- By Jonathan Tilove American-Statesman Staff
With a special legislative session he has little use for just days away, House Speaker Joe Straus got a vote of no confidence Monday night from the county Republican Party in San Antonio, his hometown.
On a 36-28 vote, the executive committee of the Bexar County GOP approved a resolution, “that there should be a change in leadership in the Texas House speakership due to the non-support of the Republican Party of Texas platform by the current incumbent.”
The resolution, which wasn’t on the agenda, drew the support of only a fraction of the county’s 244 precinct chairs who make up the executive committee, and Bexar County Chairman Robert Stovall, who attempted to rule it out of order, said the outcome would have been different if more members had known about it and showed up.
The resolution was another sour note for Straus, who is facing a special session that commences Tuesday in which he is the odd man out among the Big Three — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the speaker. Abbott has detailed a 20-item agenda that includes issues important to Patrick and the conservative GOP grass roots but not to Straus.
Monday night’s resolution followed approval of another resolution expressing support for Abbott’s call for the special session, with an emphasis on a “bathroom bill” intended to keep transgender individuals from using public restrooms — or, in a narrower version, public school restrooms — that don’t correspond to the gender on their birth certificate. The legislation has been championed by Patrick, backed by Abbott and loathed by Straus, but co-sponsored by a majority of House members, all Republicans.
The vote comes amid warnings from members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which has been the bane of Straus’ leadership, that he could face a challenge to his gavel during the special session if he doesn’t accede to the will of his members on the special session call.
“We want to pass it all,” said Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington. “If things don’t progress according to what the will of the House wants, every day that passes, the party will get more and more frustrated and the potential for a change is greater and greater.”
Reacting to the Bexar County vote, Straus spokesman Jason Embry said, “Speaker Straus understands that voicing concerns about harmful bathroom bills is unpopular with some, but he was elected to act in the best interest of District 121 and the state of Texas.”
“Speaker Straus won last year’s Republican primary in District 121 by 32 points and appreciates the strong support he continues to receive in the district he represents,” Embry said. Straus was elected speaker unanimously in January, and is serving his fifth term, tying the record for longevity of a Texas House speaker.
But Patty Gibbons, a precinct chairwoman from Harmony Hills, a neighborhood in Straus’ district, said Tuesday that she thought Monday’s vote reflected broader sentiment among San Antonio Republicans that, amid recent local losses for more conservative candidates in the mayoral and city council races, Straus is proving an obstacle and not an advocate for Texas Republican values as enshrined in the party platform adopted at the state party convention.
“I call this an epic meeting,” Gibbons said.
But Carol Van de Walle was among a handful of precinct chairs who left the meeting before the vote because they support Straus and didn’t like the way the resolution was sprung on them.
“I decided I had heard enough. I didn’t want to be involved any further in that vote,” Van de Walle said. “It’s a lot of infighting that’s not productive.”
Gibbons said at the meeting, “This isn’t infighting. This democracy. Democracy is messy.”
The party platform tends to be the handiwork of the party’s most committed conservative activists, and its most recent statement of principles begins: “We, the 2016 Republican Party of Texas, believe in this platform and expect our elected leaders to uphold these truths through acknowledgement and action.”
But Embry said that the speaker’s critics tend to have a selective dedication to the platform.
“While it may be difficult to find anyone who agrees with 100 percent of the party platform, nobody has worked harder than Speaker Straus to enact Plank 120 in the platform, which says `school districts that have an adequate tax base should be free to manage their finances without any state recapture of local funds. Those districts that do not have sufficient tax base should be provided resources from general state revenues to meet the Texas Constitution’s requirement of an efficient system of public free schools.’”
“Speaker Straus looks forward to taking action in the upcoming special session on school finance and other issues important to the state of Texas,” Embry said.
Another member of the Freedom Caucus, Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, said that a challenge to Straus “depends upon whether he plans on stonewalling property tax reform, the Women’s Privacy Act and the rest of the conservative items the governor has placed on the call.”
Would the dozen members of the caucus actually consider mounting a challenge?
“There’s talk, hard to tell, very fluid,” said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford.
The last time a member of the House sought to remove a speaker with a motion to “vacate the chair,” in 2007, then-Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, refused to recognize the motion. Straus ultimately succeeded Craddick as speaker, and the rules were changed to require recognition of a motion to vacate the chair.