Herman: At Texas Capitol, the loss of a calm voice at a turbulent time

Updated Oct 25, 2017

Texas has had (if not always enjoyed) one-party state government since 2003, the year the Republicans took over the House and completed their hammerlock hold on the Texas Capitol.

Now we might be heading toward something even more narrow and potentially dangerous than one-party government. Depending on whom the GOP-controlled House picks in January 2019 as its next speaker, we could be headed toward one-ideology government.

That’s a bad idea.

Wednesday’s surprise and bombshell announcement from Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, that he won’t seek re-election to the House sets in motion a political play that could affect the state for years or decades to come. I say decades because the 2021 Legislature (with a House very possibly under the control of whomever it picks as speaker in 2019) will draw legislative and U.S. House districts that will be used until after the 2030 census.

RELATED: Texas House Speaker Straus won’t run for re-election

(In the upcoming Sunday paper, I’ll talk more about redistricting and rigged elections.)

There was a time when Republicans like Straus seemed like far right-wingers to some folks from other wings. But business-friendly Republicans like Straus have been outflanked on the right by Republicans like Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Republicans who control the Texas Senate. Those Republicans now see an opportunity to have one of their own running the House.

Straus’ announcement makes that a frightening possibility. Happy Halloween.

Patrick and Abbott put out perfunctory statements — “Blah, blah, blah, thanks for your service. Blah, blah, blah, I wish you well in the future.” — praising Straus. That was for public consumption.

Privately, it very well might have been high-five time for Republicans like those two who remain bitter about Straus’ refusal to go along with their push for the so-called “bathroom bill.” Straus stonewalled that effort despite the reality that it probably had a decent chance of winning House approval had it made it to the floor for a vote.

There are two ways to be speaker. One is to yield to the will of the body, which Straus often did. The other is to make a stand, even in the face of votes, on something you think is important enough to merit a stand.

Years ago, I heard the late Gov. John Connally give a powerful speech about the disgrace of not using power when you have it. It is indeed a waste of power.

BACKSTORY: Joe Straus, Dan Patrick snipe on bathroom bill, special session

House speaker is a weird job, part traffic cop and part wielder of great power. You’re kind of a statewide official with power over the flow of statewide legislation. You’re sent to the House by your district but elevated into real power when elected speaker by the 150 members of the House.

These days, that’s probably the only way somebody other than a Trump-Abbott-Patrick Republican can be elected to a position of power in Texas state government. We all benefit from having a voice of dissent, even if only on limited, hot-button issues (bathrooms, school vouchers, etc.) in the mix.

For many years, and increasingly in recent years, Straus has served as that voice, in addition to being a solid advocate of core GOP values relating to business and state spending.

Perhaps more than anything and most importantly these days, Straus wasn’t a screamer. We could use fewer screamers these days.

Straus’ level-headed manner made his occasional zinger, delivered in moderate tones that belied the cutting nature of the words, more effective. The Straus style drew praise even from opponents, something not often heard about Abbott or Patrick.

“We disagree with Joe Straus on much of the agenda he steered in 2017, such as discriminatory immigration laws and abortion regulations that have since been struck down in court,” said Ed Espinoza of Progress Texas, a Democratic group. “But we do agree that, in a sea of increasingly irrational Republicans, he is one of the few grown-ups in the room.”

READ: Abbott blames Straus for all that the special session didn’t get done

There was similar praise from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which long has lobbied to curtail civil litigation against businesses, a cause that often had an ally in Straus.

“Speaker Straus is a gentleman,” said Texans for Lawsuit Reform President Richard J. Trabulsi Jr., “and his civility has been a hallmark of his public service.”

Gentle civility will lose a champion when Straus departs the speaker’s podium at the front of the House chamber. There are more like him in the House. And we will all be best served if one of those is the next to wield the House gavel.

We’ll be ill-served if Straus’ departure leads to even more partisanship in the House. It is a point of Texas pride that the House and Senate, unlike their Washington equivalents, have committee chairs of both parties. We shouldn’t go down that road.

In a statement announcing the decision that rocked the pink granite Capitol, Straus, characteristically low-key, sounded a warning to fellow Republicans of all stripes: “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.”

Well spoken, Mr. Speaker.

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