Just a reminder that one of the three most powerful political offices in the state is on the ballot this November, even if it’s largely invisible to us.
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson fielded a question last week that’s been on the minds of many members of the Texas House: If her party wins control of the lower chamber in November, will she be a candidate for speaker?
“Well, if I can get James Frank’s support, I probably will be,” the Houston Democrat said with a chuckle during a Texas Tribune Festival panel, referring to her Republican colleague also on the screen.
Frank responded with a laugh of his own: “I’m pretty sure if Democrats take over in November … that she’ll be a candidate.”
The exchange, though lighthearted, was indicative of how uncertain the 150-member chamber is ahead of a legislative session that lawmakers say will be their toughest in years. With the pending retirement of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the lower chamber knows someone new will be in charge in January — but not a single member has so far declared their candidacy to seek the gavel.
Of course, members could break ranks and file their candidacy for speaker with the Texas Ethics Commission before November. Members will formally elect a new speaker on the first day of the regular session in January — and whoever ends up taking the gavel will be one of the state’s most consequential leaders as the Legislature responds to the coronavirus pandemic, grapples with billions of dollars in shortfalls to the state budget and undergoes a once-in-a-decade redistricting cycle.
Members are already weighing who would be a viable candidate if the margin is more narrow than the 83-67 partisan split from the 2019 legislative session. Some think that’s more likely than the chamber flipping entirely. References to the 2008 elections — and the 76-74 split it produced — came up repeatedly in conversations with members, with many suggesting the chamber’s next speaker will need supporters from both parties to win the gavel.
In the wake of that 2008 election, then-state Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, won the speaker’s race after most of the chamber’s Democrats and some Republicans coalesced around his bid. After Straus announced his retirement in 2017, a more hardline conservative faction of Republicans helped push a change to the groups’s bylaws to select a speaker within the caucus and then vote as a bloc on the floor. Democrats also tried to rally their ranks to commit to voting for a candidate as a bloc, though neither party had an enforcement mechanism.
None of those elements have come up in any sort of tangible way so far this year, which some members chalk up again to the uncertainty surrounding the November election and the possibility that the margin will be more narrow than in 2019.
Jim Dunnam, a former House member from Waco who served in the lower chamber from 1997 to 2011, said it would be presumptuous for members to start committing to speaker candidates before they have even won reelection, especially given predictions that November will yield tight results.
Dunnam, who at one point also chaired the House Democratic Caucus, also waved off the notion of one party exclusively electing a speaker candidate.
“The speaker is supposed to be the speaker of the House,” he said, “not the speaker of one caucus.”
In conversations with nearly two dozen members, staffers and lobbyists — nearly all of whom declined to be named due to the sensitive nature of internal House politics — several GOP and Democratic names were mentioned repeatedly as members to keep an eye on as the speaker’s race develops.
On the Republican side: Four Price of Amarillo; Trent Ashby of Lufkin; Chris Paddie of Marshall; Dade Phelan of Beaumont; Geanie Morrison of Victoria; Tom Craddick of Midland, the longest-serving House member and a former speaker; Craig Goldman of Fort Worth; Frank of Wichita Falls and Matt Krause of Fort Worth. On the Democratic side: Joe Moody of El Paso, the House speaker pro tempore; Rafael Anchia of Dallas; Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio; Thompson; Turner, the caucus chair; Oscar Longoria of Mission and Donna Howard of Austin.
Each candidate’s chances at winning the gavel are influenced by the partisan breakdowns in the House. GOP members have suggested that if Republicans pick up a couple of seats and increase their majority, a more ideological speaker candidate like Frank, Goldman or Krause could be on the table. There’s also a theory that a Democratic candidate like Thompson — the second longest-serving House member and the longest-serving woman and African-American in history at the Legislature — has the experience to navigate the House through the upcoming session.
I agree that which party has the majority, and by how much, will matter a lot. And hoo boy, what might happen if we have a 75-75 split – there would surely be a compromise power-sharing agreement out there, but just agreeing about who chairs what committees gives me a headache. I tend to believe that if Dems have a majority, the job will be Rep. Thompson’s if she wants it, but she may not want it. She might prefer to be in the trenches passing the priority bills, or she may just decide the job is too much trouble to be worth it. Joe Moody may be best positioned to be a compromise candidate if the parties are tied or even if Republicans have a 76-74 lead but can’t settle their ideological rifts and find their own consensus; in other words, he could be the Democratic Joe Straus. I feel like TMF is the choice if Dems wind up with a bit of a cushion and are feeling a bit salty. I’m totally spitballing here.
Whoever wins the job in the event of a Dem house, he or she will have a slightly easier go of it than a Dem Speaker from before 2010 would have had, as the caucus is more unified on issues these days. That’s largely because there are no more conservative Dems from rural districts, and thus no one who has to be appeased or coddled on things like LGBTQ equality or gun control or immigration. Passing a budget that fully funds education and prioritizes coronavirus relief, and maximizing Democratic leverage on redistricting, are the two top tasks. When the Dems get together after the election to plan their strategy for the session, those have to be the main questions that any Speaker wannabe must answer. We know how important this election is, but in part that’s because what comes after it is so damn important, too.