Burning Down the House: Joe Straus and the End of the Moderate Texas Republican

A tremendous amount now depends on whether a Straus-type successor can be elected speaker.

Joe Straus’ reputation is that of a boring and studious moderate, but that’s dead wrong. The speaker of the Texas House is a freak, a space oddity, an aberration of nature too weird to live and too rare to die. For the last decade, Joseph Richard Straus III has been one of the most unusual figures in American politics — a moderate, soft-spoken Republican who 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.

He’s also a sort of one-man control group in Texas politics — a business-friendly, country club Republican who stayed the course while the rest of the Texas GOP disappeared entirely up its own behind. What once made him mundane now makes him almost unspeakably radical. And now that he’s not seeking re-election, Straus is best understood against the backdrop of how everything else has changed.

A nice Jewish boy from San Antonio whose mother was an old friend of the Bushes, Straus came up through the clean-cut early Republican organizations in the state, playing volleyball with Kay Bailey Hutchison and networking at Camp Wannameetagop in Brenham. He fell into public service and then fell harder, into the speaker’s chair, the subject of a plot not of his own devising. He served as speaker for five terms, longer than anyone would have thought — a lone survivor in a political party that had overheated and started to melt, like a box of G.I. Joes on a midsummer car dashboard.

The announcement came suddenly today — on Facebook, followed by a short, impromptu press conference in Straus’ office. “I feel really confident and really good about this decision,” he said. But he lamented that the position of speaker, though it carries enormous power, can “be sort of inhibiting. Every decision I make, every statement I make, I have to think about 149 other members.” In the last year or so, he said, he had tried to more directly “speak for myself about issues that I care about,” and “the reception that I’ve gotten as I’ve been more outspoken has been really strong, really positive. I want to do more of that.”

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus says he is not running for reelection. Watch what he told the press here. http://bit.ly/2zMRbk9

Posted by Texas Tribune on Wednesday, October 25, 2017

And what is that, everyone is now wondering. It could mean supporting Republican candidates in the 2018 GOP primaries, against more radical challengers, as he promised to do. Or, as he repeatedly declined to rule out, running for office of some kind in the future. “I’m not one to close doors,” Straus said. “I have to tell you as I’ve traveled this state,” talking to audiences about his core issues, “the response I’m getting has been very, very strong. I’ve had people on a daily basis suggest that I run for another office.”

In the coming weeks, he said, he’d be calling supporters around the state “to see what they think I ought to do and what they’re willing to do with me … I think there’s a hunger out there for another Republican voice.” Straus has spent much of the last several years squaring off against Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Governor Greg Abbott, who has of late been quietly pushing alternatives to Straus.

Liberals have never quite figured out what to make of the man. On one hand, it’s undoubtedly true that Straus was a bulwark against the new populist tendencies of the Texas GOP. He and allies such as Byron Cook, who is also retiring, stopped a metric ton of junk legislation that would have passed with a different speaker. When considering the question of why Texas has fared generally better than similarly red states like Louisiana and Kansas, which are on fire, Straus and the conditions that created Straus are a significant part of the answer. He’s the last person in state government who seems to care about governing as a concept.

But out of that fact emerged too a picture of Straus as a sort of Aaron Sorkin character, a paternal figure with an unnaturally rosy image and a passing resemblance to Gregg Popovich, typified by the mythic representation of Straus’ bathroom bill showdown with Patrick in a recent New Yorker article. There is an element of Stockholm Syndrome in that, as if Straus was the jailer who always asks about your kids. Among other things, the House of Straus passed many of its own pieces of junk legislation — voter ID, loads of anti-abortion laws, etc. — and served at times as a trough for the lobby. Straus and his lieutenants often declined to water down bad legislation, including, spectacularly the state’s “show your papers” law. The Capitol debate over what Straus personally wants, and when his hand is being “forced,” is as long and storied as it is useless to ordinary Texans.

Straus isn’t Jeff Flake or Bob Corker — he’s been staying true to some version of his principles since he was elected speaker, not just recently. But it’s also worth wondering why a person who places so much emphasis on good government is willing to abandon his post, possibly to another Republican in the mold of Dan Patrick or Donald Trump. A tremendous amount now depends on whether a Straus-type successor can be elected speaker.

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio  Sam DeGrave

John Zerwas, a moderate who once flirted with supporting Medicaid expansion, today announced his bid to do just that, and Chris Turner, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, quickly signaled a willingness to deliver the caucus’ votes to the best possible contender. That would mean, hypothetically, that Zerwas will need some 15-25 Republican votes to clinch it in the way Straus once did. That seems very doable — particularly if Democrats are able to make real gains in the next general election, in what should be a favorable climate — but no one can say. There will be other strong challengers.

And Straus and his followers have something of a blind spot when it comes to the conservative grassroots. Asked if the House Freedom Caucus, the far-right faction in the House, would continue to grow in his absence, Straus said no. “I think they’re self-limited. I can’t imagine very many people want to identify with the way they practice politics.” But many do, of course. Straus is correct that the firestarters have a harder time getting elected in the House, but the political dynamic and incentives that lead to the elections of people like Dan Patrick are real and are going to very difficult for anyone to disrupt.

Still, though, it’ll be fun to see Straus try. He seemed viscerally relieved, at his presser, that he might soon be free of the bullshit. The Bush version of the Texas GOP has been in Straus’ blood longer than many members of the House have been alive, and it’s nearly all gone now. It must feel degrading, and alienating, to be sharing a political party with Donald Trump and Dan Patrick and Michael Quinn Sullivan. At the start of the press conference, Straus quipped that he expected all the reporters to be following around the president in Dallas this week. “I thought everybody was with Trump today,” he said. A reporter asked: “Are you with Trump today?” Straus, smiling, lowered his voice. “No, I’m not.” 

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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