On the Straus censure: How an ideological fidget spinner became the engine of the Texas GOP

 

Good day Austin:

Last June, James Dickey, then the Travis County Republican Party chairman, was elected chair of the Texas Republican Party by a single vote, defeating Rick Figueroa, who had been the chosen successor of the outgoing chair, Tom Mechler.

The next month, on the eve of the summer special session of the Legislature that Gov. Greg Abbott had called, I went to the Travis County Republican Party’s Summer Bash at the Texas Disposal System’s Exotic Game Ranch in Creedmoor.

 

I did a First Reading: For Texas GOP, the special session may be The Most Dangerous Game in which I noted that as I drove out to the ranch I had an “uneasy feeling.”

What really unsettled me was the mounting Republican-on-Republican acrimony leading up to the opening of today’s special session.

After witnessing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick going after House Speaker Joe Straus last week and again yesterday, I worried things were headed in an ominous direction.

As Chuck Lindell and I had written in the paper that day:

In back-to-back appearances Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick held what amounted to a pep rally for the special session that begins Tuesday, with the governor calling for a running public count of who is with or against his 20-item agenda, and Patrick warning House Speaker Joe Straus not to get in the way.

“I’m going to be establishing a list,” Abbott said in a midday question-and-answer event on the session at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the conservative think tank where many of the governor’s priorities are born and raised.

“We all need to establish lists that we publish on a daily basis to call people out,” Abbott said. “Who is for this. Who is against this. Who has not taken a position yet. No one gets to hide.”

Patrick was more direct and personal, identifying Straus as the odd man out in a special session that he portrayed as a kind of ideological buddy movie in which he and the governor were entirely in tune, and Straus was discordantly out of sync.

At one point, Patrick warned of Straus, “If he personally attacks the governor, I will be his wingman.”

But, as I wrote, when I arrived at the Travis County bash, I found that, James Dickey, the former TCRP chair and recently elected new chairman of the Texas Republican Party was speaking, and offering some words of GOP reconciliation vis-a-vis the speaker. Dickey was talking about the challenge of maintaining party unity, and what holds Texas Republicans together:

We already have a shared common goal.

We have a platform.

Some people give us grief because it has 260 items.

So, first of all, there are over 6,000 bills filed so 260 is not that big a deal. It’s not.

If there are 260, there are five or ten that any single elected official should have no problem going to the mat for, and they get to pick those. We believe in that. That’s the kind of party we are.

I met with the speaker of the House a couple of weeks ago. he referred to the letter I’d sent to him and to the lieutenant governor.

The letter identified the priorities for the special session and, by number, the particular planks from the Texas Republican Party Platform that corresponded to them.

Back to Dickey’s remarks at the bash.

The governor has said that of the 20 items he asked for, ten are going to be right out of our  platform, and the majority of those items are mom and apple pie: Don’t let people get annexed without a vote. Don’t spend taxpayer money, taxpayer money, Republican taxpayer money, to collect union dues that then get spent 99 percent for Democrats.

Property tax relief.

Giving special needs students choice.

These are plain things.

And the speaker said, “There are a couple of things here that the House may not be able to give any more on,” and my response was, “Give us any seven or eight of those and we will cheer you for those seven or eight. Let other people scold you for what you wouldn’t do. We in the party. We are not putting our thumb on the scale. Our platform is our platform. If it’s out of there and you pass it, I will thank you for doing so.”

Next year, our convention, the largest political convention in the free world, will take place during the 300th anniversary of the founding of San Antonio, during the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Republican Party of Texas, a block from the Alamo, and the theme of that convention is a line in the sand, and my comment to the speaker was, “Let’s show the line in the sand, let me make your intro video so that when you walk up there, our delegates cheer for what you have done for us. That’s what we want.’

That, I wrote, prompted a single whoop and some tepid applause from Dickey’s audience.

A lot has happened since then.

Abbott and Patrick got some of what they wanted from the special session, but not everything, and they both blamed Straus for what they didn’t get.

Straus announced he was not going to seek re-election to the House, and so would not be speaker again come 2019.

And, on Saturday, the State Republican Executive Committee voted to censure Straus, with Dickey and Vice Chair Amy Clark providing the decisive votes to pass it.

It was a dramatic moment, because the chair and vice chair normally don’t vote and without the vote of at least one of them, the censure would have fallen short of the two-thirds threshold and failed.

Here was what Dickey said in declaring that he and Clark, who did not speak, were putting their thumbs on the scale for censure.

