Gavel to gavel: Of great moment, but with little drama, it remains the House of Straus


Happy New Year Austin:

The 140 days of the 85th Texas Legislature begin on Tuesday.


If that looks insincere, I am just finishing up with whatever holiday virus people in these parts have been suffering through and I am conserving my energy in advance of going to Washington, D.C., from whence I came, to witness the moment at which, one imagines, an entire nation comes together as one, to pinch itself and rub its eyes, and solemnly acknolwedge that, yes, this is actually happening, Donald Trump really is president of the United States.

No moment since his election has been quite like those corresponding moments in years gone by.

I know. I know. It should be “led” not “lead,” right?

Compared to Trump’s ascension to the presidency, the drama of opening day of the Texas Legislature will likely seem downright quaint.

Two years ago it began with a speech from Secretary of State Nandita Berry, who offered a thorough disquisition on all the great and sublime things Texas has to offer, with Berry name-dropping the pertinent legislator each step of the way.

For example, this, from deep in the heart of her speech.

Representatives John Smithee and Four Price, I learned to look for beautifully painted quarter horse statues all over Amarillo, home to the American Quarter Horse Association. Representative Susan King, I learned that the sidewalks in downtown Abilene sparkle and McKay’s Bakery makes a fantastic thumbprint cookie. Representatives John Frullo and Dustin Burrows, I learned that within the city of Lubbock is a town just for prairie dogs. And, as your chief election officer, I have checked, and no, they cannot vote for you unless they have a valid form of photo ID.

Berry then presided over a contested election for speaker of the House, in which Joe Straus of San Antonio was challenged by Rep. Scott Turner of Frisco.

Turner had declared his candidacy a year earlier and campaigned long and hard. It was a full-blown challenge.

But, in the end, it wasn’t close.

From the House Journal:

For the Honorable Joe Straus –– 127

(USE THIS IMAGE LEDE) 27 MAY 2013: Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, smiles as he bangs the gavel closing Sine Die on the 83rd Legislator held at the State Capitol on Monday, May 27, 2013, in Austin, Texas. (AMERICAN-STATESMAN / Rodolfo Gonzalez)

For the Honorable E. Scott Turner –– 19


Anderson, R.
Turner, E. S.
White, M.
Rinaldi Spitzer


When Record No. 1 was taken, my vote failed to register. I would have voted for the Honorable Joe Straus.


Secretary Berry then declared the Honorable Joe Straus of Bexar County to be the duly elected speaker of the House of Representatives of the Eighty-Fourth Legislature of the State of Texas.

In his nomination of Straus, the aforementioned Four Price, said this about the speaker.

Leadership is not a title to be obtained; it is something you do. It has been said that leadership is an action, not merely a position. That is true. It is not gained by being the loudest, by arm-twisting, or through the use of intimidating tactics. Leaders earn their positions by their convictions, their actions, and the results they deliver. Exceptional leaders have vision. They think three to four steps ahead at all times. Not only do they have it, they also have the intangible ability to motivate others to see that vision for themselves and achieve success. President Reagan once said, “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” In other words, results. Joe Straus gets results.

Tuesday will probably lack the drama of two years ago, though it will serve as the first opportunity for Rolando B. Pablos, Gov. Abbott’s choice to replace Carlos Cascos as secretary of state, to show his stuff.

And then he will preside over the election of a speaker, though this time it does not appear that Straus will face a challenge.

On Monday, Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of Empower Texans and Straus’ chief antagonist in this world, issued a piece under the headline, A Loyalty Vote on Day One

Loyalty, that is, to the Democrat coalition’s chosen House speaker, not the conservative principles embraced by Texas voters.

With the power to determine all of the committee chairs and the assignment of bills, the speaker of the Texas House controls whether conservative reforms live or die in the legislative process. Over the last three legislative sessions, conservative members of the Texas House have mounted challenges to the Democrat coalition that currently controls the speaker’s office and who have used that position to stifle popular conservative reforms.

No challenge to the status quo appears forthcoming. That means every member will own the results of House leadership this session. There will be no excuses for obstructionism.

Despite the lack of an opponent, the word from the Texas House is that Speaker Joe Straus wants a “loyalty vote” to start the session. Loyalty, that is, to the Democrat coalition’s speaker, not the conservative principles embraced by Texas voters.

Make no mistake: with no other option, it’s a meaningless vote. With only Straus’ name in nomination, there could be 149 of the 150 House members voting no, and he’d still be the speaker. Voting for or against Straus on the first day of the 2017 session will mean nothing.

