Looks Like a Straus Waltz to House Speaker

With the help of House Democrats, San Antonio Republican locks up votes for speaker

Joe Straus surrounded by House supporters  at a Monday  press conference
Joe Straus surrounded by House supporters at a Monday press conference (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

With the 81st Legislature starting on Jan. 13, everyone expected the session to begin bitterly as Speaker Tom Craddick fought for his political life. But on Jan. 5, after just four days of rapid maneuvering, Craddick had the speaker's gavel plucked from his hands by Joe Straus – a two-term Republican legislator from San Antonio, a fiscal conservative and social moderate with a reputation as a quiet consensus builder.

Before the weekend, no political pundit was brave enough to write Craddick off, but the rebellion against him was open. The House's longest-serving member and the first Republican speaker since 1873, his ideologically driven rule marginalized GOP moderates and effectively sidelined Demo­crats. He narrowly survived two attempts to dethrone him last session through surgical application of House rules and the installation of combative former state reps Terry Keel and Ron Wilson as his parliamentarians. But in last year's elections, he made a double mistake: first by sinking campaign contributions into primary challenges against Republican incumbents, then by overseeing more general election losses in the House. Yet his grasp on power seemed strong, and his press office issued a stream of statements that he had majority support in the House.

Almost immediately after the election, 64 of the 74 House Democrats signed an "Anyone but Craddick" pledge. They were joined in their planned coup by the Gang of 11, a block of Republicans determined to oust the speaker. On Dec. 22, the rebel Republicans announced that they would select a consensus candidate from their ranks, but they still had to win over the anti-Craddick Dems (as Rep. Valinda Bolton, D-Austin, explained, "Anyone but Craddick can't be everyone but Craddick").

The dominos started falling on Jan. 2 when the Gang of 11 announced Straus as its surprise consensus candidate. While his name had been rumored for a couple of weeks, he was one of only four members of the group who hadn't filed to run.

A small gaggle of Democrats meeting in the Capitol offices of Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, immediately responded positively, but the big test was on Saturday when the House Democratic Caucus met at the Texas AFL-CIO building in Austin. When Straus' candidacy came up, the response was positive from those members who had already worked with him, and Straus quickly organized meetings with those who didn't know him well enough to make a decision.

On Sunday, he announced his list of supporters: He had 85 pledges, comfortably more than the 76 votes needed. Ten more legislators – a mix of Republicans and former Democratic supporters of Craddick including Rep. Dawn­na Dukes, D-Austin – had signed on with the ABCs. Then the seemingly impossible happened. Late Sunday, Craddick's office issued a short statement: "Tonight, Tom Craddick released his pledges for speaker." By midnight, Straus had 88 pledges.

As a dozen speaker candidates withdrew to support Straus, only three remained: Straus; John Smithee, R-Amarillo; and Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown. Craddick's supporters soon gathered around Smithee. Questioning Straus' pledges ("We believe that some of the people on the list are not really on the list," he said), Smithee presented himself not as a Craddick replacement but as a more seasoned alternative to Straus, equally bent on bipartisanship. Outside the House, groups such as the Texas Eagle Forum took advantage of the recent overturning of the Speaker Stat­ute (which restricted campaigning on speaker selection) to slam Straus as a moderate who would doom the conservative agenda.

But Straus struck home by holding a press conference in a packed Capitol rotunda on Monday morning. Surrounded by a bipartisan group of members, he announced he now had 94 supporters. Without explicitly declaring victory, he signaled an end to divisiveness. "The Novem­ber elections are over," he said, "and the legislators are now working for the people of Texas." While he praised the absent Crad­dick, he also laid out his own management style and said, "The speaker's role is to help the members, all the members, do good things for their districts and the people who sent them here to serve." Shortly after Straus left the podium, 94 pledges became 96.

Around 6pm, with Straus closing in on 100 pledges, Gattis and Smithee issued a joint press release: With Straus so far ahead, they were withdrawing. "Our priority," they wrote, "is to take the focus off speaker politics and concentrate on how we can best serve the people of Texas in the 81st Legislature." Straus quickly responded with a press release of his own and called Smithee's "gracious gesture ... another step towards unity in the House."

With Straus now seemingly clear to be voted in unopposed, what legislators from both parties hope for is a return to the old bipartisan approach of former speakers such as Pete Laney, who chose committee chairs for experience rather than ideological orthodoxy. Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, worked with Straus last session on an omnibus energy-efficiency bill and was optimistic about his bipartisan credentials. He explained, "He is a true conservative, he is a Republican, but he is a guy that Democrats feel comfortable will bring us to the table and let us have our say."

Who Is Joe Straus?

In less than a week, Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has gone from being a well-regarded but low-profile sophomore legislator to becoming the next speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. So who is he?

A principal with insurance firm Watson, Mazur, Bennett & Straus LLC, the 49-year-old Straus came up through the ranks of the Bexar County Republican Party and held low-ranking positions in both the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. While he may not have current Speaker Tom Crad­dick's millions in political action committee money to throw at supporters in elections, he's experienced on the stump. As campaign manager, he oversaw the 1986 organization that got Republican Lamar Smith into the U.S. Congress.

First elected to the House in 2005 to serve the mixed urban/suburban House District 121 in Northeast San Antonio, Straus currently serves as vice chair of the House Committee on Economic Development. Importantly, his experience on the Local and Consent Calendars Com­mit­tee, which helps regulate the flow of bills, and on the Republican Caucus Policy Committee, as well, will bolster his ability to administer the House as speaker.

A fiscal conservative with an "A" rating from Americans for Prosperity, he's also picked up a Legislative Service Award from the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club for his leadership in passing 2007's House Bill 3693 – the energy-efficiency omnibus bill. He also has one of the most moderate stances on abortion in the Republican Party, opposing a blanket ban in favor of exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and medical emergency.

Straus holds a bachelor's degree in political science from Vanderbilt and is married to Julie Brink Straus; they have two children.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Joe Straus, Tom Craddick, Legislature

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