Politics & Government

Local GOP activists hope to oust House Speaker Joe Straus

Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, is expected to handily win another term guiding the lower chamber on the first day of the upcoming legislative session, Jan. 13, 2015.
Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, is expected to handily win another term guiding the lower chamber on the first day of the upcoming legislative session, Jan. 13, 2015. Associated Press archives

Deep in one of the reddest parts of Texas, a group of conservatives is working to spark a Republican rebellion.

The local grassroots Republicans hope to pull off what many say is an impossible coup — ousting House Speaker Joe Straus, who they believe isn’t conservative enough to help lead the state.

Top Texas Republicans say supporting his GOP challenger, state Rep. Scott Turner of Frisco, is wasted effort because Straus already has the support of more than three-fourths of the 150 members.

That’s not slowing down dozens of precinct chairs and others in Tarrant County who are trying to make 100,000 calls to state lawmakers, hoping to sway their votes.

“He’s a disgrace to Texas,” said Don Shipe, a local precinct chairman and former Tarrant County GOP vice chairman who is spearheading this effort. “There is a grave concern in Tarrant County that Joe Straus is not conservative enough.”

Many House members, including several from Tarrant County, disagree and have publicly expressed their support for Straus. An informal tally has long shown he has more than the 76 votes needed to win another term as speaker.

Asked about the grassroots opposition, Straus’ office responded with a written comment.

“The Texas House has balanced the budget, cut taxes, reformed education and taken steps to address our water crisis,” Straus’ spokesman Jason Embry said. “Speaker Straus is proud of this record and grateful for the overwhelming support of his Republican and Democratic colleagues.”

But for the first time in decades, the House appears poised to take a formal vote on the speaker when lawmakers head back to work Jan. 13. Generally, challengers for the speaker’s post have withdrawn their bid once they realized they didn’t have the votes.

“They are wasting their time,” state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, a chief lieutenant of Straus, said of the grassroots effort. “Joe Straus will be the next speaker of the Texas House.”

Shipe said he and local grassroots workers will not give up.

“They are so overconfident,” he said. “I say we are going to be successful. This is grassroots at its finest.”

In the beginning...

Shipe said he and others have had a problem with Straus since he was first chosen for House speaker in 2009.

That was the year about a dozen members known as the “Anybody But Craddick” Republicans met privately to determine the best way to oust Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who had ruled the House with an iron fist for three sessions.

They united behind one candidate, Straus, and teamed up with a number of House Democrats, who then held nearly half of the chamber’s 150 seats. Craddick knew he didn’t have the votes to win and dropped out of the race.

Straus “is not conservative enough and it was a catastrophe the way he was chosen and has been chosen,” Shipe said. “He gets everybody into a room and says he’s already got the votes.

“We will never forgive him for the backdoor, smoke-filled, Obama-like rude decision,” Shipe said, adding that he believes that Geren plays a key role in guiding the House.

Some of the state’s grassroots opposition to Straus is so vehement that state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, said he couldn’t vote for Straus even if he wanted to.

“This was a major issue in my campaign: grassroots against the establishment,” Stickland said. “I will support Scott Turner. He’s the most conservative option.”

Stickland said he realizes that the chances of Turner, who has just finished his first term in office, being successful are slim.

“He has a chance,” Stickland said. “But it certainly is an uphill battle at this point.”

Some local Democrats say they appreciate the way Straus guides the lower chamber, giving members of both parties a chance to move legislation forward.

“The speaker has reached out to the Democratic Party and Democratic leadership,” said state Rep.-elect Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth. “He has been very supportive of us in a tough environment and he is someone who can walk with both parties.”

In last month’s freshman orientation, Romero said, he believes that the theme — “get out of campaign mode and get into governing mode” — was dictated by Straus.

“It’s time to get down to business and working against the speaker isn’t wise,” he said.

Keep fighting

Cathie Adams said it’s important to continue the fight no matter what people say.

“We have not gotten conservative legislation through with the current speaker,” said Adams, a conservative political activist, head of the Texas Eagle Forum and former state GOP chairwoman. “That is the biggest problem.”

She, too, said she doesn’t like how he was first chosen — with the support of Democrats.

“He’s more beholden to Democrats than Republicans, which explains why we have not gotten a lot through,” she said. “When we have a conservative governor and lieutenant governor, and the speaker is set in place as a roadblock, whose work is he doing? The people who elected Republicans? Or the people who elected Democrats?

“He is not conservative at all.”

Shipe, who calculates the Tarrant County Conservative Index, said he has the numbers to prove that.

Based on Turner’s votes taken last session, and Straus’ votes taken when he last was a House member, Turner’s conservative index is at 97 percent. Straus is at 42, Shipe said.

The Tarrant County Republican Party’s resolutions committee plans to meet in early January to consider a resolution weighing in on the speaker’s race, said Jen Hall, who heads the party.

Shipe isn’t waiting. He has sent an email to about a thousand like-minded Republicans, after a vote of precinct chairpersons on the speaker’s race was 24-0 against Straus, urging supporters to call lawmakers and ask them to support Turner for speaker.

Adams said anything could happen to change the race, just as it did when Straus was first elected.

“The night before Joe Straus was elected, Tom Craddick had the votes,” she said. “This can change very quickly. Once the dominoes fall in the direction of Scott Turner, he could win this.”

‘There is no race’

Many political observers and lawmakers say Adams and Shipe are in the minority and Straus will handily be re-elected as House speaker Jan. 13.

“There is no race for the speaker,” said state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake. “Scott Turner has no chance and there’s a lot of reasons.

“First, he’s not qualified. He came in as a freshman, has shown no leadership qualities as a freshman, wasn’t effective in any big policy decisions and he hasn’t put forth any vision or plan if somehow, someway, he were to win.”

Capriglione has drawn heat from area Tea Party activists for his stance, but he said he’s just trying to be honest.

Bill Miller, an Austin-based political analyst, said: “Turner is saying he’s going to take this to a vote and that’s what he should say. But if he makes members take a vote for him, he’s crazy.

“He has zero chance.”

State Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, said he plans to vote for Turner because he believes that many conservative measures have not advanced under Straus’ watch.

“In order to get good legislation to the floor, we need a good leader,” he said.

State Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, has come under political fire from some grassroots conservatives because he plans to support Straus.

He said he doesn’t believe that the grassroots effort will “change a thing.”

“I hope that after Jan. 13, Republicans of all kinds can come together for the good of Texas.”

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

Key dates for 2015 Legislature

Jan. 13: Legislature convenes

Jan. 20: Gregg Abbott’s gubernatorial inauguration

June 1: Legislature adjourns

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