Joe Straus: No Le Hace, Soy Numero Uno

House Speaker Joe Straus
(photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez)

House Speaker Joe Straus
(photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez)

Good morning Austin:

The 84th session of the Texas Legislature gets underway today.

As Chuck Lindell and Tim Eaton write in today’s Statesman:

In the first real order of business after convening the 140-day regular session, the members of the Texas House will decide if they want to keep Speaker Joe Straus at the helm or give the job to his tea party-backed challenger, state Rep. Scott Turner. A second-term Republican from Frisco, Turner vowed Monday to call for a recorded vote in which each member will have to announce his or her choice for speaker, something that hasn’t occurred in decades.

House Speaker Joe Straus (photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez)

House Speaker Joe Straus
(photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez)

In the months before the session, Straus has amassed deep support among mainstream Republicans, Democrats and some tea party-affiliated members. His backing appears to be strong enough for him to handily best Turner and lead the House for the fourth straight session.

Turner has refused to back down.

“Oh yes sir! Absolutely,” Turner wrote in a text message when asked if he would call for a vote.

The Spanish words in today’s headline, “No Le Hace, Soy Numero Uno” – “Never mind, I am number one,” might well translate as Straus’ defiant reply to Turner. But, in fact, they are my homage to Paul Burka, the dean of the Capitol press corps, who announced yesterday that after 40 years as the lead political writer at Texas Monthly, he is retiring March 1.

At Burkablog, the blog he has been writing since 2006, he has, week after week, demonstrated the ability to do something I can’t do – say what needs to be said in a few deft strokes. Of course, he has an unfair advantage – he knows what he is talking about. He is able to do what he does because of just how much he knows, how much he has seen, how much he understands, how much he has reported and written about Texas politics over four decades, and how beautifully well he has done it.

Last night, apropos the current moment, I went back to a wonderfully well wrought April 2009 profile Burka did of Joe Straus, under the headline:

Genuine Joe: How a (somewhat) moderate Republican (almost) no one had ever heard of became the most powerful politician in Texas (maybe).

It is great reading – maybe the best thing I’ve ever read on Straus – and there in the middle of it were the well-named No Le Hace and Soy El Numero Uno, two of the Straus’ family’s finest thoroughbreds:

The Straus family’s prominence in the racing world was such that young Joe worked summers in the office of the racing secretary at Saratoga and at Belmont and at the Jockey Club, in New York, the governing body of Thoroughbred racing. One of the Straus family’s best horses, Clev’er Tell, would have been the second favorite to Seattle Slew at Churchill Downs in 1977, but he sustained a chip fracture on his left knee. The Straus stable’s best horse was No Le Hace, who won the Arkansas and Louisiana derbies in 1972, ran second to Riva Ridge in the Kentucky Derby, and finished second in the Preakness by a length and a quarter. The last great Straus racehorse was Soy Numero Uno, a handicap racer and the son of Damascus, a famous sire. (The family prefers to breed horses rather than buy them.)

Joe Straus is, as near as I can tell, a novel political figure in all the United States – a Republican speaker of the House in a very red state originally elected with mostly Democratic votes in a rebellion against an autocratic Republican speaker, but who has ruled as a Republican, solidifying his bipartisan support within the House with each successive Legislature even as he has become he bane of the grassroots activist wing of his party. Burka’s piece explains how this all came to pass in the first place and is well worth reading, but I will offer here the terrific opening paragraph, a middle paragraph about his GOP bona fides, and the closing graf:

On the morning of January 2, state representative Joe Straus III, of San Antonio, was a little-known member of the Texas House who had not yet served two full terms. Many of his fellow members hardly knew him; few could say where his desk was located on the House floor. As he prepared to drive to Austin for a meeting with a group of ten Republican colleagues who had sworn to prevent controversial House Speaker Tom Craddick from being reelected to a fourth term, Straus’s wife, Julie, asked him when he would return. Having no inkling that his life was about to change, he didn’t suspect that the correct answer was “June.”