Straus has held on to power because too many members of the Republican caucus have settled for conservative crumbs from the table of the Democrat coalition. They have been unwilling to suffer the price of missing cocktail parties and losing favor with lobbyists in order to deliver the promises they made to their voters.

Despite a near super-majority, senior Republicans who claim at home to be conservatives (yet rarely exhibit the courage of their convictions on the House floor) capitulate in hopes that some day the Democrats will tire of controlling the office and it will be the GOP’s turn to run things. And, trust them, then they will govern with the conservative principles they have thus far failed to exhibit.

Their inaction is why sanctuary cities still exist in Texas… It’s why property taxes haven’t been reformed… It’s why spending limits haven’t been adopted… It’s why labor unions haven’t been stopped from pilfering public employee paychecks… It’s why parents don’t have more choices in public education.

The list of reforms long promised by conservative lawmakers that have been stalled or killed is too long to mention here. They have produced little but excuses.

Around the same time that Sullivan was issuing this missive, Julie McCarty, president of the thriving NE Tarrant Tea Party, posted this on her Facebook page.


Check out this list of legislative priorities the Republican Party of Texas (that’s we the people) put together for this next session. I can’t say I agree with all of them, but it’s a pretty impressive list. The question is, will the Republican-controlled House get any of them accomplished under RINO Joe’s leadership, more than just a bone thrown to us for show and for campaign literature next election cycle? History says no. Such a waste. One day we will be powerful enough to free ourselves from that man and will work to make Texas as conservative as we brag about being. We will celebrate that accomplishment and pass it down to our children and our children’s children. But Joe Straus will still have to live with his own shameful, conniving, wheeling and dealing self. How does he do that?

How indeed. Just watched Gangs of New York for the first time, it is hard for me to imagine Joe Straus as Boss Tweed.



I’m not sure I have ever seen a cartoon of Straus, though there must be some. I don’t believe he tweets. He talks, but not to excess. He smiles a lot. He does not appear to be a man who has trouble living with himself. In fact, I think he finds that arrangement pleasing.

In an email to me, McCarty offered a similar take to MQS on the vote for speaker.

There is no speaker race this year, so I can’t spend my time focused on the political games of who does or does not greenlight Straus. If the Straus team makes good on their threat of requesting a record vote in order to “prove” how much support Straus has, fine… we can show him 100% support.  But they’d better look at the ramifications of having that support.  We will now have a unanimous speaker, a Republican majority, and a very clearly defined list of priorities issued by the GOP grassroots. With all that power and all that support, what excuses will the Speaker hide behind?  There is only one question that should be considered at this point…  Will the Speaker work towards the will of the people, or will the Speaker bow to the will of the donors?  It’s all on him this session

I spoke to three members of the House who voted for Scott Turner to ask them what their plan was for Tuesday – Matt Krause of Fort Worth, Matt Rinaldi of Irving and Jonathan Stickland of Bedford.

The trio are a good sample because, while they are ideologically very much alike, they are temperamentally quite different. Think three brothers from a 1940s movie – Krause is the good, well-mannered son who chooses the cloth (yeah he’s a lawyer, but from the inaugural class of Liberty University Law School); Stickland is the brawling street-fighter who can’t stay out of trouble, and Rinaldi is the bright young man whose pugilistic instincts have been tamped down by his fancy Massachusetts law school education (Boston University).

Matt Krause

(Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez)
(Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez)

Krause delivered a seconding speech for Turner two years ago in which he likened Turner to Abraham Lincoln.

Of this year, Krause said:

When there’s only one person in the race it’s not much of a contest, you can’t read much from it

There wasn’t any use in running a speaker race. You could see what the end result was going to be.

I will always vote for the most conservative candidate. I have no problem with that no matter what the numbers look like. What happened (in 2015) played into a lot of member’s minds about what would happen this year.

If there’s a record vote and it’s just one candidate, I am not going to red light a single candidate just to red light them. If there’s a recorded vote I do intend to vote for Speaker Straus. Now things can always change.  Other candidates could step up. At this late stage I don’t think so, but if somebody does, I’ll assess their candidacy and hear them out but, at this point, I don’t anticipate that happening.


A lot of us I the House are looking forward to building on a lot of the conservative victories in the last session and make this the most conservative session Texas has had.

There are a lot of hours and lot of days after that first vote so a lot of us are determined to make sure that what happens with those other 139 days brings about good conservative results.

