Straus will bow out as speaker, ushering in new era in Texas politics

7:40 p.m Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017 Texas News & Politics

In a stunning announcement with huge repercussions for the future of Texas governance and politics, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said Wednesday that he won’t run for re-election.

In a morning email to supporters, followed by a short news conference in his Capitol office, Straus, in his fifth term as speaker — as long as anyone has served — said it was time to step aside and yield power to others.

“A confident leader knows when it’s time to give it back,” Straus said. “This is the first time in decades that a speaker has been able to leave this office on his own terms. So I feel good about that.”

Straus did not rule out a future run for public office, possibly even including challenging Republican Gov. Greg Abbott for re-election next year, though he said, “I don’t think so.”

Of the chance that he would be on the ballot for anything in 2018, Straus said, “I highly doubt it.”

Straus had emerged as the assertive counterweight to the increasingly right-wing tenor of state politics. He had become the indispensable man whom many old-school establishment Republicans, major elements of the corporate and business community, and hopelessly outnumbered Democrats looked to block GOP hot-button measures gaining momentum in the Capitol.

“It’s a major shift in the center of gravity within Texas politics,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said.

Jones said that Straus might simply have tired of playing the thankless role of the man “who saved the Texas Republican Party from itself.”

“He allowed Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. (Dan) Patrick to have their cake and eat it too, to support legislation that was popular with the base, but toxic for the state, knowing full well Straus will block it,” Jones said.

Straus’ sudden announcement almost certainly means that the Texas House will move to the right in the next session, which convenes in 2019, and that Abbott and Patrick, assuming they are re-elected, will get more of what they want.

The speaker’s departure comes after a legislative session and a special legislative session this year in which Patrick attacked the speaker as an obstacle to Patrick’s shared agenda with Abbott. At the conclusion of the special session, Abbott also expressed his frustration with Straus’ leadership, suggesting he needed to get in line with the administration’s agenda or risk being replaced as speaker by House Republicans when the next session convenes in 2019.

Abbott’s office issued a pro forma statement on Straus’ announcement.

“Joe Straus has served with distinction for both the people in his district and for the Texas House of Representatives,” Abbott said. “I thank Speaker Straus for his service and for his commitment to the state of Texas. Cecilia and I wish Joe and Julie all the best.”

Patrick said his conflicts with Straus were about ideas and never personal.

Straus has become a lightning rod for tea party discontent with more moderate elements in the state Republican Party. With great vitriol, Straus’ critics have come to view him as the key obstruction to conservative legislation in Texas, as the ultimate RINO — Republican In Name Only — despite Straus’ superb Texas Republican pedigree from a time when the names Bush and Tower were revered and Republicans were on the rise in Texas but hardly in sole possession of the levers of power.

“Victory!!!!!” tweeted Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, the embodiment of a Straus antagonist. Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, tweeted a GIF of Will Ferrell pumping his fists in his bathrobe from the movie “Wedding Crashers.” Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, head of the Freedom Caucus, tweeted, “It’s morning in Texas Again!”

More than 50 Texas Republican Party county executive committees have passed resolutions expressing a lack of confidence in Straus as speaker.

But Straus said he wasn’t being chased out, was in a stronger position than ever, would be involved in Republican Party primaries on behalf of his House allies, including fundraising, and that he did not think the Freedom Caucus would flourish in his absence.

“No, I don’t,” he said. “They are sort of self-limited. I can’t imagine too many people wanting to identify with the way they practice politics.”

“I think that rational Republicans will always survive in primaries just as they always have,” Straus said. “It’s a myth that you have to be crazy to win a Republican primary for the Texas House.”

But many Straus loyalists are facing primaries, and Stickland predicted the 12-member Freedom Caucus would gain 15 to 20 new members in the next session. Jones said conservatives were more likely to prevail in about a half-dozen primaries.

Straus said it would not be his place to express any preference for a successor.

But Rep. John Zerwas — chairman of the House Appropriations Committee under Straus and very much in the Straus mold in terms of his politics and demeanor — announced that he had filed his paperwork Wednesday to run for speaker.

Last month, Rep. Phil King, a 10-term Republican from Weatherford, announced he would challenge Straus for speaker.

After Straus’ announcement Wednesday, state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, and one of Straus’ key lieutenants, said that he won’t run for re-election either. Cook chairs the powerful House Committee on State Affairs.

“Straus…Gone. Cook…Gone!” Julie McCarty president of the NE Tarrant Tea Party exulted on her Facebook page. “Good job, patriots! You put the fear of failure in them and they are both retiring.”

Straus has been unapologetic about his leadership, which he characterized as “working across party lines.” The House this year derailed Senate efforts to pass laws banning transgender-friendly bathroom bills and to use state money to support private school tuition.

“But we have accomplished what I had hoped the House would accomplish when I first entered this office, and I am increasingly eager to contribute to our state in new and different ways,” Straus said in his email to supporters breaking the news.

“Instead of acting on behalf of the entire House, I will now have a greater opportunity to express my own views and priorities. I will also continue to work for a Republican Party that tries to bring Texans together instead of us pulling us apart,” he said in the email. “Our party should be dynamic and forward-thinking, and it should appeal to our diverse population with an optimistic vision that embraces the future. I plan to be a voice for Texans who want a more constructive and unifying approach to our challenges, from the White House on down.”

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