This is a very unusual case and a very unusual situation. It has been Vice Chair Clark’s and my norm that we do not cast votes unless they have a consequence and it is our strong preference that that not be the case – that the body be unified enough that that not be the case. We have spoken at length about this upcoming vote and we frankly have some concerns. We have had people raise concerns that this could have a practical impact on support for the Party—both ways. And as people who are committed to growing the Republican Party, building the Republican Party, there are pros and cons to both sides of this. We are, together, supporting this motion and voting yes.

Please know, we do not do this lightly and it does not reflect any personal opinion on particular details in this discussion. This is us being committed to supporting the convention, the delegates, Republican voters across Texas in unifying our party to move forward. We must win in 2018. We’ve got to put this behind us…

I was at the SREC meeting, and wrote about the censure. I thought back to Dickey’s hopeful words at the summer bash at the game preserve, and his decision, as chairman of the Texas Republican Party, to provide the decisive vote to censure one of the three most important and powerful Republican elected officials in the state.

“I trust the body to do the right thing,” Dickey told me after meeting’s end..  “And clearly in this case it seemed clear to me that a supermajority of the body did feel this was appropriate and was important.”

Dickey said he also felt it reflected a supermajority of sentiment among party activists more broadly.

 

But did he personally support the censure?

Dickey:

As chair I absolutely separate my personal view and I’ve spoken to the speaker and could not have more clearly stated my desire to work with him as an elected official and member of the Republican Party, and that has been my strong and sincere desire, and, in my effort to grow and unify the party, I’ve spoken  to him multiple times.

But this probably puts the kibosh on producing the Straus intro video for the state convention in June, right?

Dickey:

There’s still time. There are interim charges that we’ve been trying to get progress on. There are other activities that will happen between now and then. I still hope for growth and unity in the Republican Party.

Ah yes, Joe Straus in sackcloth and ashes. Ah, no.

Of the vote, Dickey said:

Clearly, it’s nothing that we take lightly, it is absolutely nothing that we take lightly. But it was not censuring him, it was censuring actions that were in opposition to our priorities.

But doesn’t a state party repudiating its speaker suggest a party divided?

Dickey:

I don’t believe so. I think being clear about what’s important to the party and what we stand, for what we all stand for – our principles are  a broad tent, we have principles that represent the vast majority of Texans as shown by voters – standing up for those principles strongly does not divide or shrink the party, it allows us to grow.

This is how the state party described the censure in a statement posted on its website Monday:

AUSTIN, TX –  On Saturday, the State Republican Executive Committee held a vote to recognize the censure resolution sent to the body by the Bexar County Republican Party under Republican Party of Texas Rule 44, which was passed by the state convention in 2016. After the body voted the result was 42 in favor and 19 against, one vote short of the required 2/3 threshold for passage.  The Chairman and the Vice Chairman had not voted, in accordance with their usual policy of letting the body decide matters on its own.

Neither the Chairman nor the Vice Chairman went into this meeting with the intention of voting on this issue. As leaders of the Party, they seek to represent all Republicans and their various points of view.  Yet with this issue being one vote short of the necessary threshold it would not have been effective leadership to abdicate the decision and not cast a deciding vote.

After joint consultation, they decided to affirm the resolution from Bexar County for which an overwhelming majority of the body had just cast their vote.

The votes cast by the Chair and Vice Chair do not necessarily represent their personal views on this matter, but were cast in a sincere effort to foster unity, heal division, and put this issue behind the RPT so that we can move forward and focus on our goal of growing the Party and electing Republicans in critical races up and down the ballot in 2018.  That is and will continue to be the Party’s number one priority in the weeks and months to come.

So, the way the process works is that the censure resolution has to emanate from the home county or one of the home counties of the censuree – in this case Bexar, and so what the state party was doing was concurring with the Bexar County resolution of Dec. 11.

And there is really no way to do justice to the Bexar County resolution, and its Torquemadan tone, without reading it.