What matters is that at the end of the day, you can look back on sine die that we’ve done the job we were supposed to do, we moved the ball forward, we did some great reforms for conservative governance. I think that’s what’s going to matter. What happens  that first day isn’t so important. We could have the greatest challenge to a sitting speaker that falls just one vote short, but if you don’t get anything done the rest of the time, that’s not a success, but if  have a vote by acclamation on the fist day and after 140 days look back and say we did a lot of good, I think that’s more valuable.


Matt Rinaldi


We had our vote on House leadership last year (in 2015). There are quite a few of us in the Texas House who as Republicans are still very unhappy with House leadership. I have heard rumors hey are going to call for a record vote on the unanimous consent for the speaker. I don’t know exactly what we’re going to be voting on in the record vote if there’s nobody else running for speaker. It’s a meaningless vote. Whether you push the red button or the green button or the white button, it doesn’t matter. He could have 100 no votes and 50 yea votes and he would still be the speaker the next day.

I don’t waste my time organizing opposition on meaningless votes.

If they do (call for a record vote), I just might vote yes to show how meaningless the vote is.

I think you’ll find a lot of the strongest critics of the speaker will vote `yes.’

If we had the numbers there might be a challenge. We know there is significant portion of the caucus that isn’t happy with leadership, but if we can’t change it, there’s no reason to do it (have a speaker challenge) at this point in time.”

Instead, Rinaldi said, he will “focus on policy.”

I think the lieutenant governor set out a great group of priorities. We are going to set out to make those law.

I think he set out a bold agenda that we have no excuse for not passing. With unified Republican control of the Texas government and with unified Republican control of the U.S. government, I don’t think we have an excuse for not implementing at least a substantial portion of that agenda.

I think there’s definitely a conservative governing majority in the Senate. I think we have a conservative governor and lieutenant governor. I don’t know whether there is a conservative governing majority in the House, but I think it’s close.

I think if we can get the conservative bills to the floor, I think there is a conservative majority in Texas, at least among the voters, at least among the primary voters, so if we can get those conservative bills to the floor I think we can get the votes for Gov. Patrick’s agenda, and I think that’s the goal.

I think on immigration bills, religious liberties bills, sometimes that’s been the issue – those bills haven’t made it to the floor of the House because people don’t want to take a vote on them, so the inclination of leadership has been to protect the members who don’t want to take votes on them. But if the votes come to the floor they will have to vote yes because their constituents want them, so if they get to the floor they pass, as long as somebody isn’t trying to protect people from taking a vote.

Rinaldi said he and his allies have been strategizing about how to foil any efforts from Team Straus to deep-six some of Patrick’s agenda.

Yes, there are conservatives working to make sure those bills reach the floor for a vote. I am not going to discuss them (those tactics) now. They’d be less effective if we told everybody ahead of time.

From the rest of Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Monday message:

While the House is Republican, Democrats control the policy outcomes because they control the speakership. Indeed, Mark Jones of Rice University has confirmed that since Straus took office in 2009, House Democrats have been on the winning side of votes on the final passage of bills more often than Republicans.

Meanwhile, the Texas Senate managed to push through more conservative reforms in 2015 – the first session Dan Patrick served as lieutenant governor – than the Texas House had done in nearly a decade. That shows the importance of good leadership. (Those reforms were by and large killed by Straus once they traveled west of the rotunda.)

This session, the Republicans fronting for the Democrat coalition have no place left to hide. Gone is the shell game with the old Senate leadership in which the chambers took turns passing and killing conservative reforms.

The Texas Senate is on a mission to pass landmark reforms. The governor has signaled a bevy of items he wants passed. All the levels of the federal government are held by Republicans. Obama is gone; the Democrats can stop nothing of substance.

Anything not done in 2017, any long-held reform championed by the GOP not passed, will be the result of obstruction by Republicans in the Texas House.

The coalition leadership should schedule a record vote for speaker; it is good precedent for members to go on record “for” the leadership they tolerate. But since the vote is meaningless in 2017, some lawmakers may vote “aye” to avoid dealing with the pettiness of the Democrat coalition. Others may chose to vote “no” in defiance of the corrupt Democrat coalition.

Either way, the proof will always be in the policy results at the end of the Session. Those who vote “no” have just as much responsibility to find a “leadership” solution as those who vote “aye.”

A Straus “loyalty vote” will remind every legislator that if conservative priorities fail to reach the floor, it is the fault of ‎the members… and that starts with the speakership vote each session.

MQS is cherry-picking his Mark Jones here.