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One other asset that Straus brought to the speakership was an impeccable Republican pedigree. This was important for the ABCs (note: ABC stood for Anybody but Craddick) because of Craddick’s extensive support in the GOP hierarchy, which he could bring to bear against any challenger. But Straus’s GOP credentials were as stout as Craddick’s. No one could accuse the ABCs of backing a RINO, or “Republican in name only,” as conservatives call those they deem insufficiently doctrinaire. Straus is, as he described himself in an interview in early January, “Republican to the core.” His parents and other kin were Republicans when many of today’s Republicans, Rick Perry included, were conservative Democrats. Straus’s mother, Joci (pronounced “Jah-see,” short for Jocelyn), has been working for Republicans since 1959, when she formed “Nixon girls” organizations at local high schools. She has served as a precinct chair and as a member of the State Republican Executive Committee. The walls of her spacious office in her Alamo Heights home are covered with photographs of her family with prominent Republicans (including one of nine-year-old Joe sitting at U.S. senator John Tower’s desk with a pen in hand, his family and Tower standing in the background). On the day I visited her, she also had a cornucopia of Republican memorabilia on display, most notably a “Bush bag”—a wicker basket with a needlepoint design on one side (featuring an elephant with an upraised trunk) that was stitched by Barbara Bush, a souvenir of George H.W.’s unsuccessful 1970 Senate race.

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The message is loud and clear: The old guard does not have much of a future in the Straus House. It’s time to move on, to leave the partisan battles behind, to think about governing instead of fighting. If Joe Straus can accomplish that, he will change not only the Texas House. He will change the Republican party. His Republican party.

In the sessions since, there have been other rumbling of a challenge to Straus, but they always fizzled before an actual vote.

But, this time, as Aman Batheja of the Texas Tribune wrote last year:

Supporters of both Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio and challenger Scott Turner of Frisco are vowing to force House members to take a record vote on Jan. 13 — the first day of the legislative session — on who they want to lead the lower chamber. Such a vote has not taken place in the Legislature since 1975, when a contentious open race for speaker led to a battle between Democrats Bill Clayton and Carl Parker, according to the Legislative Reference Library. Clayton won with 112 votes to Parker’s 33.

In the 39 years since then, the Texas House has held 19 elections for speaker. Each time, according to state data, the race was uncontested, as potential challengers dropped out ahead of time to avoid forcing their colleagues to begin a new session publicly voting against the soon-to-be speaker.

Rep. Scott Turner

Rep. Scott Turner (iconic photo by me)

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While both the Turner and Straus camps are calling for a record vote, their reasons for doing so are different.

Straus supporters have said they want the vote on record to tout Straus’ broad support over Turner.

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Turner and his allies have said they want a record vote to make crystal clear to the state’s Tea Party groups who backed which candidate. That suggests those groups will use the vote list to target Republicans in the 2016 primary who they don’t see as sufficiently conservative. A record vote would prevent any Republican members from falsely claiming that they backed Turner when they actually backed Straus.

“I think by running the speaker’s race and taking it to the floor and finishing it, liberation comes,” Turner said in a speech posted online last month. “Because now everyone is held accountable, everybody puts their name on who they would like to be the speaker and then we get to work for the people of Texas. Why do I say liberation? Because then all smoke and mirrors is sucked out of the room.”

Yesterday, Batheja was at the La Quinta downtown, which was tea party headquarters in advance of today’s vote. He wrote:

A coalition of Tea Party groups organized Monday’s rally for Turner’s campaign to unseat Straus, whom those in attendance view as insufficiently conservative. Various conservative groups handed out literature critical of Straus. Pinned to the podium was a caricature of Straus at a slot machine, pulling out his waistband to accept the machine’s winnings. 

Despite attendees’ enthusiasm, the race was over weeks ago. Well over 100 House members have publicly pledged their support to Straus, who needs only 76 votes to remain speaker for a fourth term. Straus has described those vying to unseat him as “a loud, very small minority, who have an interest in seeing that Texas becomes more like Washington, D.C.”

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“I’m proud that tomorrow, for the first time since anyone can remember, that we are actually going to go to the floor, get a vote, get a list of names, and hold every single person accountable,” state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, said to cheers. “When we are unapologetically Christian conservative, we win.”

Yet some Turner supporters in attendance weren’t giving up hope. Many had plans to show up at the Capitol early Tuesday to pray in the Capital rotunda and rally lawmakers one last time.

Among those is T.J. Scott of Austin, president of the Central Texas Republican Assembly and a Republican precinct chair in Travis County, who I met at the last year’s Republican State Convention, where he was a leading tea party voice in the platform deliberations.

“We’ll find out which representatives want to represent their constituents and which don’t,” Scott said when I talked to him last night. “We’re convinced, rightly or wrongly, but we’re convinced that nobody is calling these reps and saying `Oh vote for Joe Straus.’ We are convinced that the only calls they are receiving are asking them to vote for Scott Turner and so we’re saying, we need you as our representatives to represent us.”

