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Texas Legislature 2019

Analysis: The far-reaching political repercussions of Speaker Straus’ exit

For the first time since 1993, there will be an open race for Texas House speaker. With current Speaker Joe Straus announcing his exit, expect a clear turn in the fight between the state's business and movement conservatives.

House Speaker Joe Straus questions members during a break in debate of House Bill 214 on August 8, 2017.  The bill would limit funding for elective abortions. 

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Texas House Speaker Joe Straus’ decision not to seek re-election is the starting gun for the next speaker’s race, a fresh turn in the fight between business and movement conservatives in Texas and also the loss of the loudest and most effective voice on the business side of that intramural Republican debate.

Straus was elected speaker in 2009 by a coalition of a couple dozen House Republicans and most of the House’s Democrats — who then were almost equal in strength to the GOP in the House. Over time, the Republicans gained more seats and Straus gained more Republican support, rising to a point where he’d have won re-election even without a single Democratic vote.

But the first race marked him for conservatives who were upset that he had unseated their champion, Tom Craddick of Midland, and that he had done it with the opposition’s help. Some never forgave him, and they put up a steady, if ineffective, string of obstacles to try to trip him up.

As late as last month at the Texas Tribune Festival, Straus was saying he would seek a record sixth term as speaker and that he wouldn’t be running for the House if that weren’t true.

Now he’s made his decision to leave. It’s an unusual move for a speaker: Straus unseated Craddick, who had beaten Democrat Pete Laney of Hale Center when the House flipped from Democratic to Republican. Laney had succeeded Gib Lewis of Fort Worth, who decided to quit after an ethics scandal. Lewis came after Billy Clayton, who had been acquitted after a federal bribery sting operation caught him in its net.

Politics can be perilous, but Straus is leaving on his own terms.

The speaker was a relatively quiet leader for his first four terms in the job. He found his voice in 2017, pushing against social conservatives whose agenda — led by what became known as the “bathroom bill” — threatened his own desire to push economic development, infrastructure and other more or less bipartisan ideas.

The House is often called moderate — and it is, if the very conservative Texas Senate is your baseline — but it passed some remarkably conservative legislation even while taking fire from the right. “Sanctuary cities” legislation — which focused on ensuring that local authorities enforce federal immigration laws — is a leading example. A strict Senate bill came to the House this year and was made even more restrictive, including a “show-your-papers” provision that allows local police to inquire about the immigration status of people they detain for routine stops. Straus and his followers and supporters have argued that this House is at least as conservative as any that preceded it and that they have a legislative record to prove it.

Now legislators can start arguing about what the House should be in the future and who should lead it. They’ll get help, whether or not they want it, from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the leading voice of the movement and social conservatives and the speaker’s regular sparring partner. Gov. Greg Abbott has mediated some of their battles, most often taking the side of the lieutenant governor.

The House traditionally likes to elect its speakers without outside interference — but that interference is always there. Other state leaders, financial supporters, grassroots groups and special interests will be taking part, overtly and covertly.

This will be the first open race since the lead-up to the 1993 legislative session when Lewis was ending his fifth and last term, freeing anyone who wanted to throw their hat in the ring. Pete Laney had been chairman of the powerful State Affairs Committee. Other candidates for speaker included other Lewis lieutenants — the heads of committees on Appropriations, Ways and Means, Transportation and so on. They battled right up to the beginning of the 1993 session, when Laney announced he had put together the 76 votes it takes to win.

At one point, reporters and lobbyists keeping careful track of pledges in that race found they had more votes counted than there are members of the House. A speaker's race is an inside game where the candidates know the voters, cannot legally promise them favor for their votes, but know who wants what and why. It’s like running for high school president but with real power at stake.

The House is always full of people who see a future speaker — or governor, or president for that matter — in the mirror when they’re getting ready for work every day. Most say nothing, either because they don’t want to offend the incumbent or because they think the incumbent would do to them what the windshield of a Mack truck does to a mosquito.

Now they’re free, and names will be popping up soon. Two already have: Phil King, R-Weatherford, filed a couple of weeks ago; John Zerwas, R-Richmond, filed within minutes of Straus’ announcement. Candidates can file for re-election from Nov. 11 to Dec. 11. The Straus surprise will also probably mark an exodus of people who either don’t want to serve in a non-Straus House or who were sticking around to support an ally who’s not going to be around anymore. State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, announced he won’t seek re-election within minutes after Straus made his own announcement. Expect more of those.

And watch for others who might have been thinking of moving on to try for the corner office Joe Straus has occupied for the last decade.

The speaker’s decision also marks a change of strategy for candidates, arguably removing the politician who was in the first paragraph of every social conservative’s fundraising messages. They’re not running against Straus now.

Conversely, it’s easier for Straus loyalists to run on his idea that economic development and “bread and butter” issues should preoccupy state government. The idea might prove easier to defend than the speaker who personified opposition to the movement conservatives.

All that’s at stake is the direction of state government. Straus and the House have acted as brakes against an aggressive and focused conservative push from the Texas Senate and the governor. You can reduce a years-long debate over that to this question about who to credit: Was it Straus — or was it the House?

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