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House Antagonist-in-Chief Faces His Foes

Sophomore state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, has poured a seemingly inexhaustible supply of populist indignation into exposing what he sees as ideological hypocrisy within his own party.

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, is shown during a legislative debate on gun legislation on April 17, 2015.

There are three parties in the Texas House, the joke around the state Capitol goes: Republicans, Democrats and Jonathan Stickland.

It refers to the sometimes lonely — and critics say self-serving — role the Bedford lawmaker plays as the GOP-controlled chamber’s antagonist-in-chief.

The most vocal of a small group of House Republicans who position themselves to the right of Speaker Joe Straus, the 31-year-old sophomore legislator has poured a seemingly inexhaustible supply of populist indignation into exposing what he sees as ideological hypocrisy within his own party.

“Unfortunately, ‘Jonathan Stickland’ has become someone in this building that it’s easy to take a shot at to earn some political points,” he said in an interview last week at his Capitol office. “But every one of these guys is going to be asking for my help in the next Republican primary.”

He argues too many of his Republican colleagues hide from hard legislative votes to disguise their lacking conservatism and that their true colors should be brought to light. 

“I’m not here playing games,” he said. “I’m literally just here trying to bring transparency to the process.”

Many of his colleagues beg to differ. They say Stickland's tactics — tying up floor debates with questions and delaying legislation with parliamentary maneuvers — are doing nothing more than holding up the House's business while rubbing Democrats and Republicans alike the wrong way.

“His M.O. is to stand at the back mic and be a martyr,” state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said last week. “His whole thing is, ‘woe is me, nobody likes me, I can’t get any bills passed so I’m going to sit here and cause disruption.”

In the waning weeks of the legislative session, Stickland's efforts have provoked almost daily rebukes on the House floor, where he frequently springs to the microphone from what he calls the “liberty defense wall” — his desk in a row occupied by like-minded conservatives.

And late last week, Stickland was ordered to leave a House Transportation Committee hearing after Pickett, the commitee chairman, raised concerns that the lawmaker had falsely registered witnesses to speak in favor of a red light camera ban — supporters who were not even in Austin. 

Stickland, who has so far declined to comment on the committee incident, says he is devoted to accomplishing his No. 1 goal: protecting the conservative agenda voters elected him to advance. When it comes to that pursuit, there’s not a measure too minor or an elected official too powerful.

Bills banning electronic cigarettes in high schools, extending licensing requirements for educators who work with students with learning disabilities and giving security officers at the Federal Reserve Bank limited powers to make arrests have all come into his crosshairs. (That last one is Pickett's — which set the stage for last week's fireworks.)  

Stickland also led the charge in the House against a pre-kindergarten bill that has become Gov. Greg Abbott’s pet project this session — just hours after the governor made a rare appearance at a House GOP caucus meeting to personally ask for lawmakers’ support. Stickland believed the bill was an unnecessary expansion of government.   

His failed attempt to derail the measure using a point of order — a legislative technicality — led to a scene on the House floor that once may have seemed surreal: Democratic Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, the chamber’s primary bomb-thrower on the left, using his rulebook to advise Republican leaders on how to overrule Stickland.

The almost five-hour debate over the pre-K bill ended with a fierce denunciation of conservative interest groups’ influence on policymaking from the measure’s author, state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston.

“We should not to be beholden to a conservative group … or any outside interest group,” Huberty said shortly before the chamber approved his bill on a 129-18 vote. “We are the House of Representatives. We should make these decisions.”

Huberty’s comments were a reference to chief Stickland-backer Empower Texans, the anti-Straus conservative group led by activist Michael Quinn Sullivan.

State Rep. Bryan Hughes, a Mineola Republican who is aligned with Stickland politically and who has also challenged House leadership, said every member who votes against the speaker at the beginning of the session has to make a choice. 

