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Texas House Speaker Joe Straus welcomes challengers: “I don’t own this job”

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus brushed aside complaints that he controls the House and said he is confident that most of the members of the House will support him for a record-breaking sixth term in that post in January 2019.

State House Speaker Joe Straus joins Tribune CEO Evan Smith at The Texas Tribune Festival on Sept. 23, 2017. 

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional remarks from Straus.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus brushed aside complaints that he controls the House and said he is confident that most of the members of the chamber will support him for a record-breaking sixth term in that post in January 2019.

“I won’t be speaker forever,” Straus said. “It just seems that way to some people.”

Straus was interviewed by Evan Smith, CEO of The Texas Tribune, at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin. A day earlier, state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, filed the necessary paperwork to run against Straus in 2019. King said in a statement that a speaker should represent the will of the members and shouldn’t try to control the House’s business.

“I don’t control the House,” Straus said in response. “There are issues, relatively huge, where I am outspoken.”

That last was a reference to his opposition to proposals that would regulate which restrooms transgender Texans could use. That legislation failed in both the regular and special sessions.

He said he opposed the bathroom bill out of “personal conviction” but is convinced that turned out to be representative of others in the House.

But Straus said he doesn’t agree with anyone in the House 100 percent of the time, and said the results aren’t always what he would personally prefer. “The House passes bills that I would never vote for, and the House kills bills that I would like to see enacted,” he said.

Straus welcomed other challengers into the race and pointed out that there are two elections — a primary and a general — between now and the time the House will vote on the next speaker. “I don’t own this job,” he said.

After successfully challenging House Speaker Tom Craddick in 2009, Straus has faced several challengers for the dais over the years, defeating all of them with relative ease. At the beginning of the regular legislative session earlier this year, the House voted unanimously to give him a fifth term. He’s only the third speaker to win five; the first two were Gib Lewis, D-Fort Worth, and Pete Laney, D-Hale Center.

House Republicans met at a retreat Friday to talk about how they’ll vote in the 2019 election of a speaker. Some in the party want Republicans, the majority party, to decide among themselves who should be speaker and then to vote as a bloc. One persistent swipe at Straus is that he was elected as a coalition speaker, initially winning the House’s top office with the support of both Democrats and Republicans who were unhappy with Craddick. He has won the majority of Republicans in the House in every election since, but the criticism persists.

King, first elected to the Legislature in 1998, filed the papers necessary to run but stopped a bit short of saying he will be a candidate.

“Over the past several months, many of my colleagues have encouraged me to consider running for speaker,” King said in a statement. “In order to have an open discussion concerning the future of our Texas House, I have filed the required paperwork to declare my candidacy for Speaker.”

Straus said he talked to King on Friday. “It was a short chat,” he said to laughter.

"He said he considers us friends. I said, okay,” Straus recalled. “Seen this movie before.”

Straus said House Republicans agreed in 2011 to vote as a bloc, but then 15 of them, he said, “voted against me anyway.”

Straus acknowledged some tension between the House and the Senate, even when saying he and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick don’t hate each other. He said he likes Patrick. “He says he likes me, but it’s a little bit hard for me to believe it,” he said.

Asked if he would endorse Patrick in next year’s election, the speaker ducked: “I would be surprised if he would ask.” 

Asked about Gov. Greg Abbott’s criticism of the House for killing some of the 20 items on his special-session wish list, Straus said, “The House has priorities, too, and the House does not work for the governor.”

In spite of the partisan and culture fights during the legislative sessions, Straus said the Legislature had a good year: “We did a lot of underreported and as of yet unappreciated work that will benefit millions of Texans and our economy.”

And he said the list of things to do and to study before the next legislative session was changed dramatically by Hurricane Harvey.

“Harvey has changed everything,” Straus said. He said the issues of the next session “are going to be overtaken by Mother Nature.”

A member of the audience asked Straus if he would consider running for governor after Abbott. He didn’t say no, but didn’t say yes, either. Straus said he wants to continue to serve, but thinks that can be done from the private sector as well as from public office.

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