State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, joined The Texas Tribune's Evan Smith Monday morning to discuss his candidacy for House speaker. Zerwas is one of several lawmakers already vying to replace longtime speaker Joe Straus — and that list is likely to grow in the coming months. Zerwas, one of Straus’ top lieutenants and the chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, filed to run for speaker within hours of Straus’ announcement.
The main question facing Zerwas is: How different would he be from Speaker Straus? And the answer on Monday seemed to be: Not very. Asked if he’s more conservative than Straus: “That’s a hard one for me to answer.” Asked to identify any major issues on which he splits from Straus: “Not anything that comes to mind right now.”
Here are the highlights:
On the election. A House Republican Caucus working group has recommended that the caucus consider changing its bylaws so that GOP members would agree on one candidate behind closed doors before an official floor vote, effectively minimizing the role the Democratic minority plays in electing a speaker. Zerwas said he would vote to support such a change, but he would not personally commit to voting for the caucus’ choice — and does not favor requiring other members to do so.
That means Republicans — including Zerwas himself — could break ranks and vote with Democrats to select a speaker, a political play that would likely advantage the relatively moderate candidate. Zerwas several times emphasized the importance of building a bipartisan coalition behind the speaker. That spirit of including Democrats has often earned Straus criticism.
“Whatever process we come up with, it cannot — and it must not — marginate the Democratic caucus,” Zerwas said.
On leadership approach. Straus has often been criticized for preventing certain bills from making it to the House floor. Zerwas emphasized “the integrity of the process” several times but danced around whether he’d intervene heavily on controversial legislation — though he did note that the speaker does “exert his or her political will” through appointing committee chairmen.
On bathrooms. Zerwas was one of dozens of co-authors of a bill during this year's regular legislative session that would have nullified many local nondiscrimination ordinances protecting transgender people. But his position has evolved since the spring, he said Monday. Though Zerwas did not commit to blocking a “bathroom bill” — which has been one of the defining policies of Straus’ tenure — he said he has been swayed by the opposition of the business community, which came out in full force against the bill during this summer’s special legislative session.