Joe Straus’ original sin, to hear some conservatives tell it, was to wrest the speakership from fellow Republican Tom Craddick in 2009 with a coalition that initially consisted of 15 Republicans and 70 Democrats.
In a party overwhelmed by hard-liners, Straus is still trying to smooth feathers ruffled by that first deal with the devil — even after his second legislative session in 2011 turned out conservative results that won boasts from Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst alike. Will Straus’ foes support someone else if it takes votes from liberal Democrats to mount a serious challenge to Straus?
Straus lost a challenger this week but gained a new one: Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, got into the race with the blessing and endorsement of Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, who withdrew. Simpson, or any challenger, has to find a way to 76 votes by Jan. 8, when lawmakers convene for their regular session. Those votes could come from the 95-member Republican caucus or from a coalition of Republicans and Democrats who find common cause in their dissatisfaction with Straus.
That’s a difficult path: Does everything that makes Simpson more acceptable to the left make him less acceptable to the right?
No, says Cathie Adams, leader of the Texas Eagle Forum, the former chairwoman of the Republican Party of Texas, an ardent critic of the incumbent speaker and a Simpson supporter.
“He won’t be the straight arrow he was in the first session — that would be unrealistic,” she said of Simpson, who is entering his second term in the House.
Adams sees Straus’ deal with Democrats in 2009 differently than she sees the current situation. And she said both Hughes and Simpson would be able to negotiate with the Democrats without giving up conservatives in the process — which is what she accuses Straus of doing.
“You just don’t sell out the people of Texas to gain power for yourself,” she said. “If you’re in this to do the work of your constituents, then I don’t think people look down on them for being able to negotiate. But you don’t give away the high ground. And I trust both of those men.”
Some Democrats who helped Straus win election in 2009 felt a chill in the relationship after huge Republican gains in the 2010 elections gave the GOP a supermajority in the House. They’ve been shopping, openly, and criticizing Straus for his handling of redistricting and other issues. Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, accused Straus aides of “intentional discrimination” in the redistricting maps, and he released legal depositions to make his point. He’s still talking to the speaker, but has said openly and frequently that he and his fellow Democrats aren’t feeling the love they think they deserve. They want a place at the table they're being asked to set.
"It behooves you to be skeptical and critical of anybody running for the speaker's office," Martinez Fischer said. "If we're good enough to get you to the dance, we're good enough to take part in the policy, too."
Luke Macias, a political consultant who put out Hughes’ endorsement of Simpson, says the complications are clear, but adds that the challenger is hoping to change practices and rules to the benefit of Straus critics across the political spectrum.
“David doesn’t have a ton of time under his belt, but he believes in empowering the individual to make a decision,” Macias said. “He’ll argue his side, Charlie Geren can argue his side and Lon Burnam can argue his side and then they can all vote.
“They know they’ll have their day in court,” he said.
Adams echoed that, saying she’s willing to accept Democratic support of a Republican under certain conditions.
“Democrats are going to be looking for what they can get out of this, but it’s been very transparent — everything I’ve seen and heard is about the changing of the rules for more fairness,” she said. “That’s honorable. If the Democrats want to support that and the Republicans want to do that, then what’s going to bring about good government.”
Getting a new set of rules wouldn’t cure her opposition to Straus, she said: “He’s already lost all credibility. The last session was an economic shell game. The whole TSA debacle.”
Adams doesn’t pin blame on the other two state leaders who signed off on the state budget, at least not so completely.
“What I’ve seen happen before is that Rick Perry is the more conservative and so he sets an agenda and asks these two men to help him,” she said of Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. “And they literally did not really give him enough things to run on on the national campaign trail. I really think that they both fell down on the jobs. Everything from TSA to sanctuary cities to the budget, it didn’t get done. They were not doing a good job.”