“You have to decide whether you want to be the loyal opposition or continue to work with all the members and try to get bills passed,” he said, noting that either role was appropriate. Hughes has been able to get hearings on his bills, with one so far making it out of the chamber, whereas Stickland has only gotten a single bill out of committee. 

Stickland’s regular bouts with senior members of the House have yielded moments of political theater that could belong in an absurdist play — or a middle school lunchroom.

During the House debate on legislation allowing the open carry of handguns with a permit, Stickland took to the microphone repeatedly to demand a public explanation for why the chamber’s leaders had rebuffed his efforts to repeal handgun licensing requirements altogether.

Unable to get a committee hearing for his so-called “constitutional carry” measure, which drew some supporters to the Capitol whom lawmakers felt threatened by, Stickland was trying to attach it to the open carry bill as an amendment to force a record vote on the issue.

When the House parliamentarian ruled that Stickland’s constitutional carry amendment was not germane, it resulted in a testy, gavel-banging, nine-minute back-and-forth about procedural rules between the lawmaker and state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican and a top Straus lieutenant.

When the time came to vote on the bill, its author, state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, told Stickland he had himself to blame for constitutional carry not advancing. He pointed to how Stickland “treated other members of this chamber” and “the way those who support your bill have treated members of this house, their families and their staff.”

Earlier in the legislative session, as Stickland took yet another trip to the microphone, at least two people in the chamber saw Fort Worth Rep. Charlie Geren, another Straus ally, dangle a cookie on a string in front of Stickland — a mocking attempt to lure him away. In the archived video broadcast of that session, Geren can be seen on the House dais folding string back into his pocket.

The pair had tangled a few weeks before when Geren, the chairman of the House Administration Committee, took down a sign Stickland had placed on his office door identifying himself as a "former fetus" in a show of solidarity with anti-abortion organizations.  

Confirming the cookie incident, Stickland likened the behavior of his opponents to that of “an injured animal in the last two moments of its life when it is the most dangerous.”

Outside of the Capitol and back home in his district, Stickland has far more fans. After his first legislative session in 2013, Stickland faced a primary challenger with the kind of credentials that have launched many political careers: former high school principal and local school board trustee Andy Cargile. 

Cargile built his bid on issues like the need to improve education and the state’s transportation infrastructure, contrasting himself with the incumbent’s partisan, ideological focus. His campaign also took some shots at Stickland, sending out fliers calling him a “high school dropout.”

Stickland, who has a GED, left high school in his junior year to attend community college.  

But despite the unpopularity Stickland already had among the Capitol establishment — from the lobbyists to the special interest groups that bankroll the majority of legislative campaigns in Texas — Cargile struggled to raise enough money to compete. Stickland won with almost 65 percent of the vote. 

Stickland said last week that he is aware of the common knock against him — that for all his time spent making speeches on the House floor, he has very little of substance to show for it. 

He blamed much of that on obstruction from House leadership, and said he has managed to accomplish some of his legislative agenda through other members, by avoiding taking credit publicly.

But one of Stickland’s own bills could have him in a new kind of hot water.

At Thursday night's transportation committee hearing, when Pickett realized that some witnesses listed to testify for Stickland’s bill banning red light cameras were not really in the Capitol, he fumed at Stickland: “Please leave the committee room or be removed.”

Stickland fought back, arguing he had nothing to do with it because “you know that I was on the [House] floor.” Pickett asked a House sergeant to escort Stickland from the room, according to a video taken by a person in the audience.

The House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics is reviewing the “integrity” of what went on at the meeting, and state Rep. John Kuempel, the Seguin Republican who chairs the committee, said Friday that “no individual is targeted by the investigation at this time.”

On the House floor the day after the hearing, the usually media-friendly Stickland avoided reporters.

But in the interview last week prior to the committee meeting, Stickland said he believes the House’s Republican leaders selectively enforce rules and procedure — and use them to micromanage the legislative process and dole out retribution against political enemies. 

“The rules should freaking matter in this building,” he said. “And they don’t.” 

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