So, here it is:

Bexar County Executive Committee

Resolution to Censure Joseph R. Straus, III

WHEREAS, Rule 44 of the Republican Party of Texas allows the party to sanction a Republican office holder who takes three or more actions during a biennium in opposition to the core principles of the Republican Party of Texas; and

WHEREAS, Rep. Joseph R. Straus, III, as Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, has abused the power of his office and taken over three actions during this current biennium that, cumulatively, are in opposition to the core principles of the Republican Party of Texas; and

WHEREAS, Straus has taken actions in opposition to the first, third, fourth, fifth, and tenth core principles of the Republican Party of Texas by abusing his authority as speaker to usurp the power of the people’s duly elected representatives of the Texas House of Representatives; and

WHEREAS, In disregard of House rules and the Texas Constitution Art. III, Sec 12(c), an act described by Governor Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Patrick as “walking off the job,” Straus unilaterally adjourned the Texas House of Representatives early on August 15, 2017 during the First Called Session of the Texas Legislature without a vote despite the objections and demands for a record vote of at least 17 members of the House of Representatives; and

WHEREAS, During the 85th legislative session, Straus repeatedly refused to recognize proper motions and amendments made by the people’s duly elected representatives, only allowing motions and amendments to proceed when he consented to their substance; likewise Straus set aside parliamentary procedure to deny representatives the right to appeal his parliamentary rulings; and

WHEREAS, Straus obstructed the agenda of Governor Abbott, denying members of both parties an opportunity to vote on the proposed legislation; and

WHEREAS, Such actions impede and make a mockery of representative government in contradiction of the principles enshrined in the Texas Constitution and in opposition to the first and fourth core principles of the Republican Party of Texas; and

WHEREAS, Such actions have damaged the sovereignty of Texas, which is predicated on the consent of the governed; Straus’s actions have removed the people from control of their government through their representatives by sabotaging those representatives’ sworn duty to control the legislature through orderly motions and votes, and this result is in opposition to the third core principle of the Republican Party of Texas; and

WHEREAS, Such actions are in opposition to the fifth core principle of the Republican Party of Texas in that Straus has refused to allow himself to be held personally accountable for his actions by cutting off the means by which his colleagues in the House of Representatives can do so; and

WHEREAS, Such actions are in opposition to the tenth core principle of the Republican Party of Texas; any office holder who does violence to the Texas Constitution by abusing the authority granted them by the people dishonors all persons who have served to protect our freedom; and Page 2 of 3 Resolution to Censure Joseph R. Straus III

WHEREAS, Straus acted during the 85th legislative session in opposition to the second core principle of the Republican Party of Texas by repeatedly obstructing legislation designed to protect the right to life; the foremost right for which governments are established to protect; and

WHEREAS, For the 85th Legislature, he appointed as Chairman of the House State Affairs Committee State Representative Byron Cook, who has been outspoken in his defense of certain third trimester abortions and has repeatedly killed pro-life bills in past regular sessions, necessitating special sessions in order for such legislation to pass; and

WHEREAS, Straus referred many pro-life bills to Cook’s committee and Cook did proceed to obstruct those bills, delaying some of them and preventing others from passing; included amongst these was House Bill 14 during the First Called Session, which Cook obstructed administratively for 17 days, causing its demise; and

WHEREAS, The consequences of the failure of such legislation will be measured in human lives; and

WHEREAS, Straus acted repeatedly during the 85th legislative session in opposition to the seventh core principle of the Republican Party of Texas by obstructing legislation designed to secure the freedom of choice for Texas parents in the education of their children; and

WHEREAS, He appointed as Chairman of the House Public Education Committee State Representative Dan Huberty, who has vociferously opposed all legislation that would give parents choice in their child’s education; and

WHEREAS, After his appointment, Huberty publicly announced all school choice bills “dead on arrival” in his committee, yet Straus proceeded to refer all bills giving greater parental choice in education to Huberty’s committee; Huberty and Straus did proceed to kill such bills, including legislation designed to give greater choice to the parents of children with special needs; and

WHEREAS, Straus has taken actions in opposition to the sixth, eighth, and ninth core principles of the Republican Party of Texas by unilaterally obstructing the Texas Privacy Act, legislation designed to protect the privacy, safety, and dignity of Texas women and children and honor the principles of the free market; and

WHEREAS, Senate Bill 6 (Texas Privacy Act) during the Regular Session of the 85th Texas Legislature was received by the House from the Texas Senate on March 16, 2017, yet Straus refused to refer the bill to any committee for the duration of the regular session and refused to allow members to make motions to refer the bill themselves; and

WHEREAS, Senate Bill 3 (Texas Privacy Act) during the First Called Session of the 85th Texas Legislature was received by the House from the Texas Senate on July 27, 2017, yet Straus refused to refer the bill to any committee for the duration of the special session and refused to allow members to make motions to refer the bill themselves; and