His Jones cite here is accurate as far as it goes, but he ignores Jones’ analysis of the last session, which he wrote about on Dec. 9, for the Texas Tribune, under the headline The decline of Democratic influence in the Texas House

The 84th (2015-16) Legislative Session witnessed a Democratic Texas House delegation that was on the losing side of about as many final passage votes as on the winning side. This represented a sharp contrast to the 2009-14 period, when the average Democrat had a final passage vote win rate that was higher than that of the average Republican. It suggests that Democrats’ level of influence on the House legislative agenda declined notably in 2015, with Democrats more frequently unable to both keep legislation they opposed off of the floor as well as to gain majority backing for legislation they supported.

In 2009, 11 Republican representatives joined forces with an overwhelming majority of Democratic representatives to oust Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, and replace him with Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. Speaker Straus thus began his speakership indebted to House Democrats, allowing them a de facto veto over the legislative agenda that year. In 2011 and 2013, Democrats no longer possessed this de facto veto power, but they nevertheless retained substantial influence over the legislative agenda — influence that was reflected in them being more likely on average to be on the winning side of final passage votes than their Republican colleagues, even though during this entire period the Texas House of Representatives had a Republican majority.


The first figure details the win rates of representatives on non-lopsided final passage votes during the 83rd Legislative Session. The representatives are arrayed from left to right based on their Liberal-Conservative Score, with the bars (blue for Democrats, red for Republicans) showing the proportion of final passage votes where they voted and were on the winning side (final passage vote win rate). The win rates of the Democratic representatives ranged from a low of 86 percent to a high of 97 percent, with a median of 93 percent. In contrast, the win rates of the Republican representatives ranged from a low of 35 percent to a high of 98 percent, with a median win rate of 85 percent. Dividing the Republican House delegation into ideological quartiles, only the least-conservative quartile had a median win rate (96 percent) that was higher than the Democratic delegation median. The other three GOP delegation quartiles, moving from left to right, possessed median win rates of 89 percent, 82 percent, and 67 percent.




The second figure provides the same type of information on win rates and Liberal-Conservative Scores as the first, but for the 84th Legislative Session. In 2015, Democratic win rates plummeted to lows not seen since 2005 during the zenith of the Craddick speakership. At least from the optic of win rates on final passage votes, the impact of Texas Democrats on the legislative agenda during the 84th Legislative Session was substantially weaker than in the three preceding sessions of Straus’ speakership.

The median Democratic win rate in 2015 was a mere 52 percent, with win rates ranging from a low of 40 percent to a high of 67 percent. At 82 percent, the median Republican win rate in 2015 was significantly higher than the Democratic median, with win rates ranging from a low of 54 percent to a high of 93 percent. All of the Republican ideological quartiles had median win rates greater than that of the Democratic delegation median, with the respective win rates declining as the level of conservatism increased among the quartiles: 90 percent, 87 percent, 82 percent, and 71 percent.

As a further example of this change, in 2013 a majority of Republicans (53 out of 94) had a win rate that was lower than that of the Democrat with the lowest win rate. In 2015, only 8 Republicans out of 97 had a win rate that was lower than that of the Democrat with the highest win rate.

In other words, Jones told me, “the influence of Democrats waned in the 2015 session as Straus relied more on Republicans than on Democrats.”

The reality, Jones said, is that the centrist conservative wing of the wing, as opposed to the movement conservative wing, “is the dominant wing, the centrists being those to the left of the party mean. The 2015 results still do show that group runs the show in the Texas House more than the more conservative wing of the Republican Party.”

“I think what the last session showed is that Straus now definitely is the preferred candidate among a majority of Republicans, which was probably not the case in the past and that’s both a sort of combination of some Republicans have accepted that Straus is the speaker, even though they don’t agree with him 100 % ideologically, and Straus at the same time has tried to build a bridge to conservative Republicans to a greater extent so as to rely more on them than on Democrats.”

“One of the definitions of good leadership in the Legislature is that you keep members of your delegation  from having to cast difficult votes. Many people would consider you to be a good legislative leader if you keep your supporters from having to cast votes that are no-win votes for them.”

So, Jones said, if Patrick’s bathroom bill or efforts to deny in-state tuition at Texas public colleges and universities for those living in the state illegally, fail to reach the House floor, it will not be because of Democratic opposition, but because, like Straus, “a majority of Republican’s don’t believe that legislation is in the best interests of the state of Texas,” but also would prefer not to have to vote on it.

Jones thinks it made good strategic sense for the movement conservatives not to mount a challenge this session, because a poor showing “would allow Straus to demonstrate his complete domination of the House in a very visible manner. If you don’t run a candidate it makes it easier, through rumor or gossip to imply that the speaker doesn’t have as much support as many might think because it was never put to a test.”

