- Chuck Lindell American-Statesman Staff
Joe Straus didn’t seem destined to become the most powerful member of the Texas House when opportunity knocked in 2009.
He was polished and affable with a solid Republican pedigree, but Straus was also a two-term legislator with a modest record of accomplishment — a known pro-business moderate in a political climate that favored strong conservatives.
Blood was in the water at the end of the 2007 session, when then-Speaker Tom Craddick’s autocratic style prompted an unsuccessful coup attempt, but Craddick’s fate was sealed when the next election left Republicans with only a two-seat majority heading into the 2009 session.
Straus was one of about a dozen ABC Republicans — Anybody But Craddick — who met privately in early January 2009 to anoint a single candidate to back. Nine of the ABCs vied to be the group’s consensus candidate, all of them better known and longer serving than Straus, but participants later said the strongest candidates canceled each other out, allowing Straus to emerge as the surprise victor on the third ballot.
When the group emerged from Rep. Byron Cook’s Tarrytown home, reporters waiting on the front lawn were shocked at the choice of Straus, who hadn’t even served as a committee chairman.
But the ABCs emphasized that Straus had the ability to unify a sharply fractured House, particularly because he wasn’t a player in previous battles over Craddick’s leadership.
And, knowing Straus faced criticism because he couldn’t defeat Craddick without Democratic support, the ABCs played up his Republican roots. His mother, Jocelyn Straus, was a campaign official for Republican U.S. Sen. John Tower and the presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush, while her son served in the administrations of President Ronald Reagan and Bush and was a precinct chairman and a campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio.
“What I hope to be able to do is to change the subject, to move away from a speaker-centered House where every day the spotlight is on whose nose is out of joint, ” Straus said at the time. “I’m going to try to bring everyone together and improve the attitude in the House.”
When the session began, the San Antonio Republican was elected speaker without opposition.
In his first term as House leader, Straus beefed up the power of his appointed committee chairs and encouraged compromise when possible.
The Straus doctrine worked on the budget, which passed the House unanimously after dozens of partisan amendments — designed to force tough votes on both sides of the aisle — were pulled down by agreement.
Straus was less successful on the 2009 voter ID bill, a Republican priority that was killed by Democratic stalling tactics — incurring the wrath of social conservatives, which would be a constant theme of Straus’ time in office. Voter ID’s defeat also drew the ire of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, continuing the House-Senate feuds are a staple of every legislative session and setting the stage for Straus’ titanic confrontation with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick over transgender bathroom policies, property taxes and other issues earlier this year.
A succession of social conservatives, deeming Straus too moderate, failed to oust him in the following sessions:
• Reps. Warren Chisum and Ken Paxton, now attorney general, withdrew their names before the 2011 vote.
• Reps. Bryan Hughes and David Simpson also dropped out when their bids failed to catch fire in 2013.
• Rep. Scott Turner, a tea party Republican, made history by forcing the first floor vote for speaker in four decades, but he fared no better, losing to Straus 127-19.
Straus, who also defeated a succession of GOP primary challengers who ran to his right, was unanimously re-elected speaker to start the 2017 session.