A bombshell no one saw coming.
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, announced Wednesday he will not run for re-election in 2018, a decision that has the potential to upend the political balance of power in the state.
Straus, who has lately been the most powerful moderate Republican in the Texas Capitol, said he will serve until the end of his term. That means there will be a new speaker when the Legislature next convenes in 2019.
His decision will immediately set in motion a scrum for control of the House, pitting arch-conservative members who have opposed Straus against more centrist Republicans. Within hours, one of Straus’ top lieutenants, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, announced that he had filed to run for the speaker’s post. State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, has already announced he is running. Other candidates are expected to jump in.
Straus has clashed with hardline conservatives in recent years, not least Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Tea Party leaders and their allies have blamed Straus for killing controversial measures backed by the far right, most notably a bill that would have regulated which bathrooms transgender Texans could use.
“I believe that in a representative democracy, those who serve in public office should do so for a time, not for a lifetime. And so I want you to know that my family and I have decided that I will not run for re-election next year,” Straus said in a campaign email. “My time as a State Representative and as Speaker will end at the conclusion of my current term.”
Asked if he planned to run for any other office in the future, Straus said he is “not one to close doors.” He acknowledged he has received encouragement to run for other offices and did not rule out the possibility of a gubernatorial bid. But he said he doubts he will be on the ballot in 2018.
As for the race to succeed him as speaker, Straus suggested he would not get involved.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for people who aren’t members in the Legislature in the next session to really register an opinion on that,” Straus said.
The announcement immediately set into motion speculation about the future of Straus’ top lieutenants. One of his closest allies, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who is chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, said in a statement first reported by Quorum Report that he “will pursue other opportunities to serve our great state.”
Straus made his announcement on Facebook, which if you have a feed like mine immediately took over everything. This came as a big surprise, because just last month Straus was urging business leaders to keep up the fight against bathroom bills and other such harmful proposals, and two weeks ago he formed the House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness to push pro-growth policies. I doubt it had occurred to anyone that he himself might walk away at this time, but if a young, scandal-free first-term US Senator can say “screw it, I’ve had enough”, then nothing like this should surprise us. Indeed, as Ross Ramsey notes, this will almost surely presage a lot more retirements. Get ready for it.
As to what happens next, I’m not going to panic or despair, at least not yet. For one thing, like Christopher Hooks, I’m a little wary of the hagiography coming from my fellow travelers over Straus’ legislative career.
Liberals have never quite figured out what to make of the man. On one hand, it’s undoubtedly true that Straus was a bulwark against the new populist tendencies of the Texas GOP. He and allies such as Byron Cook, who is also retiring, stopped a metric ton of junk legislation that would have passed with a different speaker. When considering the question of why Texas has fared generally better than similarly red states like Louisiana and Kansas, which are on fire, Straus and the conditions that created Straus are a significant part of the answer. He’s the last person in state government who seems to care about governing as a concept.
But out of that fact emerged too a picture of Straus as a sort of Aaron Sorkin character, a paternal figure with an unnaturally rosy image and a passing resemblance to Gregg Popovich, typified by the mythic representation of Straus’ bathroom bill showdown with Patrick in a recent New Yorker article. There is an element of Stockholm Syndrome in that, as if Straus was the jailer who always asks about your kids. Among other things, the House of Straus passed many of its own pieces of junk legislation — voter ID, loads of anti-abortion laws, etc. — and served at times as a trough for the lobby. Straus and his lieutenants often declined to water down bad legislation, including, spectacularly the state’s “show your papers” law. The Capitol debate over what Straus personally wants, and when his hand is being “forced,” is as long and storied as it is useless to ordinary Texans.
Straus isn’t Jeff Flake or Bob Corker — he’s been staying true to some version of his principles since he was elected speaker, not just recently. But it’s also worth wondering why a person who places so much emphasis on good government is willing to abandon his post, possibly to another Republican in the mold of Dan Patrick or Donald Trump. A tremendous amount now depends on whether a Straus-type successor can be elected speaker.
For sure, we could have done much worse than Straus – we had already done much worse, under Tom Craddick – and we could do much worse going forward. I’m just suggesting that we maintain a bit of perspective here. Going forward, a Speaker Zerwas would be more or less the same as Speaker Straus was, while a Speaker King would basically be Speaker Craddick minus the Craddick Dems. The way to enhance the odds of the former is for more Democrats to win legislative races next year, especially against wingnuts in swing districts like Matt Rinaldi. Perhaps the Texas Association of Business, who helped give us Speaker Craddick in 2002, might get involved in a few Republican primaries if they’d like to see Straus’ legacy live on. There are concrete things that can be done to ensure a better outcome, is what I’m saying. That’s where I’d put my energy if this news is distressing to me. The Chron, RG Ratcliffe, the Current, and the DMN have more.