Jones said the message from MQS and McCarty, and from the their allies in the House, is that with Republicans holding 95 of the 150 seats int he House, there should no excuse for not passing some of the more controversial bills if they make it out of the Senate. The Democrats cannot be used as an excuse for not passing the red meat legislation.”

Jones said practically speaking, Team Straus can kill some of Patrick’s priority bills. but not all of them, and they must pick their battles wisely.

As for the vote for speaker, “unless a `yes’ vote (by a well-known foe) was matched a shift in behavior and rhetoric, it’s unlikely that it would have much of a positive impact” on that member’s relationship with Team Straus.

Jonathan Stickland

(Photo by Jay Janner)
(Photo by Jay Janner)

Will he vote for Straus on Tuesday, vote against him, or vote present?

I really don’t care. I’m at war with the speaker. I know it. He knows it. My constituents know it and so it‘s a meaningless vote for me. I’ve just got to figure out what’s best for the movement and some of my friends in the House.

We’re going to have a thousand speaker votes all session long.

Right now I don’t see any reason for us to have some symbolic vote at the point when we’re going to have them (later in the week) on the rules fights.

There are going to be 30 `speaker votes’ on the rules changes. We are going to try to strip power from the speaker and give it back to the member and basically try to make it easier to push conservative legislation.

Everybody will be talking about the first vote but that’s nothing. I really don’t think it’s anything the fireworks will be later on that week.

It’s silly. What they should do is elect Straus by acclamation but what they are going to do, I assume and I have heard is that one of his guys is going to call for a record vote because they want to flush us out and show our numbers because they know that that will he lowest vote total we can muster up all session long. When it comes to the issues, our numbers will go through the roof.

They want to catch us and get the media to roll out this fictitious  – `look, they’ve lost ground, look they’ve only picked up one seat, blah blah blah.’ That’s stupid, so why play into their hands?”

This will be Straus’ fifth term as speaker. Only two other speakers have served that long. He has not said whether this will be his last term, though Stickland said the assumption among many in the House is that it is. If so, said Stickland:

The speaker’s race is going to start in February if this is Joe Straus’ last deal, and people are already scrambling for that. There’s blood in the water. There’s discontent among the team.

Once he hand out the last thing that they want, which is the committee assignments it will be over for Joe , and that comes in the middle of February.

Jones said Straus successor will undoubtedly be more conservative than he is.

If he does decide to leave, we will be looking at a more conservative speaker.

Straus is a centrist conservative Republican but he is even more centrist than a majority of the centrist conservatives,whereas if Straus wasn’t there you would expect the median Republican to choose the next speaker … which means you would have more of a Dennis Bonnen or, before he left for the Senate, Brandon Creighton, a hybrid between a movement conservative and a centrist conservative, but clearly more conservative than Straus. The only reason Straus is in that position is that he was able to get there first.

We will close with the view from state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, a savvy Democrat from Eagle Pass.
(Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez)
(Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez)

Nevárez recalled that his first session, in 2013, Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, was challenging Straus but, just before the vote, withdrew, saying he did not know if he had the votes to win and didn’t want to put his supporters in a tough spot.

“David, basically he stood down,” said Nevárez. There were some voices calling for, `Hey. let’s vote,’ and then calmer heads prevailed and it was by acclamation.”

But, Nevárez said of those clamoring for a record vote, “From the outside looking in my first session, I hadn’t been sworn in but 30 minutes before that, it seemed to me it was like an attempt to turn the light on to see where the cockroaches run.”

“Now that I’ve served with them I wouldn’t compare hem to cockroaches,” Nevárez said.

Of a call for a record vote this time, “I don’t see the speaker doing that,” but it could come from a Straus supporter who wants to see what those who voted against Straus two years ago will do.

Like his fellow Democrats, Nevárez will vote for Straus if there is a record vote.

I think the guy’s a very fair guy. There’s nothing wrong with Speaker Straus saying, we’ve got Democrats in this body too and we have a tradition of Democrats being chairs and participating meaningfully and he holds to that.

For some of us it’s simple. If here is a vote, we’re going to vote for Joe Straus, no heartburn or qualms about it. For somebody who’s telling their followers, I’m going to vote for Joe Straus because Joe Straus is the only one running, well, you have a choice. If your followers really believe that you shouldn’t be supporting Joe Straus and shouldn’t be voting for Joe Straus, well, don’t vote for him.

You have that choice. If those are your principles, stand by them.







Author: Jonathan Tilove

Jonathan Tilove is the Statesman's chief political writer. He was a Washington correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune from 2008 to 2012. Before that he covered race and immigration issues for Newhouse News Service for 18 years.

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