Tue January 13, 2015 5:07 pm By Erica Grieder

Joe StrausNotwithstanding the fact that Republicans once again won all the major statewide elections in November, 2015 will be marked by major transitions in Texas politics and public life. We’re inaugurating a new governor next week, for the first time in 14 years, and a new lieutenant governor, for the first time in twelve. We know who the new leaders will be, at least–Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, respectively– if not how they will compare to their predecessors, Rick Perry and David Dewhurst. The same won’t be true in March, when Richard Fisher retires as president of the Dallas Fed after nearly a decade in that role, and when my great colleague and friend Paul Burka retires after forty years of covering politics for Texas Monthly.

That sense of transition was inescapable today. The first day of the 84th Legislature, like the first days of all regular sessions, included its fair share of photo shoots and ceremonial asides. But the Texas Senate’s business included a resolution honoring Dewhurst, gaveling in for the last time. And in the House, which held its first contested race for Speaker in forty years, a number of representatives warned that the state itself may be at a critical moment.

“The Texas Miracle is anything but a miracle,” said Ken Sheets, a Republican representative from Dallas. “It is a product of governing,” according to conservative principles. And those principles matter more than ever, he added, at a time when the state has to deal with a growing population, a growing economy, and increasing global competition. Four Price, a Republican from Amarillo, argued that Texas’s success matters across the country: “We remain the economic engine on which so many others rely.” Matt Krause, a Republican from Fort Worth, concurred. “The eyes of America are on us,” he said. “Who is going to captain this venerated vessel?” Rene Oliveira, a Democrat from Brownsville, offered a maritime analogy of his own: “Now more than ever, we need a seasoned skipper at the helm.” 

Oliveira, like Price and Sheets, was speaking in favor of Joe Straus, the incumbent speaker, as seasoned skipper. Most of their colleagues, Democrats and Republicans alike, agreed: when the time came to vote the board lit up with 127 red votes for Straus, compared to 19 for Scott Turner, the Tea Party-type challenger. In fairness, Turner won more votes than most watchers would have guessed as recently as yesterday. Still, Straus’s re-election was a foregone conclusion, and this whole “speaker’s race” served to reinforce his standing rather than chip away at it. Based on the results the Tea Party, or whatever we’re calling it these days, has even fewer votes in the House than the Democrats do.

More significantly, perhaps, most of the various interest groups and individuals opposing Straus came out of the debate looking vapid. It was possible to make a substantive case for Turner. The evidence was that one supporter did so. In seconding the nomination, Krause explicitly addressed qualms about Turner’s experience and policy knowledge that had been raised by Giovanni Capriglione, the Tea Party representative who publicly broke with his cohort over the speaker question in November. He made a case for Turner rather than simply against Straus.  

The rest of the insurrectionists didn’t. Bryan Hughes, reflecting on the origins of the job, described the medieval context which led the House of Commons to appoint a representative to speak to the king: “Seven of these men actually did lose their heads, because the king didn’t like what they said.” Jeff Leach argued that based on the November elections, it’s apparent that Texans want conservative leadership, not centrists. That was a fair observation, but not necessarily a relevant one, given the state constitution’s provision that the Speaker of the House be elected by the members of the Texas House. Neither line of argument, meanwhile, was about Turner specifically, and after the vote, it was impossible to say what the animating ideal had been: personal antipathy to Straus? Or a general ethos of anti-incumbency? The latter, at least, has an element of adventure and spontaneity. But after all the turnover of the 2014 elections, the Lege is apparently looking for a little more stability. 

(AP | Eric Gay)

Mon January 12, 2015 10:35 am By Paul Burka

I joined the staff of TEXAS MONTHLY on October 1, 1974, and after much consideration, I have decided to retire in March. I have had a rich and rewarding forty-year career as senior executive editor of TEXAS MONTHLY and have been enabled by my editors to do what I love most: cover Texas politics. I will continue to be engaged with TEXAS MONTHLY on several fronts, including coverage of the 84th Legislature. But the time has come for Sarah and me to move on to the next chapter of our lives.

