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Inside Out in the House Speaker's Race

Third parties — outsiders — can't vote in the race for Speaker of the House. But the lawmakers who will actually elect the speaker next month are listening, and acting, on what's going on outside.

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Third parties have become so important in the workings of the Texas House that the latest volleys in the race for speaker had one candidate attacking another for something posted on a third-party blog.

A classic insider’s game — a secular equivalent to cardinals electing a pope — has spilled into the pews.

While members engaged in the customary, private pre-session conversations about leadership, bills, and where to live and eat in Austin when the Legislature is in session, activists were trying to horn in. Cathie Adams, the former chairwoman of the Republican Party of Texas, has been gathering signatures of conservatives who would like to dump the incumbent Republican speaker.

Just before Christmas, the postings of a vaguely identified blogger spurred a flurry of responses from lawmakers. One post was a ramble on the “strange antics and extremist views” of state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, who is challenging Speaker Joe Straus. Another listed some representatives whom Simpson purportedly claimed as supporters.

The first blog post inspired state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, to write to Straus about the need to calm his outside supporters, citing “a woefully inaccurate blog post that is being circulated by one of your surrogates.” Simpson jumped in next, writing in a news release, “We must leave behind the politics of whispered insinuations, intimidation, and retribution. I join Rep. Fischer in calling on all parties, including my supporters, to rise above the fray.”

And one of the lawmakers on the list, state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, issued a news release saying, “The reports are false and at no time have I stated my support for Rep. Simpson.”

Here we are, getting a real-time peek into the high-minded politics of leading the House. This wasn’t in the civics textbooks in high school. Who knew transparency would be so disappointing?

Actually, the fact that the process is usually private is what prompted the outsiders to intervene, and their intervention has forced House members to defend a process that, left to them, would be more about internal politics and less about ideology.

A closed race allows members to choose their own leaders and reap the rewards and suffer the consequences, in the form of committee assignments, pecking orders and all of that. Opening it to the public brings the ideologies and loyalties of the various players to center stage. And because only the narrowest sliver of the voting public is paying any attention — only real partisans and very ardent activists give a flip about this stuff — their particular concerns dominate the conversation.

Only two members of the 150-member House have openly expressed support for anyone but the incumbent. Most members haven’t expressed anything; when The Texas Tribune did a nose count right after the elections, calling each member to ask about speaker preferences, 119 members declined to state one.

Straus says he has all of the support he needs. He is not worried about those bashful supporters and says it is his job to take the flak between now and the vote for speaker that will take place on Jan. 8, the first day of the legislative session. Members who declare allegiance to one side or the other risk being pilloried by the outsiders who are trying to influence the race.

Those outsiders, for the most part, want someone else in the high chair. In the scrum that is the Texas Republican Party right now, Straus represents, variously, the establishment, the moderates, the folks willing to talk to and work with Democrats, and — this is key — the people who knocked off a speaker who had put conservative Republicans in important spots in the House leadership.

Conservatives occupy some of those spots now, but they’re not the same conservatives as before. Ideology is in the mix, but personalities and power are, too. That’s the tug-of-war: the current ideological wars, particularly on the Republican side, now compete with the traditional power politics of the Texas Legislature.

These third parties are louder than the third parties that have always been quietly present in leadership fights in Texas — the lobby, the trade groups, the geographic factions.

The activists didn’t defeat Straus two years ago. They’ll probably fall short this year, too, but they do have something to work with: Legislators are paying attention.

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