WHEREAS, Texas House Rule 13, Section 2, provides that “[s]enate bills announced [in the House] as passed shall be read for the first time and referred to the appropriate committee as soon as practicable,” and Texas House Rule 7 reserves to the members of the House the right to refer and re-refer bills to a committee of the body’s choosing; and Page 3 of 3 Resolution to Censure Joseph R. Straus III

WHEREAS, Senate Bill 6, Senate Bill 3, and other legislation that was obstructed, in opposition to the first and eighth core principles, were designed to clarify the law regarding public accommodations, acknowledging natural men and natural women, were designed to provide for the safety of Texans in their communities, in particular women and girls in intimate facilities, and were designed to protect the free enterprise society by reserving to businesses and private property owners the right to manage and control intimate facilities unencumbered by government interference; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, In accordance with Rule 44 of the Rules of the Republican Party of Texas, the Executive Committee of the Republican Party of Bexar County, meeting October 9, 2017, a quorum being present, by a vote of at least two-thirds present and voting, hereby censure Joseph R. Straus, III, a public office holder representing a portion of Bexar County; and be it further

RESOLVED, We request that the State Republican Executive Committee and the delegates to the next State Convention of the Republican Party of Texas concur in this resolution of censure and impose on Joseph R. Straus, III, the penalties provided in Rule 44 of the Rules of the Republican Party of Texas; and be it further

RESOLVED, That an official copy of this resolution be prepared and transmitted to the Chairman of the Republican Party of Texas.

Now, I must admit, that I am one of those reporters who delights in covering the workings of convention platform committees, Republican and Democrat, because of the arcane, intense, earnest madness of those proceedings.

I wrote a First Reading on the 2014 Texas Republican Party Platform: By their fruits, ye shall know them. On the Texas GOP platform, that began:

What is another word for a party’s political platform? Opposition research.

Indeed, the document produced by the 2014 Republican Convention in Fort Worth was probably most eagerly awaited and avidly read by Texas Democrats. The instant the Republican convention approved its platform before adjourning Saturday afternoon, Battleground Texas issued a fundraising appeal under the headline, “This GOP Platform Will Shock You,” with the following bullet points drawn (in a couple of cases with a little interpretative license) from the Republican platform.

– Reparative therapy to “cure” homosexuality

– Climate change is a conspiracy
– Drug test welfare recipients
– Abolish the Department of Education
– Abolish the Department of Homeland Security
– Deny a women’s right to choose even in cases of rape or incest
– Disband the TSA
– Defund Texas schools
– Reject the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
– Withdraw from the United Nations

Battleground Texas’ solution: Donate Now.

If you are actually shocked by that list, you may be a Democrat.

It’s probably a mistake to make too much of a party platform. They are like grade school finger-painting – more about self-expression and remaining usefully occupied than great art.

But they have a great virtue.

While much of politics is about obfuscation and obscuring what a candidate really thinks or would do behind market-tested slogans and bromides, platforms are painfully earnest documents that express what the party, or at any rate factions within the party, truly believe and care about. Sometimes, when the issue gets big enough – like immigration – the planks represent efforts to wrestle a consensus position out of competing points of view. But, most often, they offer a real peek at what the most devoted folks within the party are thinking.

Well then, consider Saturday’s Straus censure the Revenge of the Platform Nerds. 

As one of the proponents of the resolution said during the debate, no longer would platform writing be dismissed as busy work for the committed. With Saturday’s vote, that fidget spinner for ideologues can now clearly be seen to be the engine of the party – the Republican Party in the nation’s biggest and most important Red State.

What was perhaps most remarkable, was that during the debate over the resolution, not a single member rose to actually say something nice about Straus (except that he sends very nice Christmas cards).

Opponents of the resolution merely made the case that Straus had already suffered their opprobrium.

Proponents of the censure described it as historic, the biggest vote of their lifetimes, that it would resound across the national political landscape.

Yes, McCloskey, who represents Senate District 5 on the SREC, told me Monday, the vote was a big deal, but not in a good way.

“I’m in DC today it was being discussed up here,” said McCloskey, who will be attending the Republican National Committee meeting in D.C. later this week.”We’re now a party that mainstream Republicans would not recognize.”

“There are people who are considered impure, and it starts with the speaker, but there are other people that they feel the same way about,” he said.

“There is a disconnect between the grassroots, which they consider to be attendees at the Republican State Convention, and what I consider grassroots, which are the voters,” McCloskey said.

