Updates posted below.
Almost immediately after the election, sitting Republican Speaker Joe Straus, began facing serious threats to his speakership from the right wing faction of his own party, fighting off two challengers in tough speaker’s race. But this week, that opposition came under scrutiny when some activists were accused of anti-Semitism in their fight against Straus.
Harvey Kronberg at Quorum Report started the week by saying “the so-called grassroots effort has crossed over the line” and later posted links to a variety of emails. Several of the groups active in Straus-opposition, he reported, have sent out press releases lauding his opponents’ Christian credentials and demands for “Christian conservative” leadership and values. Kronberg cites a variety of emails, including one from Tea Party activist Ray Myers: “We finally found a Christian conservative who decided not to be pushed around by the Joe Straus thugs.” By Tuesday, Straus himself offered a statement addressing the swirling allegations: “It would be most unfortunate,” he said in the release, “for anyone to suggest someone is more or less qualified for public office based on his or her faith.” And on Wednesday, Straus’ two opponents, state Reps. Warren Chisum and Ken Paxton, both issued statements condemning any such bigotry and distancing their own campaigns from the allegations.
“There is absolutely no place for religious bigotry in the race for Texas Speaker, and I categorically condemn such action,” Paxton said, noting “it is just as shameful for anyone to imply that I would ever condone this type of behavior.”
It’s not easy to trace the allegations of mailers and robo-calls. While there’s been increased activism around the Speaker’s race, there has not been increased transparency. Because the race is not on an open ballot race none of these activists will actually cast a vote, non-profit groups can be active without filing to the Texas Ethics Commission. We can’t follow the money or know who’s backing whom.
Michael Quinn Sullivan, who heads Empower Texans and has taken an active role in criticizing Straus, did not mince words. When I reached him Monday evening, he called the accusations “vile and disgusting.” “I’ve never heard any one talk about Mr. Straus’ religion,” he said. “There is no place in the speakership race for discussions of people’s religion or lack thereof.”
But religion does play a role in our political activism, and invoking one’s “Christian” identity can mean different things in different contexts. Of the 46 leaders who co-signed a letter demanding members elect a more conservative speaker, several discuss their Christianity in their political work. For our elections issues, I interviewed Tea Party activists in East and West Texas, many of whom cited their concern that Christian values were disappearing from politics. Take Connie Reeves, one activist I met in Lufkin, who got active in politics for fear that Barack Obama would ruin the country. “I’m proud of our military, I’m proud to be a Christian,” she told me. “It’s those kinds of beliefs that are being stripped from our country.” In that context, demands for Christian values have little to do with other religions, but more about specific policy positions associated with Christian conservatism—like opposing abortion and gay marriage.
Straus is not your typical Tea Party Republican. He came in under a coup to depose the more rightwing Tom Craddick. Last session, he worked with both sides of the aisle to pass legislation and some of the red meat Republican activists were hoping to see, like Voter ID, more anti-abortion legislation, did not make it to the floor. Many argue that’s not Straus’ fault, but the perception, nonetheless, is that he’s a dreaded RINO—Republican In Name Only.
In the anonymous conservative blog Rick vs. Kay, the blogger thought the emphasis on Christian leadership would likely have been the same regardless of Straus’ religion (ellipsis are his):
[I]f they are doing it they should be condemned for it unequivocally but I think some pundits may see it where it isn’t… they may be seeing traditional Christian conservatives just using their normal copy and paste year after year same old same old rhetoric but in the context of Straus being Jewish it comes across as a sleight at him.
But Straus is Jewish, and that does create a new dynamic in this contest. Emphasizing the need for Christian leadership both draws attention to his specifically non-Christian identity and would seemingly disqualify him from Republican leadership. If the e-mails are intended to spark anti-Jewish sentiment, they rely on code words and the political knowledge of the readers. However, they also offer open doors for anti-Semitism, should the reader be looking for it.
Lufkin’s newly elected James White, who ran on a Tea Party platform, said he was shocked by the allegations. “Most of us that are strong on our faith and how that impacts us in the public square, we often use the term Judeo-Christian,” he explained. “We recognize the aspect of Judaism and its impact, along with Christianity, in establishing the types of values and principles that our country was founded on.”
White invoked his religion throughout his campaign, and when he won, he wrote on Facebook, “The victory is the Lord’s and the accomplishment belongs to the people.” White has yet to support any of the candidates for Speaker, though he says he’s been courted by all three. When he went out with state Rep. Ken Paxton, both men blessed their food. Straus, White says, emphasized his commitment to the second amendment and pro-life issues.
Anti-Straus activists chose to create a grassroots campaign around this political fight—as I’ve written before, the speaker’s race was once an insiders-only affair. The anti-Straus movement has brought more people into the decision-making process, and activists have never before been mobilized on anything approximating this scale this type of race. One web letter demanding a new speaker, ConservativeSpeakerMandate.com, brags it has over 4,000 signatures. Almost every representative I’ve talked to has mentioned calls and emails regarding the race.
Sullivan is adamant that if anyone does consider “Christian values” in their political support, it’s not an exclusive factor in determining support. “I think people tend to look pretty holistically at candidates, at the folks on the ballot,” he says.
He also believes the claims of anti-Semitism regarding specific individuals and groups must be more fully substantiated. “Cries of racism or bigotry without real solid evidence—that destroys people’s lives,” he said. “You want racist lives destroyed. You want them to become pariahs in society.”
Update. 11/17/10 4:40 p.m.: The Texas Home School Coalition PAC has sent out an email accusing Straus supporters of manufacturing the scandal. Tim Lambert, who heads the coalition, was one of the 46 leaders who signed the letter asking members dump Straus. Here’s an excerpt from the email:
Straus’ supporters started pushing back against those who are highlighting his record by sending out fake e-mails accusing the Republican activists and TEA party groups of being bought and paid for and accusing Straus’s opponents of being anti-Semitic. (Most didn’t even know Straus was Jewish.) This is, of course, a tactic used by Democrats against conservatives in the recent election cycle. His supporters continue to say that Straus is being “attacked” personally.