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House Speaker Fight Changes Card

Far right changes challenger to Straus to lead Texas House
Richard Whittaker, 1:55pm, Thu. Dec. 13, 2012
Speaker fight 2013! Iiiiin the right corner, Speaker Joe Straus: And in the even further to the right corner, David Simpson.
Hold up, fight fans! There's a change in the main event for the 83rd Texas Legislative session (or, as I'm calling it, TLS 83). Instead of facing Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, reigning champion of the gavel Speaker Joe Straus will be looking to beat down sophomore Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, in his quest to retain leadership of the House.

Hardline conservatives have been pushing for someone to get in the ring with Straus ever since he took the title from "Smilin'" Tom Craddick, R-Midland, in 2007. This time around, Hughes was the Tea Party favorite to oust the champ – at least, outside of the House. He had the Young Conservatives of Texas PAC on his side, while on Nov. 19 the Texas Eagle Forum released a list of 350 "grassroots leaders" backing his candidacy. Unfortunately for Hughes, none of the assorted North Texas GOP county party leaders and activists on the list gets to vote in January. That’s for members only.

Even though the hard right cheering section was in his corner, Hughes never really made a convincing super-conservative, and he still had to make a case to his fellow reps for why he should be leader. He made a late push for support on Nov. 8, when he promised supporters that he would rewrite the rules on committee appointments and process. He proposed a speedier path for 'popular' (ie Tea Party and ALEC-backed) bills to the floor, while suggesting that seniority should play a bigger role in handing out committee seats. Considering this session sees a freshman class that accounts for almost a third of the entire delegation, that was a clear sop to seasoned Republicans and Democrats.

In a sign that this quest was going nowhere, on Dec. 10 Hughes withdrew from the fight. In his exit statement, he snubbed Straus and called Simpson "uniquely qualified to lead the House at this pivotal time in our history." What those qualifications exactly are may elude some. Simpson, a hard line Tea Partier, is famous for two things: His failed anti-TSA “groping” bills, and his determined effort to derail attempts to ban puppy mills. Unless Simpson has worked hard on his political Ju-Jitsu all Summer, this clash may never get out of the first round. Seriously, when even hardliners like Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, say that you've got no chance (as King told the Dallas Morning News), you may as well unlace your gloves right now.

Now no-one would call Straus a heavyweight: Much as super-conservatives have tried to paint his administration as a Bully Beatdown to all opponents, he's really a skilled middleweight who can definitely hang with the 205 pounders. He's even pawed the air recently against Gov. Rick Perry: While Goodhair has been rambling on about fetal pain bills and further budget slashes, Straus is telling everyone that his top priorities are water policy and education funding – two issues everyone except the fringiest of the fringe can get behind. If he can KO Perry's agenda by leading on these issues, Straus could quietly become the state's real main eventer. And, frankly, after the embarrassing defeats that Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst took in this year's primaries, it may not be hard to become the heaviest hitter.

Yet even though he has been speaker for the last two sessions, Straus has had to go all five rounds to retain the gavel. He has always been seen by his more radical colleagues as a San Antonio moderate, and on occasion there has been a nasty whiff of anti-Semitism to some criticism of the state’s first Jewish speaker. In 2009, when he choked out Craddick, he needed help from House Democrats to do it. In 2011, he used that bipartisan support to fend off two challengers, but many Democrats felt betrayed when they lost many prime committee appointments, and Straus stood by as the House lurched to the right on abortion and redistricting.

This time around, he may depend on Democrats again: Many of his longtime supporters and committee chiefs either did not run again or were beaten in the primaries by Tea Party candidates. With concerns that the normally deliberative Senate may collapse into a super-conservative rubber stamp (or sheer chaos), Dems and moderate GOPers may expect the more pragmatic Straus to really get in the ring this time.

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