tuesday, Hughes said that he has a conservative record and that he votes according to what’s best for his district, not any trade association or interest group.
“I don’t vote in lock-step with anybody,” he said. “I think people are going to look at my voting record and make a judgment based on that.”
Over the years, Hughes has filed numerous personal injury lawsuits. He has worked for a firm whose partners included Democrat Paul Sadler, who lost the recent U.S. Senate race to Republican Ted Cruz; and the Lanier Law Firm, which specializes in plaintiffs’ lawsuits involving personal injury, product liability, asbestos litigation and toxic exposure, according to a company website.
Hughes said he specialized in personal injury law from the late 1990s until about 2007 or 2008. Now he is in private practice in Mineola, describing his business as a typical small-town law firm, doing civil work including wills and real estate cases.
He said he couldn’t remember the last time he filed a personal injury case but didn’t shy away from his belief that American citizens should be able to access the courts to settle legal disputes.
Hughes has gotten large donations from trial lawyers. Mark Lanier, founder of the firm Hughes once worked for, gave him $35,000 between 2003 and 2004, and in 2004 he received a $25,000 donation from the Williams Bailey Law Firm — now known as Williams Kherkher — founded by noted trial lawyer John Eddie Williams, records show.
The Mineola Republican got $6,000 from the Texas Trial Lawyers Association between 2004 and 2010.
The association couldn’t say whether Hughes was friendly or hostile to trial lawyers, but a spokesman for the group said it stays away from the internal process of selecting House leaders. Hughes is a TTLA member.
“We don’t get involved in speaker’s races,” said Willie Chapman, a spokesman for the association.
Hughes points out that Texans for Lawsuit Reform, one of the most influential pro-business groups in Texas and the arch rival of the trial lawyer association, also gave him money. The TLR PAC gave Hughes $3,000 in 2004, records show. TLR spokeswoman Sherry Sylvester said the group is staying neutral in the speaker's race but believes Hughes' background potentially puts him at odds with its agenda.
"Speaker Joe Straus is a businessman who has a solid pro-tort reform philosophy and history. Representative Bryan Hughes is a personal injury trial lawyer," Sylvester said. "Personal injury trial lawyers have a distinctly different philosophy concerning the civil justice system than does Texans for Lawsuit Reform.”
One of Hughes' chief supporters is the Tea Party-aligned FreedomWorks, a group that helped Cruz beat the GOP establishment to win the U.S. Senate race. Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, said Hughes' conservative approach and record outweighs any concern about trial lawyer money he's gotten.
"I haven't heard anyone say that should prevent Bryan from becoming speaker," Steinhauser said. "What really matters is what positions they have."
Critics say Straus, who became speaker in 2009 and is running for a third term in that position, has been too cozy with Democrats and hasn't been conservative enough on hot-button issues like abortion, taxes, government spending and illegal immigration.
Straus, a lifelong Republican who worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and the first President George Bush, says the attacks are hogwash. He points to steep spending cuts enacted by the Legislature in 2011 and notes that one of the country’s most restrictive anti-abortion measures — requiring women to get sonograms before undergoing the procedure — was also passed on Straus’ watch. Another measure passed under his leadership was a law requiring voters to show photo identification before voting.
Tea Party activists tried to oust the speaker at the start of the 2011 session, and later in his own district in the 2012 GOP primary, but failed both times. Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, figures they'll fall short again this year, too.
"I don't see Bryan getting any traction," Larson said. "When you sit down and talk to people about it, the energy in their arguments is quickly lost."
*Due to incorrect information initially provided by the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, a previous version of this story said that Bryan Hughes is not a member of the TTLA, though he is.