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Analysis: Picking Straus, Taking Names

Legislators hate to be pinned down — unless they're keeping score. In the race for speaker of the House between incumbent Joe Straus and challenger Scott Turner, both sides want to know who lines up where.

House Speaker Joe Straus (l) faces a challenge from Frisco state Rep. Scott Turner

Lawmakers love and hate voting on issues because they hate to be pinned down.

That makes no real political difference most of the time, as when legislators plow through resolutions honoring constituents and commemorating historical events.

The vote for speaker of the House is not one of those times. The speaker can control a legislator’s influence: who gets on which committees and who heads them, which legislation moves and which gets stuck in the machinery. A vote against the winner can easily become self-defeating, just as support for the winner can give the voter an advantage.

Since 1975, members of the House have managed to put someone in the corner office without having to openly vote against the winner. It has not always prevented a stray “no” vote from one member or another, but House members have never been forced to publicly choose.

And they have avoided open disputes even when the speakership was contested. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, is the fifth speaker to serve since that 1975 vote, and the infighting over those leaders was often close and vicious. But the supporters of the losers and the winners were not forced to reveal themselves.

The legislative session that starts in January might break that 40-year streak.

Enough members have declared their support for Straus to make it clear that he will win a fourth term as speaker, barring some misadventure between now and the Jan. 13 start of the session. Yet it appears that both sides — his supporters and those who back his opponent, Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco — want the members of the House to make their choices public.

Why force a vote? To keep score.

This Straus-Turner thing is not an ordinary race for speaker; it is a skirmish in the factional conflict that divides Texas Republicans. Straus is part of the establishment. Turner belongs to a vanguard of ideological conservatives who contend the establishment is too willing to work with Democrats and to water down a strong partisan advantage.

Lots of Republicans, including many elected ones, do not promote the divide in the party. Even for those who do, taking sides can be risky.

Gov.-elect Greg Abbott, for instance, got all the way through the 2014 elections with the support of just about everybody in the Republican Party of Texas. Why in the world would he pick a side and split his support, especially if not on an issue that really matters to most voters?

Gov. Rick Perry is less restrained. In an elected state office since Ronald Reagan’s first term as president, he still has considerable support from the anti-establishment people in the Republican Party.

And he has weighed in on the speaker’s race, if only peripherally. Perry’s chief of staff told the Austin American-Statesman that Straus’s chief of staff offered to drop a House committee investigation of a University of Texas System regent, Wallace Hall, if Hall resigned. Hall was appointed by the governor, and has tangled with the university administration over its management and the fairness of admissions. The committee’s investigation was the subject of the conversation supposedly held by the two top staffers, but a spokesman for the speaker said the story was untrue.

That tale echoes the story behind the criminal indictment of the governor himself; Perry is accused of threatening to veto funding for the Travis County prosecutors unless the local district attorney resigned.

More to the point, the story told by the Perry camp is a signal to members of the House that a vote against Straus may get a thumbs up from the outgoing governor. That might carry more weight if Perry was not a lame duck, but it is a signal just the same.

A vote on leadership would flush out the combatants, giving each side a handy list of friends and enemies.

At this point, one candidate usually sees the futility of a challenge and withdraws, saving his supporters from declaring themselves outsiders. The House then votes, typically unanimously, for the remaining candidate, with everyone pretending to sing from the same page.

Many legislators on both sides are tired of pretending.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of the Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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State government Joe Straus Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature