There’s a new battle looming in Texas.
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus surprised politicians across the state Wednesday, announcing that he won’t seek a record sixth term in office after all.
That prompted speculation about who might run for the powerful speaker’s post — and how that could affect the state’s legislative agenda.
Straus, who said he was proud to leave office on his own terms, has been a moderate Republican known for working with members of both parties and blocking the most controversial proposals — particularly a so-called bathroom bill that would determine where transgender Texans could use the restroom — from becoming law.
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Now, with the post up for grabs in 2019, many are saying “there’s going to be a major transformation in the House,” said state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington.
It could lead to a more conservative agenda being passed into law.
“It’s an exciting time,” said state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, one of the members of the conservative Freedom Caucus that often felt muted under Straus’ leadership. “It’s a new day in the Texas House.”
The difference between Straus and other top Texas Republicans — Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — is that the House speaker is chosen by fellow House members, not elected statewide.
Before Wednesday, state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, was the only member to throw his hat into the ring for the speaker’s race.
After Straus’s announcement, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, announced he was in the race and state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, said he’s considering a bid as well.
King said he remains in the race.
“The reasons underlying my decision to run for speaker have not changed, and that is to ensure that members can serve the interests of Texans in a transparent, productive and functional environment where all views are heard,” King said.
But it’s early and anyone could join the race.
“I know one thing about who the next speaker will be,” said state Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, who said he was stunned by Straus’s announcement. “He or she will be elected in January of 2019.
“That’s about all anyone knows right now.”
A new leader could change the entire course of the House.
“Joe Straus was the most prominent moderate voice in a Republican Party that is growing more conservative with each election cycle,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “His absence will increase the clamor for more conservative legislation.”
Some local lawmakers say the changing of the guard could open the door for other voices — particularly the conservative Freedom Caucus — to be heard.
The caucus, created earlier this year to “amplify the voice of liberty-minded grassroots Texans,” often found itself on the wrong side of issues, prompting some members to yell during debates, kill other bills and express frustration that their agenda wasn’t being heard or moved forward.
That could change now.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford. “I think the future of Texas is brighter than it has ever been.
“There are a ton of people who I think are going to run, which, for conservatives, is great.”
Some political observers aren’t as excited.
“Joe Straus’ departure mirrors a trend of people giving up on the fringe policies of Texas Republicans,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas. “Voters should know that a new Republican speaker will put Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s wildly extreme proposals like bathroom bills and school vouchers back on the table and back in jeopardy of becoming law.
“We disagree with Joe Straus on much of the agenda he steered in 2017,” he said. “But we do agree that, in a sea of increasingly irrational Republicans, he is one of the few grown-ups in the room. He listened to business opposition to the bathroom bill as well as bipartisan voices opposing school vouchers.”
Straus surprised many with his decision Wednesday to not seek another term as speaker or as a House member, especially since he announced earlier this year that he would do both.
“Five terms is a long time,” he said during a press conference broadcast from his office in the Texas Capitol. “I’m going out on my own terms. I feel good about that.”
Straus said he’s proud of his record and will serve the remaining 14 months of his term.
As for his change of heart, he said, “My philosophy is you’re running until you’re not.”
Straus has long been seen as a moderate Republican at a time when more conservative leaders, such as Abbott and Patrick, have been elected to office.
He has held a powerful post, where he has the ability to set the House agenda and decide which bills do and do not reach the floor. He has also drawn criticism even from members of his own party for everything from opposing the controversial “bathroom bill” this year to working with Democrats.
“I do make no apology about working across party lines,” Straus said. “We do our best work when we do that.”
Abbott, who has criticized Straus for moves such as blocking the bathroom bill, sent out a written statement.
“Joe Straus has served with distinction for both the people in his district and for the Texas House of Representatives,” Abbott said. “I thank Speaker Straus for his service and for his commitment to the State of Texas.”
Texas Democrats were quick to weigh in on the news.
“The Republican Party is dead,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. “Compassionate conservatism is no more and Trumpism has infected every corner of the Grand Ole Party.”
‘Time to go’
State Rep. Charlie Geren said he learned about Straus’s decision shortly before the news was made public.
Straus and his wife, Julie, stood with Geren when he got married earlier this year.
“I was shocked,” Geren said Wednesday morning. “But everybody has their lifespan down here.
“And when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.”
Zedler said he wasn’t terribly surprised by the news.
“We have been thinking this was going to happen,” he said. “There was too much going on. There are a lot of fresh challengers up there.”
Especially when it seemed obvious that, during the last session, “the lieutenant governor and governor were on board with the Republican agenda and you had one person blocking it — Joe Straus,” Zedler said.
State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said Straus’ absence will be felt.
“His deliberative approach to public policy will be truly missed, as will the inclusive manner in which he ran the House,” said Turner, who heads the Texas House Democratic Caucus. “Under Speaker Straus, the House led the way on a number of bipartisan accomplishments, including public school accountability reform, water infrastructure and mental health access.
“As past speakers have been, the next speaker will be elected only with bipartisan support,” Turner said. “When the full House votes on a new speaker in January 2019, members of the House Democratic Caucus will support a member who has demonstrated he or she will focus on real solutions for all Texans, not on narrow, divisive, partisan interests.”
Straus said he plans to remain politically involved and hasn’t ruled out a future bid for another political office.
But when asked if his name might be on the ballot next year, his reply was brief.
“I highly doubt it,” he said.