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Speaker's Original Band of 11 Shrinks to a Quartet

Joe Straus became speaker of the Texas House with the help of a relatively small group of Republicans who rebelled against a sitting speaker. Less than five years later, only four of them are left.

Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, speaks in the Capitol Rotunda on January 5, 2009 supported by state representatives wishing to elect a new Speaker of the House.

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, will give up the office he has held in the Texas House since 1993, which means Speaker Joe Straus will need a new chief budget writer in 2015. It also means that yet another member of the Polo Road Gang is gone.

That gang of 11 Republicans, including Straus, met at state Rep. Byron Cook’s Austin residence (on Polo Road) in January 2009 to talk about a challenge to Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who was then the House speaker. Of the 10 who were in actual attendance — and another on a long-distance telephone line from Colorado — only four hope to remain in the House after next year’s elections.

Every speaker has opposition; the trick is to keep it under control. The 2008 election was unkind to Republicans and resulted in a 150-member House with 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats. It wrecked the coalition that had propelled Craddick into office in 2003.

Had the Democrats been able to win the majority in 2008, Craddick would probably have been replaced by a Democrat who could pull a dozen or so votes from the Republicans who, although in Craddick’s party, were not in his favored circle.

Instead, those Republicans — most of whom wanted the job themselves — decided to unite behind one candidate who would challenge the incumbent. They picked Straus, connived with the vast majority of the House’s Democrats for a couple of days, and that was that: Craddick was out. Straus was in.

Two more joined Straus’ team in time to get on his initial list of Republican supporters, bringing the original band to 13. All ended up with committee chairmanships when he became speaker at the beginning of the 2009 session. They were the nucleus of the new speaker’s leadership team, there to try to settle down the losers and to consolidate the win.

A few of them did not even make it to 2011, swept out by conservative Republicans in the 2010 Tea Party wave that also drastically changed the politics of the House. Straus’ coalition was broken up as a Republican supermajority took over. A challenge within his own ranks fell short and he kept the job, with considerable help from the remaining members of the gang.

This year’s session was, by comparison, easy. State government wasn’t in the ditch this time. The Republicans were still in control — but without a supermajority. And that put the Democrats, to a limited extent, back in the game.

Along the way, Straus has become a political piñata for his party’s conservatives, an establishment guy from a family with deep roots in the state’s Republican Party. That sounds like a great résumé and has worked so far, but the insurgents getting most of the attention in the party count him and his confederates as political apostates.

If they all win re-election, three will return in 2015 along with Straus: Cook, R-Corsicana; Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth; and Jim Keffer, R-Eastland.

Pitts, chairman of the appropriations committee and a legislator with the rare ability to tell someone no without making an enemy, will not seek re-election. Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, is running for attorney general instead of re-election. All told, five of the originals left of their own volition, three got beat and one died in office.

Turnover opens new risks but can also secure a speaker’s grip on the gavel. Every time a committee chairman leaves, someone who has not been in power ascends into management.

Part of a speaker’s job is managing the natural disgruntlement of power-seeking people who are shut out of power. If the original Polo Road Gang were still in Austin, its members would still be holding those committee chairmanships.

Straus would face a herd of political animals whose advancement required dumping his friends or being dumped himself, in favor of a new speaker who could populate committees with his or her own people.

Unless another faction takes over the House — which is what happened to Craddick and to Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat, before him — the turnover is helpful. If the factions change as a result of next year’s elections, Straus may wish the Polo Road Gang were still in town.

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