I am proud of the fact that my colleagues and I created one of the most impactful stories that has influenced Texas journalism: the compilation of the “Ten Best and Ten Worst Texas Legislators.” I am grateful to my incredibly talented colleagues who joined me in covering the Legislature over the years, to my editors who have enabled me to pursue the fascinating world of Texas politics, and above all to the readers of BurkaBlog. Thank you for reading.

If you’d like to see the email that my editor, Brian Sweany, sent to the staff this morning, keep reading after the jump:

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Wed January 7, 2015 3:31 pm By Erica Grieder

Yesterday, in response to the speaker’s race in the US House, I argued that such staged purity tests are risky for the Tea Party-type groups that insist on them, for several reasons. Ross Ramsey, at the Texas Tribune, also has some cautionary words for the would-be insurgents. I broadly agree with his analysis and want to underline one point. In Ross’s view, the substantive problem with these Tea Party v RINO fights is that the Republican party itself has assimilated some of the issues that initially galvanized the Tea Party, leaving the factions to argue over more marginal issues:

Since the Tea Party wave that surfaced in April 2009 and crested in the 2010 general elections, the GOP — at both the state and national levels — has appropriated enough of the movement’s ideas to insulate itself from the renegades within its ranks. What might have become a third party has instead been assimilated by the establishment, and for all but a small number of conservatives who remain unhappy with the GOP, there is no need to shop around.

This is especially true in Texas, for two reasons.

1) Our Republicans were conservative enough to begin with. They didn’t appropriate the movement’s ideas; in some cases they generated them. At the time the Tea Party coalesced, in 2009, Texas had been led conservatively, by conservatives for more than a decade. Our Republican incumbents had already been going after federal officials, including Republicans, including former governor George W Bush, for years. “George has never, ever been a fiscal conservative,” said Perry in December 2007, two months after attorney general Greg Abbott sent Ted Cruz to the Supreme Court to argue Medellin v Texas.

2) The apparent inability of Texas Democrats to do anything ever means that there is no pressing incentive for most Texas Republicans to pander to centrists, and they rarely do.

Tea Party Republicans in Texas, then, are in an even more thankless position than their national counterparts when it comes to challenging the “moderates” in their own party. To establish their credentials as the more conservative option they can either adopt genuinely extreme positions or they can fight over scraps. To their credit, most of them eschew the extremist route, but the result is that the Tea Party Republicans in Texas often end up championing weird little causes, like “the Senate should use a 60% rule rather than the two-thirds rule, because 67% is for squishes.” Having campaigned on such issues for several cycles now, the insurgents have convinced a lot of primary voters that such issues matter; they have made themselves vulnerable to the narcissism of small differences. At times they remind me of this penguin.

These exercises in esoterica may work in primaries. But life is a long game. A few days after winning the special election for Glenn Hegar’s senate seat, for example, Lois Kolkhorst told the Houston Chronicle that she was definitely looking to modify the Texas “DREAM Act”—either to repeal it or to toughen its standards. Prior to the election, though, she pledged to repeal the law. It was a seemingly political calculation; her opponent had made an issue of the fact that she voted for the law in the first place, in 2001. But now Kolkhorst is stuck with the consequences. If she pushes for reform, rather than repeal, she can expect a backlash from the base. If she pushes for repeal, she can be the senator who trashed a pretty good law, a law she once supported. Seems a little thankless, doesn’t it? 

Tue January 6, 2015 7:14 pm By Erica Grieder

Earlier today John Boehner was re-elected as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, despite the defection of 25 Tea Party-type Republicans, who split their votes among three other candidates: Ted Yolo, Daniel Webster, and Texas’s own Louie Gohmert.

The charge against the incumbent was, basically, that he is insufficiently conservative. And the effort was clearly quixotic. Had the conservative faction been able to muster a few more votes they could have forced a second round of voting. (Boehner needed a simple majority of the chamber to get elected, but Democrats, the minority party, had voted for Nancy Pelosi.) Even if Boehner had got spooked and dropped out, though (which was apparently the plan, such as it was), the conservative Republicans never had an endgame here, because a schism in the majority would have ultimately yielded a moderate. That is, of course, how Joe Straus became Speaker of the Texas House in 2009. The chamber’s Republican majority was divided between several candidates; Democrats, seeing which way the wind was blowing, voted as a bloc in favor of the Republican they found most palatable. 

