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Can Straus Hang On?

by Published on
photo by Erin Trieb
Joe Straus

dept. of influence-peddling

The election of the Texas House speaker has always been an insider’s fight. The 150 House members who vote on the speaker usually politick and trade loyalties in Austin’s back rooms without much concern for the voters back home. Until now.

The battle to become speaker in the coming legislative session has become a public affair: website postings by activist groups, open letters from House members, robocalls and email campaigns. So much so, that we have ongoing coverage of it.

Current Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, is considered a moderate—his position the product of last session’s closely divided House in which the GOP held a four-seat edge. This year’s election results—22 more Republican seats and a 99-51 majority—had barely been reported when hard-line conservative groups began attacking Straus and calling for a more conservative speaker. The day after the election, Straus announced that 130 of the 150 members had pledged their support. But those pledges are non-binding, and he now faces two opponents, not to mention scores of mobilized Tea Party activists.

Less than two days after the election, 46 right-wing activists sent a letter to House members saying “a change to a more conservative Speaker is in order.” Then Michael Q. Sullivan, one of its signatories and the leader of the conservative activist group Empower Texans, began pushing an anti-Straus petition at the website ConservativeSpeakerMandate.com, which quickly gained thousands of supporters.

Socially conservative Republican state Rep. Warren Chisum of Pampa was the first to challenge Straus. State Rep. Ken Paxton, a Republican Tea Party favorite from McKinney who also declared his candidacy, has already peeled off a few Straus supporters, though Chisum and Paxton have a long way to go.

The fight has been in the making for months. At the Republican state convention in June, protesters held anti-Straus signs and drowned out his introduction with boos. More recently, some activists’ calls to arms have bordered on anti-Semitic. (Straus is Jewish.) Harvey Kronberg of Quorum Report wrote that some right-wing activists had “crossed over the line” with calls for a “Christian” speaker. In particular, he cites Peter Morrison, one of the 46 activists who signed the anti-Straus letter. Morrison wrote to supporters, “Both Rep. Warren Chisum and Rep. Ken Paxton, who are Christians and true conservatives, have risen to the occasion to challenge Joe Straus for leadership.”

If the activist groups succeed in toppling Straus, the speaker’s race may never be an insider’s fight again.

—Abby Rapoport



 

crime and punishment beat

DeLay on Trial

Read our update on DeLay’s verdict here.

The charges for which Tom DeLay was indicted in 2005 hinge on one simple transaction. In September 2002, a political action committee that then-House Majority Leader DeLay set up in Texas sent $190,000 in corporate funds to a national Republican committee in Washington, D.C. Two weeks later, that committee, the Republican National State Election Committee, sent seven checks totaling $190,000—money they claim was contributed by individual, non-corporate donors—to seven Republican candidates in Texas House races. It is illegal to contribute corporate or union money to a candidate for office in Texas. Illegal corporate money went to Washington, and the same amount came back as legal, non-corporate money. Prosecutors call that money laundering. DeLay’s defense team calls it politics.

In the second week of a trial that might run as long as one month, the prosecution introduced an incriminating statement that DeLay insists resulted in his indictment in 2005. As the members of the jury leaned forward in their chairs, listening to an audiotape, they heard the former majority leader agree to the transaction for which he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison for moneylaundering and conspiracy to launder money.

The tape is a recording of an Aug. 17, 2005, meeting with DeLay and his lawyers and then-Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle and his staff. Near the end of the interview, DeLay is questioned about a conversation he had with Jim Ellis, the executive director of DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee.

Asked when he first heard about the transaction, DeLay says Ellis “told me he was going to do it.” Asked if he made a notation in a memorandum regarding what Ellis planned to do with the $190,000, DeLay responds: “I just said, ‘Fine.’” He also argues that “Everybody does it. Democrats. Democrats as well as Republicans.”

As prosecutors read it, “Fine” is informed consent to commit a crime. “Everybody does it” is the subtext of the defense advanced by DeLay’s attorney, Dick DeGuerin—though Judge Pat Priest will not allow DeGuerin to make that argument explicitly to the jury.

Prosecutors are creating a narrative that wends through DeLay’s role in the creation of the TRMPAC, the fundraisers’ direct solicitation of hundreds of thousands of corporate dollars, and finally to the election of a Republican majority in the Texas House, which made possible the 2003 redrawing of the state’s congressional districts to the GOP’s advantage.

DeLay is unbowed. After the taped conversation was played for the jurors on Nov. 10, he walked from the Austin courtroom, saying: “Did you hear anything in that tape that justifies the five years of hell they put me through?”

Those five years of hell didn’t include a prison term, unlike his former confidant, the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The former House majority leader is living in somewhat reduced circumstances. Rather than staying at a hotel, he and his wife are sleeping in their 40-foot, luxury motor home, which DeLay drove over from Sugar Land. Golf at St. Andrews in Scotland and fine dining on the lobby’s tab remain on hold.

—Lou Dubose



 

dept. of elections

Sylvia Garcia’s Stunner

If any race epitomized the troubles of Texas Democrats on Election Day, it was Sylvia Garcia’s defeat in Houston.

Garcia—who had served on the Harris County commissioner’s court since 2003—seemed like a shoo-in for re-election. The slice of eastern Harris County she represents is heavily Democratic. Latinos comprise the majority of her district. Garcia had amassed nearly $1.8 million in campaign money to spend against an underfunded, little-known Republican opponent who not only couldn’t afford to hire a single staffer, but did little campaigning of any kind. Moreover, no Harris County commissioner had lost a re-election bid since 1974.

But as Garcia’s campaign studied the totals from early voting, it became clear she was in trouble. The week before Election Day, Garcia e-mailed supporters: “Right now, our Latino numbers are down from my previous cycles and I need them to win. … We need you to block walk and phone bank every day until Election Day. We are in desperate need of bilingual volunteers, especially for our phone bank.”

The fact that Garcia’s campaign was desperately trying to recruit block-walkers and bilingual callers several days before the election—when 60 percent of the vote had already been cast in early voting—tells you all you need to know. “She, I think, coasted too long in this race,” says Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston. 

Garcia relied on the Latino vote. Her district has few African-Americans, and many of the Anglos typically vote Republican. Relying on the Latino vote in Harris County was problematic this year. Latino turnout there increased a bit over 2006, Murray says, but still equated to a meager 12 percent of the electorate. Meanwhile, Anglo voters turned out in droves, many of them voting straight-ticket Republican. 

Garcia’s campaign was swamped by the bugaboo that defeated many a Texas Democrat in 2010: angry, energized, white Republican voters combined with another disappointing turnout by Latinos. It doesn’t seem quite fair given that her novice Republican opponent, Jack Morman, who will take office in January, barely campaigned. Then again, as Murray put it, “He didn’t need to. He was on the ballot with an ‘R’ by his name this year, and that’s all it took.”

—Dave Mann