Is the Texas Legislature About to Get Even Crazier?
With the powerful Republican moderate who stopped the bathroom bill stepping down, no one is sure what will happen next.
The Texas Capitol dome. Photo by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty
To Democrats and moderate Republicans alike in recent years, Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus took on the trappings of an action hero. In a world where Texas Tea Party types obsessed over who went to which bathroom, one man took on the collective might of the far-right Texas Taliban and prevailed….
Most famously, Straus took on the right wing of his own party over their discriminatory bathroom bill, saying it "disgusted" him and reportedly telling a state senator, "Tell the lieutenant governor I don't want the suicide of a single Texan on my hands." He also fought their property tax caps and their crackpot school voucher schemes. To some, Straus and Straus alone prevented the Texas economy and its public institutions from bursting into garbage fires like those of conservative-dominated states like Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Kansas. That wouldn't be Texas, not on Joe Straus's watch. "Too often, we knowingly walk right into controversies that repel jobs and opportunity," he once said. "We seem determined to repeat the mistakes that other states have made."
And so when the pro-business, socially moderate San Antonio Republican announced last week that he would be hanging up his cape at the end of his fifth two-year term, such were the state of Lone Star lamentations in many quarters, you could be forgiven for thinking Superman had sustained a lethal dose of kryptonite.
According to the left-wing Texas Observer, Straus was "a freak, a space oddity, an aberration of nature too weird to live and too rare to die" who for the past decade "turned the chaotic lower chamber of an extremely conservative state into a parliamentary body run by a grand coalition of both parties, and kept it that way year after year despite venomous and deep-pocketed opposition."
"This is really an earth-shattering event for politics," Rice University political scientist Mark Jones told the Texas Tribune. "The political center of the state collapsed today."
After seeing so many of their pet projects sink in procedural quagmires of the canny Straus's devising, conservative hardliners greeted the news with glee.
"The crony cartel of Democrats and Republicans that kept Straus in power worked to oppose property tax reforms, spending limits, and the First Amendment," wrote Straus nemesis Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans, a conservative advocacy group. "Straus referred to [Governor Greg] Abbott's common sense agenda for this year's special legislative session as 'horse manure.' Straus claims he is leaving on his 'own terms' but his closest allies in the Texas House have been fleeing like rats abandoning a sinking ship. They knew his time as speaker was going to end when the legislature next convened in 2019."
While it is true that Straus wingman Byron Cook announced his upcoming retirement shortly after Straus, perhaps the doomsday prognostications from moderates and liberals are a bit overblown. Just how far the Texas legislature might lurch to the right in the San Antonian's absence is unknown pending next year's election. What's more, the legislature does not convene until 2019, and when that body finally does convene to elect a leader, it's far from certain the GOP-dominated House will pick a wild-eyed partisan to lead it.
On the other hand, nor should Texans expect a Straus clone, says University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus.
"It's difficult for some of Straus's lieutenants to appeal to some wings of the party because they are tainted with the same brush that tainted Straus as a moderate," he told me. "That said, my hunch, and tremendous evidence from political science suggests, that parties choose moderates to be their leaders."
Rottinghaus suspects that Texas's next Speaker will indeed be more conservative than Straus, "but clearly a moderate within the party." Rottinghaus went on to rattle off a list of a half-dozen or so potential candidates before adding, "All of which is a long way of saying, 'I have no idea.' There are so many variables between now and then, not the least of which is we have to have an election."
House rules can be changed, Rottinghaus points out, and over the years they have, sometimes to weaken the speaker and sometimes to grant him more clout. "Moderate Republicans who are unhappy with the choice could partner with Democrats to amend the rules to give the speaker less power in a couple of different dimensions," he speculated.
Some believe Governor Greg Abbott will miss Joe Straus more than he would ever admit in public, since the speaker blocks true-believing Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and the members of the Texas Freedom Caucus from going full social conservative; without him, Abbott won't have anyone to blame if measures like the bathroom bill fail.
"Abbott has always been one to try to find an easy political course. He hasn't had to take a hard stand against the moderates of the conservatives," Rottinghaus said. "He's really been seen to be someone who's been independent of both sides."
Abbott likely isn't the only Republican who wouldn't mind a pragmatic, business-oriented party member having power in Austin—which is one reason Rottinghaus believes Straus's successor might not be as terrible as some on the left would assume.
"The role of leadership is to protect its members, and most members are going to want to have a speaker who protects them from having to take votes that might be too conservative, or that they might be philosophically opposed to, or that they think are flat-out illegal or unconstitutional," he said. "A speaker who is supported is one who protects his members from having to take those kinds of votes. And looks to me like that person is usually a moderate."
As for Straus's plans, some on both sides of the aisle hope that the 58-year-old will run for higher office—either governor or lieutenant governor. "That would be pretty dicey," predicted Rottinghaus. "His ability to in a statewide Republican primary is pretty low."
However, Rottinghaus didn't rule out a more creative approach: a future coalition of likeminded Republicans and Democrats that "could correct toward a more moderate course" and rally behind the candidate. "Or Straus could just wade into a competitive Democratic primary," he said. "But that's a long shot all around. It's a little difficult to see that panning out."
But what about a still higher office? Is it "time to make like another Texas great, ZZ Top, and go nationwide"? Earlier this year, Straus's hometown San Antonio Express-News made that very suggestion in semi-seriously suggesting a 2020 presidential run.
"The country sure could use his steady and thoughtful leadership that unifies people and serves the public with dignity, grace, pragmatism and compassion," wrote columnist Josh Brodesky. "Yep, the politicos are right. In a statewide Texas GOP primary, Straus is doomed. But nationally, he just might be what we need. Joe Straus, 2020."
Texas Monthly senior editor John Nova Lomax was born about a mile from the Texas Capitol but don't hold that against him.