For some conservatives, was a black mark against Straus, and a number of subsequent Republican primaries have hinged on which candidate would work hardest to oust Straus. However, conservatives didn’t manage to unseat him in 2011 or 2013, they’re not going to do so in 2015, and by fighting on this particular hill they’re ultimately hurting themselves rather than the so-called RINOs. The same will be true of national conservatives if they decide to think of today’s vote as a litmus test.

So in case grassroots activists are going down that path, here’s why it’s a bad idea. 

1.The math was never going to work. The number of “real conservatives” in the House may have grown since Boehner was first elected, but the Speaker is elected by the House as a whole, not the majority party. As long as Republicans hold fewer than, say, 400 seats, a Tea Party candidate would have to win a supermajority of the Republican caucus to offset the inevitable coalition of Democrats plus RINOs.

Conservatives in Texas have been trying to relitigate this logic since 2009, to no avail. This year, for example, Tea Partier Scott Turner is planning to challenge Straus when the Lege reconvenes next week. There’s no reason Turner shouldn’t throw his hat in the ring—it’s a free country—but as a result of the math he’s not going to win, and anyone insisting otherwise is setting themselves up for disappointment. 

​2.On a substantive level, the opposition to Boehner confused ideology and process. Despite the job title, public speaking is an optional part of the Speaker’s job. In the US House he makes committee assignments, directs the workflow, and helps arrange the order of business. In other words, the speaker’s management skills are at least as important as his ideology—especially, one would think, for the people who actually have to work with the guy. The same is true in the Texas House, which is why Giovanni Capriglione, despite being a Tea Party guy, has pledged to support Straus over Scott TurnerThat’s presumably why some Tea Party Republicans, such as Idaho’s Raul Labrador, voted for Boehner. The vote doesn’t mean Labrador thinks John Boehner is the greatest Speaker of all time; no one thinks that. It has a more narrow meaning—viz, that he thought Boehner was a better option than Gohmert. That’s hardly unreasonable, politics aside. 

​3. Over the short term, the Congressional conservatives damaged their negotiating position within the Republican caucus by staging a record vote on an issue that inspires legitimate disagreement within their faction. Since 2012 Boehner has clearly been afraid of antagonizing the Tea Party. That’s less likely to be the case now that the Tea Party caucus has demanded that they be counted. It’s possible that on certain issues the conservative faction of the Republican caucus may be able to muster more than 25 votes against the RINOs, but it was the Tea Party, not Boehner, who described this as a defining issue. And in light of the results, it’s the Tea Party that’s now on the back foot in the chamber. Similarly, in the Texas House, the Tea Party Republicans never amounted to a majority of the caucus, much less the chamber. But in 2013, at least, the small size of that subset wasn’t clear until the final weeks of the session, when a handful of hardliners voted against the budget. This year, if there is a record vote on the Speaker’s race, the size of the Tea Party faction will be clear from the beginning of the session—and that’s why it’s Straus’s supporters, not Turner’s, who want the record vote.

For those reasons, the grassroots conservatives who called on Congressional Republicans to oppose Boehner were effectively asking them to go to bat for a losing cause–and a politically damaging one. It wasn’t necessarily an unworthy cause; no one owed Boehner a vote. Similarly, Texas representatives who genuinely think Scott Turner would be a better Speaker than Straus have the right to vote that way, and it would be petty of Straus to penalize them.

But neither was the cause necessarily virtuous. It can easily be understood as an administrative matter rather than a referendum on values. It’s therefore risky for grassroots conservatives to interpret a vote on a speaker’s race as a statement of principles, and to treat it as a purity test in subsequent primaries. Texas’s conservatives should have realized this years ago. National conservatives should learn from our example, congratulate Boehner and quietly move on. 

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Wed December 31, 2014 8:53 am By Paul Burka

I was surprised to read that Wendy Davis intends to make another run at public office, as yet unspecified. Among other things, she has retracted her support for open carry. But it is hard to see what kind of future Davis has, particularly when Battleground Texas proved to be as much of a disaster as the rest of the Davis organization. If Battleground has no future, what is the point of Davis running?

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