The tea party struggle against Straus has proved Sisyphean.

Each election they send new soldiers to Austin to do battle against the speaker, only to lose some of those they sent before who have chosen to enlist in Straus’ Army.

Scott, like other tea partiers, was particularly hard hit by the decision of Reps. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, and James White, R-Woodville, to join Straus’ ranks.

“Gio was rock solid with us and now, all of a sudden, he is going to come out and support Straus? It’s taken a big toll,” Scott said. At the tea party meeting in November where Capriglione revealed his decision, “there were tears in that room, people were literally crying, they had trusted him so much and put so much faith in him, people who said, `I sweated for you, I worked my heart out for you, I block walked thousands of houses for you us and now you turn around and vote for Joe Straus.”

 

T.J. Scott of Austin at the 2014 Republican State Convention

T.J. Scott of Austin at the 2014 Republican State Convention

“This is a guy that literally ran against somebody (Rep. Vicki Truitt) because she voted for Joe Straus, and now he’s turned around and he’s going to do the same thing. You could have knocked me over with a feather,” Scott said. “Gio was one of the good guys, one of the heroes, and we’ve lost some heroes.”

And, Scott said,  “James White, he’s a personal friend of mine, but he’s going to vote for Straus. I don’t know how he can look himself in the mirror after making that vote.”

“Very few people have the intestinal fortitude – damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead,” said Scott. “The tea party, we don’t give money. We give heart and soul and hundreds and hundreds of hours of support. but we don’t write thousand dollars checks”

Three years ago, Scott was instrumental in adding to the party platform a provision calling on Republicans in the House to meet as a caucus before the speaker vote and, on a secret ballot  – “no arm twisting, just vote your conscience without worrying about Joe Straus putting you on the Basket-Weaving Committee” –  and choose their candidate for speaker. That choice would then be binding on the whole caucus when the House voted for speaker. The purpose – to make sure the speaker of the Republican-dominated House is truly the Republican choice.

Then, this past convention, Scott worked successfully to add another anti-Straus provision to the platform, calling for the  speaker of the House, like the lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, to have to run and be elected by voters statewide.

“Straus is a great one to tell you, `it’s the will of the House,'” said Scott. But, Scott said, “It’s not about the will of the House. It’s about the will of the people dammit, yet he thwarts the will of the people. We don’t care about the will of the House. We’re supposed to care about he will of the people.”

Said Scott: “Straus is the devil incarnated.”

We’ll close out this morning by returning to Texas Monthly and editor Brian Sweany’s new interview with Straus.

BDS: You have been the speaker of the House since 2009. How has your approach to the job changed during that time?

JS: I learn new things every day. I think it’s important to remember how much turnover there has been in the House. Each session has been different from the one before. In that first session that I became speaker, we had 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats, but we passed our budget unanimously, which is remarkable. The next session we had a supermajority of Republicans. But I’ve attempted to do the job fundamentally the same way regardless of the changes: I’ve tried to treat the institution and the members with respect and tried to play by the rules and build an atmosphere where every member can contribute something and do good work for his or her district. And the results speak for themselves. You’re always going to have a few bomb throwers, but I think the majority of the members feel very secure.

BDS: Let’s talk about some of those “bomb throwers.” There has always been a strongly conservative element in your party that has believed you aren’t conservative enough. In 2011 Leo Berman wanted to run against you for speaker, in 2013 David Simpson threatened to run against you, and now in 2015 Scott Turner plans to run against you.

JS: First, I’d say it’s not about me. I think the House is feeling really good about itself, and how that reflects upon the presiding officer is a positive thing. I think the House feels unified, but nobody gets everything they want—I don’t get everything I want. I try to be very practical and try to get things done, and I don’t worry about some of the outside groups or some of the scorecard keepers. I worry more about getting big things done for our state that has a lot of challenges to meet. And I want to do that in a practical, pragmatic, positive way.

Reader Comments 0

4 comments
Papi_Shirt
Papi_Shirt

Republicans are awful, but Tea Partiers are KKK

Antonious
Antonious

@Papi_Shirt   Papi, you can tell by the last several election results your attempt to smear the teaparties is not working.  Nothing wrong with fighting over issues.  The Dems once argued and debated among themselves before the socialist faction took over and now Dems can't disagree or they are condemned and attacked.  I prefer debate over silence.  Anyway don't be scared, it doesn't look like the teaparties are going to win on this one anyway.