The censure, he said, attempts to abrogate the rights of the voters, not to mention all those Republicans in the Texas House who kept Straus as speaker for five terms – as long as any speaker in Texas history – most recently by a unanimous vote. And, he noted, the SREC approved a separate resolution Saturday thanking the Legislature for all the good things it had done. Straus was speaker for those things as well.

 

“I‘m a conservative Republican as much as anyone can claim to be without going to what I consider to be the extremes that some people do that are not reflective of Texas and probably not reflective of their districts,” he said.

“Remember, these are the people who said two years ago that the most important vote you would take in your lifetime was to put secession on the ballot and I said at the time, I never thought that I would get a chance to vote in my lifetime on whether Texas would remain part of the United States. Isn’t that the craziest thing?” McCloskey said. “They went on radio shows and they went after me personally because I wasn’t going to support secession.”

“To give you an idea, when I joined the SREC (four years ago)  I started receiving this magazine, it was from the John Birch Society. I take great joy in standing in my Post Office, when they send it to me and throwing it away, because they are trying to get everybody to be of that mindset, I call it the black helicopter crowd.”

McCloskey was not suggesting that the party had anything to do with him receiving the magazine, only that, in the SREC, the John Birch Society, saw ripe targets of opportunity.

“I get a lot of this kind of stuff, and I have a filter on me that can reject it, but a lot of these folks, it just feeds them. They are very much influenced and controlled by the Tim Dunn crowd, whatever they says goes. The TPPF (Texas Public Policy Foundation) crowd, Michael Quinn Sullivan.”

And, he noted, it is the SREC members who get to choose the people who, at each convention, craft the party platform.

“There’s just a disconnect with reality,” McCloskey said. “The best that could happen to us is to have no meetings.”

And, McCloskey aid, it was a given that Dickey would ultimately side with those seeking the censure, because those are the folks who elected him chair by a single vote.

“The people who wanted that resolution, who spent a long time working on it, elected him. He had a payment he had to make.”

Wayne Thorburn, who was executive director of the Texas Republican Party from 1977 to 1983 and wrote the 2014 book, “Red State: An Insider’s Story of How the GOP Came to Dominate Texas Politics,” was also distressed by the Straus censure.

“The guy’s not even running for re-election, his term is over so why bother doing that,” Thorburn said. “I think it’s a really bad move. I think it’s embarrassing to someone who is one of the top elected officials, albeit elected by the Legislature, to be censured by his own party. It’s such a small closed shop kind of a vote, kind of says that party is going to stick to this and we’re not going to consider deviation from what we think is the right policy. It’s one of those divisive things and they should have let it die in Bexar County.

Also, Thorburn said, “I don’t think all the grassroots agree.”

“Some activists in the party  thought what Straus was doing was the right thing in letting positive legislation get out of the House and not divisive bills that weren’t essential to the running of the state,” he said. “There’s so much that should be focused on in terms of school finance, infrastructure,  juvenile justice, so many other things in the state that have priority over which bathroom someone uses.”

“The legislators are not really engaged in who gets elected to party positions so, by default,  those who hold more extreme motivations for their political involvement tend to be the one who get elected to these positions,” Thorburn said.

When  Mechler became chairman, he named Thorburn to a new position, party historian. With Dickey’s election, Thorburn relinquished the job.

Last night I spoke to  Mechler, who is from Amarillo and who I first met when he chaired the Platform Committee at 2014 state convention (he chaired in 2012 as well).

He was disappointed by the Straus censure.

“When I was state chairman I focused my administration on unifying the party – that the Republican Party belonged to all Republicans throughout the state of Texas,” Mechler said. “What happened Saturday is, I think, most unfortunate. While the people who passed that said it was about unity nothing could be further from the truth. I think it was a very divisive thing that was done against a sitting speaker who is not even on the ballot in March.”

Meanwhile, in other Texas Republican Party purge news:

AUSTIN – Texans for Greg Abbott today released its second TV ad supporting Susanna Dokupil for State Representative. The ad points out how Dokupil’s opponent, Sarah Davis, has consistently voted against conservative policies and Governor Abbott’s legislative priorities, including protecting the unborn and limiting state spending.

 

And from the Sarah Davis campaign:

Deceptive Dokupil Ad Continues Campaign of Distortion

Abbott-Funded Desperate Attack Ad Rests on a Throne of Lies

West University Place – State Rep. Sarah Davis corrected the record concerning a newly released Susanna Dokupil ad that uses Governor Abbott’s campaign funds to deceive voters. The ad claims Davis supports late-term abortions, but ignores the record and even ignores an important passage in the story they cite in the ad.

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