Good afternoon Austin:
They laughed last night when Rep. Jason Villalba described House Speaker Joe Straus as “Reaganesque,” as in, “He is conservative, he is transparent, he is pragmatic, he is Reaganesque.”
They roared again later in the evening when Villalba invoked the word “progressive” to describe the kind of leadership he said Straus will continue to deliver as speaker.
(“The truth comes out baby, the truth comes out.”)
“I don’t know why progressive is a bad word,” Villalba said.
(Guffaws. “There you go.” and “Oh my God.”)
The crowd, said radio host Mark Davis, who moderated Wednesday night’s debate at SMU between Villalba and Rep.-elect Matt Rinaldi on who should be the next speaker of the Texas House, was “lying in wait for that one.”
If Villalba was the source of much head-shaking amusement last night, the Dallas representative expects to have the last laugh next Tuesday when the House convenes and Straus dispatches Rep. Scott Turner’s Quixotic tea party challenge to his speakership.
“Twelve to 15 votes tops,” said Villalba of Turner’s potential. “This race is over.”
Villalba knew from the get-go that the audience for the event was not with him. It was a tea party crowd. Turner, from Frisco, is a tea party hero, and Rinaldi, who dispatched incumbent Rep. Bennett Ratliff in last year’s Republican primary, is its newest star. Rafael Cruz, Joseph to the movement’s Jesus, was in attendance.
“Based on the applause lines, I’m pretty sure I’m outnumbered here tonight,” Villalba said in his opening. Sizing up the crowd, he deployed a strategy of aggressive ingratiation, laced with tough love.
“I just saw one of my good friends, Rep. (Jonathan) Stickland in the house, y’all,” Villalba said at the outset.
Villalba sought to bury Turner, a motivational speaker and former professional football player, with praise.
“Scott Turner, if you’ve ever met him, he’s charismatic, he’s a leader, he’s got great vision, he’s articulate.”
(“We’ve met him, we’ve met him.”)
“I’ll tell you a quick story, take me off the clock for a minute,” Villalba said to Davis, the moderator. Here’s the story:
One day we were on the floor and one of our friends from the other side of the political aisle brought in her pastor for a day who was not a pastor. He did not speak the language that we speak – by that I mean the religious language – and he gave an homage to greatness and sunshine and beauty and rainbows and all that and he finished it and there wasn’t a single reference to God or Jesus Christ or my Savior and I was so upset by that that I immediately marched over to Scott Turner’s desk and I said, “Scott you gotta help me,” and he said, “What’s wrong Jason?” And I said, “I just finished the beginning of this session and I didn’t get a prayer to my Savior,” and I asked Scott, “Will you pray for us?” Because you know if you’ve heard Scott pray, it’s serious, and so he laid hands on us and it was me and Jeff Leach and I think Stick was over there, and we all stood around and we had a prayer on our own on the side and it was magnificent – when Scott speaks it’s impressive – and we had a great day in that session and it was because of Scott Turner, so I have nothing negative to say about him.”
But, Villalba said, there are a lot of good and smart people in the House but, “that doesn’t mean they are right to lead this House in trying and complex times. My good friend, Rep. Turner, has a session under his belt and that’s going to be good experience for him if he manages to get this, but in the end, he has not evidenced the ability to command the respect of the other side and get those votes. Giovanni Capriglione, and I know many of the folks here may have been upset with this, he said, Scot’s just not prepared for this role and, while I love Rep. Turner, I just don’t believe he’s ready to step into this very significant role and he’s going to have to reach across the aisle – and I know this is a bad word in the room – and compromise in a bipartisanship fashion with the other side in order to get things done, because we have to get things done, friends.”
“He is a devout, Godly conservative person who is a friend of mine,” said Villalba of Turner. “I just don’t believe he’s prepared yet to take the reins of the House.”
Rinaldi’s argument is that Texas voters have elected the most conservative team in Texas history – from a new governor in Greg Abbott and a new lieutenant governor in Dan Patrick, and all the other statewide elected officials, down to the rank and file members of the House and Senate – on an uncompromising tea part, limited government agenda, and yet the House of Representatives is still being run by Joe Straus, where Democrats, he said, fare better than tea partiers.
“He’s a pass-a-budget-and-go-home type of guy,” Rinaldi said of Straus, who, he said, doesn’t really care about their issues, and never says anything out loud to indicate that he does.
Villalba said he was there to clear up “misconceptions” about Straus. He told the crowd that they were missing the point that Straus had skillfully delivered on much of what they want. Texas law had become considerably more “pro-life” under Straus, he said, and, “we spend more on border security than every other state combined.”
Rinaldi said Straus only did what he was compelled to do on the conservative agenda, and that doesn’t count as leadership.
He cited a study by Rice University political scientist Mark Jones indicating that Democrats in the House of Straus end up on the winning side of issues more frequently than Republicans, especially more conservative Republicans.
“I don’t like a Texas house where Lon Burnam, who is to the left of Obama, is on the winning side more of the time than Jonathan Stickland,” Rinaldi said. (Here is Jones explaining the study in the Texas Tribune.)
At the end of the debate, Rinaldi thanked Villalba, saying he was “very brave for coming out.”
Rinaldi said voting for Turner – even if he’s on the lopsided end of a losing battle – required no courage. “This is the easiest decision I’ve ever made.”
Said Villalba, “I know this room doesn’t agree with a lot of what I have to say. I understand your frustration when you see the state moving right but you don’t feel like you’re getting represented properly, but I just want to let you know, you’ve got Rep. Rinaldi coming to the rescue, you’ve got good people like Rep. Stickland, one of my good friends, and I’m going to be there for you too.”
And, in an unusual flourish, Villalba said this:
“I plead with you. Bring me an opponent next time.”
“Bring someone you think is better than me.”