On Tuesday, the 85th Texas Legislature will convene and, barring the wholly unexpected, Joe Straus will be elected to his fifth term as speaker of the House, tying the record for length of service in that post. The only smidgen of drama will be whether the San Antonio Republican reclaims the gavel by acclamation or record vote.
But, if it is the latter, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, who last time around seconded the nomination of state Rep. Scott Turner, R- Frisco, whose strenuous challenge to Straus two years ago yielded only 19 votes, said he will hit the green light for Straus.
So too may state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, another of the 19 members of the 2015 anti-Straus contingent, who viewed the speaker as too moderate and out of step with the grass roots.
“I think you’ll find a lot of the strongest critics of the speaker will vote `yes,’” Rinaldi told the American-Statesman.
With enemies like that, one might ask, who needs friends?
But the tactical decision by the speaker’s most ardent foes in the House to back their nemesis is meant to deny Straus and his allies the satisfaction of seeing precisely how few members are willing to publicly defy him.
“I just might vote `yes’ to show how meaningless the vote is,” Rinaldi said.
“They want to catch us and get the media to roll out this fictitious, ‘Look, they’ve lost ground, look they’ve only picked up one seat, blah blah blah.’ That’s stupid, so why play into their hands?” said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, who describes himself as “at war with the speaker” and yet might cease fire for Tuesday’s vote.
Straus’ unfettered ascension to a fifth term finds him at the height of his command as speaker. But what makes him an effective leader of the House — his ability to protect many members from votes they don’t want to take — also puts him at loggerheads with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his partisans, in the Senate, in the House, and at the grass roots, who fear that the House will, true to form, be the graveyard of critical elements of Patrick’s panoramic conservative agenda.
It is a dynamic that, for all the probable quiet on Day One, promises to make the House, in what might be Straus’ last term as speaker, the fulcrum of Texas politics in the 139 days that follow.
“The Texas Senate is on a mission to pass landmark reforms,” Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of Empower Texans, which scores legislators on their votes — the more conservative the better — wrote in a new year message to supporters. “The governor has signaled a bevy of items he wants passed. All the levels of the federal government are held by Republicans. Obama is gone; the Democrats can stop nothing of substance. Anything not done in 2017, any long-held reform championed by the GOP not passed, will be the result of obstruction by Republicans in the Texas House.”
Of what he describes as Tuesday’s “loyalty” test, Sullivan wrote, “With no other option, it’s a meaningless vote.”
Straus first came to power in 2009 when 11 Republican representatives joined forces with most of the Democrats in the House to overthrow House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland.
But if Straus early on depended on Democratic support, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said that Straus now operates with lopsided GOP majorities — 95 of the 150 House members this session will be Republicans, a few shy of last session. And Jones said, over time, Straus has grown more reliant on his fellow Republicans than on the Democrats, though he continues to hold their allegiance as well. For all the noise made by the tea party, Jones said that in the House, what he calls centrist/conservative Republicans outnumber “movement” conservatives, and they appreciate what Team Straus does for them.
“Many people would consider you to be a good legislative leader if you keep your supporters from having to cast votes that are no-win votes for them,” said Jones.
So, Jones said, if Senate bills to crack down on local laws and school policies requiring bathroom accommodations for transgender Texans or to end in-state tuition at Texas public colleges and universities for those living in the state illegally, fail to reach the House floor, it will ultimately not be because of Democratic opposition, but because, like Straus, “a majority of Republicans don’t believe that legislation is in the best interests of the state of Texas,” but also would prefer not to have to vote on it.
The list of conservative objectives that have been foiled by Straus’ House is long, Sullivan said.
“Their inaction is why sanctuary cities still exist in Texas. It’s why property taxes haven’t been reformed. It’s why spending limits haven’t been adopted. It’s why labor unions haven’t been stopped from pilfering public employee paychecks. It’s why parents don’t have more choices in public education,” he wrote.
Stickland said the first order of business next week is to try to enact rules that will reduce the speaker’s power to bottle up legislation.
Said Rinaldi, “I think there’s definitely a conservative governing majority in the Senate. I think we have a conservative governor and lieutenant governor. I don’t know whether there is a conservative governing majority in the House, but I think it’s close.”
But, Rinaldi said, “I think there is a conservative majority in Texas, at least among the voters, at least among the primary voters, so if we can get those conservative bills to the floor I think we can get the votes for Gov. Patrick’s agenda, and I think that’s the goal.”
‘One day we will … free ourselves from that man’
For grass-roots conservative activists in Texas, it all comes down to Straus.
“One day we will be powerful enough to free ourselves from that man and will work to make Texas as conservative as we brag about being,” Julie McCarty, president of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, posted on her Facebook page the same day Sullivan issued his missive. “We will celebrate that accomplishment and pass it down to our children and our children’s children. But Joe Straus will still have to live with his own shameful, conniving, wheeling and dealing self. How does he do that?”
“I think the guy’s a very fair guy,” said state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, who said Straus’ enemies “need to come up with a new boogeyman.”
Contemplating Tuesday’s vote, Nevárez recalled the speaker’s contest in 2013, when Nevárez was a freshman.
State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, dropped his challenge to Straus at the last possible moment.
“David, basically he stood down,” Nevárez said. “There were some voices calling for, `Hey, let’s vote,’ and then calmer heads prevailed and it was by acclamation.”
But, Nevárez said of those clamoring for a record vote, “From the outside looking in my first session, I hadn’t been sworn in but 30 minutes before that, it seemed to me it was like an attempt to turn the light on to see where the cockroaches run.”
“Now that I’ve served with them I wouldn’t compare them to cockroaches,” Nevárez said.
But, of a call for a record vote this time, “I don’t see the speaker doing that,” though it could come from Straus supporters who want to see what those who voted against Straus two years ago will do.
“If your followers really believe that you shouldn’t be supporting Joe Straus and shouldn’t be voting for Joe Straus, well, don’t vote for him,” Nevárez said. “You have that choice. If those are your principles, stand by them.”