On the morning of January 2, state representative Joe Straus III, of San Antonio, was a little-known member of the Texas House who had not yet served two full terms. Many of his fellow members hardly knew him; few could say where his desk was located on the House floor. As he prepared to drive to Austin for a meeting with a group of ten Republican colleagues who had sworn to prevent controversial House Speaker Tom Craddick from being reelected to a fourth term, Straus’s wife, Julie, asked him when he would return. Having no inkling that his life was about to change, he didn’t suspect that the correct answer was “June.”
Heading up Interstate 35, Straus debated whether he should allow his name to be entered in the voting that would take place that afternoon to determine a challenger to Craddick. He was such a long shot that he hadn’t bothered to submit the requisite papers declaring his candidacy to the Texas Ethics Commission. When he arrived at the private residence where the anti-Craddick group, known as the ABCs, for “Anybody but Craddick,” was meeting, Brian McCall, of Plano, hastily arranged for Straus to file.
Nine of the eleven dissidents put their names on the ballot—the two exceptions being Rob Eissler, of the Woodlands, who was out of the state and participated by telephone, and Charlie Geren, of Fort Worth. The group had agreed that each member would circle two of the nine names. The two lowest vote-getters would drop off, and the process would be repeated. After three rounds, the choice was down to McCall, Straus, and Burt Solomons, of Carrollton. McCall was eliminated in the fourth round, and Straus edged Solomons by a single vote. As the news got out, House members began calling one another, beginning their conversations with a one-word question freighted with disbelief: “ Straus?”
Texas politics is full of surprises, but no one, least of all the 49-year-old Straus, was prepared for the stunning announcement that he was the dissidents’ choice to challenge Craddick for the speakership. Because most House Democrats had been exiled to the backbenches during the six years of Craddick’s speakership, they were ready to embrace whomever the ABC contingent chose to challenge him. Together, the ABCs and the 64 Democrats who had signed their names to a pledge not to support Craddick for Speaker added up to 75 members—exactly half the House. If everybody stayed hitched, Straus was the favorite to be the next Speaker.
But there was work to do. The House would convene on January 13 to select its Speaker. Straus needed to recruit enough supporters to ensure a governing majority. Many Republicans were leery of supporting a coalition in which their party would be a minority. After two difficult days on the phone, Straus had the numbers he needed. That night, Craddick had scheduled a meeting with his supporters at a downtown Austin steakhouse, but it was too late. He conceded defeat, and Straus was elected by acclimation.
The improbable rise of Joe Straus carries with it potentially large consequences. The ABCs did not support Straus—and Straus did not take office—with the intention that he be a caretaker. Their number one goal—to remove Craddick from office—had been accomplished. But they also sought to change the way the House worked (or, more aptly, didn’t work) and to change the direction of the Republican party. In his three terms as Speaker and his forty years as a member, with connections to influential Republicans and lobbyists, including the party’s biggest donors, Craddick had become the most powerful and most reviled person at the Capitol. If a member crossed him, he could—and often did—target the member for defeat in the Republican primary by directing hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds to a challenger he had recruited. Chairmen were kept on a short leash and given little leeway to make decisions; five onetime Craddick chairs—Solomons; Eissler; Jim Pitts, of Waxahachie; Jim Keffer, of Eastland; and Byron Cook, of Corsicana—eventually defected to the ABCs.
The Democrats, meanwhile, found themselves without a constructive role. Except for the handful who supported Craddick in return for plum appointments and legislative favors, they became a permanent opposition party that challenged him daily on his management of the House. Toward the end of the 2007 session, the House twice broke out in rebellion against Craddick, objecting to his rulings. At one point, half a dozen of the Speaker’s own chairmen lined up at the microphone at the back of the chamber to take him on; even the most grizzled House observers could not remember anything like it. Faced with an attempt to remove him from the speakership, Craddick ruled that he didn’t have to recognize a member seeking his ouster. He had gone too far. The mutiny was on.
What finally brought Craddick down, however, was the one thing that, despite his best efforts, he couldn’t control: elections. When he became Speaker, in 2003, Republicans had an 88—62 majority. By election night 2008, they had lost a net twelve seats, reducing their margin to 76—74.
Four days after the election, a Republican legislator made the first public comment about the cost of Craddick’s leadership: “I’m deeply concerned about the Republican party, and I’m concerned about the Texas House. There are a lot of Republicans who feel the way I do. This goes deeper than the speakership of Tom Craddick. There is a feeling that the status quo is not acceptable.”
That legislator was Joe Straus.
If the anointing of Straus as the Speaker candidate of the ABCs baffled most House members at first, on reflection it made a lot of sense. His obvious shortcoming—lack of experience—was actually an advantage. Most of the ABCs were burdened with well-established histories of opposition to Craddick; two of them, Pitts and McCall, had run against him for Speaker in 2007. Straus had no such history. He stayed on the sidelines during the boisterous uprisings that split the Republican