Regular Joe

How a (somewhat) moderate Republican (almost) no one had ever heard of became the most powerful politician in Texas (maybe).

April 2009By Comments

Joe Straus III
Photograph by Michael Carter

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 caucus in the 2007 session. As a junior member, he had done what he was supposed to do: Say little, learn a lot, and pass a couple of useful bills. (One repealed a tax that was obsolete; another increased energy efficiency requirements.) Second, Straus was ideologically compatible with the ABCs. He’s a mainstream Republican who has little affinity with the social conservatives who were Craddick’s most ardent supporters.

One other asset that Straus brought to the speakership was an impeccable Republican pedigree. This was important for the ABCs because of Craddick’s extensive support in the GOP hierarchy, which he could bring to bear against any challenger. But Straus’s GOP credentials were as stout as Craddick’s. No one could accuse the ABCs of backing a RINO, or “Republican in name only,” as conservatives call those they deem insufficiently doctrinaire. Straus is, as he described himself in an interview in early January, “Republican to the core.” His parents and other kin were Republicans when many of today’s Republicans, Rick Perry included, were conservative Democrats. Straus’s mother, Joci (pronounced “Jah-see,” short for Jocelyn), has been working for Republicans since 1959, when she formed “Nixon girls” organizations at local high schools. She has served as a precinct chair and as a member of the State Republican Executive Committee. The walls of her spacious office in her Alamo Heights home are covered with photographs of her family with prominent Republicans (including one of nine-year-old Joe sitting at U.S. senator John Tower’s desk with a pen in hand, his family and Tower standing in the background). On the day I visited her, she also had a cornucopia of Republican memorabilia on display, most notably a “Bush bag”—a wicker basket with a needlepoint design on one side (featuring an elephant with an upraised trunk) that was stitched by Barbara Bush, a souvenir of George H.W.’s unsuccessful 1970 Senate race.

The Strauses are also Texan to the core. A photograph in the Speaker’s private quarters displays the family business on San Antonio’s Main Plaza. It was taken in 1870, shortly after Straus’s great-grandfather’s uncle founded L. Frank Saddlery Co.; later it bore the name Straus-Frank. The Strauses were, and are, horse people. They manufactured saddles and harnesses under the slogan “The horse—next to a woman, God’s greatest gift to man.” Another family photo features Joe’s great-grandfather as a director of the San Antonio racing fair in 1898. That was the year Teddy Roosevelt brought his Rough Riders to the Menger Hotel on their way to the Spanish-American War; rarely told is that they came to pick up Straus-made saddles, harnesses, and whips. “A few of those whips would be handy right now,” Straus mused to me, reflecting on his new job.

The coming of the automobile forced the Strauses to alter their business plan. They became wholesale distributors for Remington guns and ammunition and Uniroyal tires, and they were the exclusive Texas distributor of Frigidaire appliances. By this time, around 1920, they were among the most prominent families in the city. Joe’s grandfather, the first Joe Straus, was an All-America football player at the University of Pennsylvania; he was offered the chance to play professional football by the New York Giants, but his father said no. Within a few years, he found himself missing the competition that he had enjoyed as an athlete, so he got into horse-racing partnerships with his business partners. One of these stables raced at the great tracks of New York: Saratoga, Belmont, and Aqueduct. The Strauses also stabled a few horses at Gulfstream Park, in Florida, from which they sent their horses to Sabinal, a town of about 1,500 in Uvalde County, to train with Tommy Oliphant, who had learned the business from legendary trainer Woody Stephens. (Today the family has broodmares at Nuckols Farms, in Lexington, Kentucky, but no longer has a large stable.)

The Straus family’s prominence in the racing world was such that young Joe worked summers in the office of the racing secretary at Saratoga and at Belmont and at the Jockey Club, in New York, the governing body of Thoroughbred racing. One of the Straus family’s best horses, Clev’er Tell, would have been the second favorite to Seattle Slew at Churchill Downs in 1977, but he sustained a chip fracture on his left knee. The Straus stable’s best horse was No Le Hace, who won the Arkansas and Louisiana derbies in 1972, ran second to Riva Ridge in the Kentucky Derby, and finished second in the Preakness by a length and a quarter. The last great Straus racehorse was Soy Numero Uno, a handicap racer and the son of Damascus, a famous sire. (The family prefers to breed horses rather than buy them.)

Straus’s father, Joe Junior, helped lead the successful campaign to legalize pari-mutuel wagering in Texas in 1987 and was part of the partnership that built Retama Park, the local racetrack. The family also owns a small interest in a dog-racing track but for the most part is out of the horse-racing business. Thoroughbred racing has never achieved the level of economic development promised by its promoters—an integrated business that includes tracks, owners, breeders, trainers, hay growers, vets, manure-disposal companies, and riders. The success of horse racing depends on attracting the best horses, which in turn depends on having large purses. Resistance to “expanding the footprint” of gambling has made it difficult to increase the size of purses in Texas.

A few years after pari-mutuel wagering became legal, the state went into competition with the racetracks by instituting a lottery. “The state has fifteen thousand locations,” a horse-racing lobbyist lamented to me, “and we have around a dozen.” Tracks have been allowed to simulcast so that bettors can wager on races around the country, but this has not proved to be sufficiently lucrative to affect purses. In this legislative session, as in previous ones, the racing industry is asking lawmakers to authorize video lottery terminals (slot machines) at racetracks. Success is unlikely, and Straus has signed a letter recusing himself from participating in or presiding over any debate involving the issue.

But there’s no doubt which side he is on. “Racing is in my blood,” he told me. I asked if he could recognize a good horse. “I have an eye for a horse, but I’m not so confident that I wouldn’t check with others.” Does his wife ride? “When we were dating,” he said, “I took her out to our ranch. She broke out in hives. She’s allergic to horses.”

Joe Straus’s upbringing confronted him with opposing career choices from the male and female sides of his family. His grandfather and his father made it possible for him to work in the elite racing venues, but Joci directed him toward politics. “We took a family trip to Washington in 1969,” he recalled. “We had dinner with Congressman Bush. That’s when I met George W. He was in the Air National Guard.” So it was almost inevitable that when he graduated from Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, in 1982, Straus moved to Washington and became an advance man for then—Vice President Bush. When I asked him about his duties, his answer was “Be polite to local supporters and be forceful with the Secret Service.” Later he went to work for the commissioner of U.S. Customs, William von Raab, staying three years and making trips to the Mexican border at El Paso; San Diego, California; and Nogales, Arizona.

In 1985 Straus moved back to San Antonio to run Lamar Smith’s first congressional campaign, in a district that stretched all the way to Midland. The race was, at the time, the most expensive congressional election ever. He wanted to have a fundraiser for Smith and called James Baker, Ronald Reagan’s Treasury Secretary, to see if Baker would come. At first he was told “No way. He’s too busy.” But Margaret Tutwiler, Baker’s loyal aide, suggested that Straus try to get Baker to come to Texas for a dove hunt and then do the fundraiser. He was to work out the details with Baker’s travel assistant.

Straus and the assistant talked on the phone for three months, building events around the trip. That was fortuitous, because the assistant accompanied Baker to Texas and Straus got to meet her and spend time with her. She was Julie Brink, his future wife. “We had a discussion before we were engaged,” he said. “I told her two things. One, I promised her life would be interesting. Two, we would live in Texas.” Well, eventually. After their wedding, they lived in Washington for a while, as she worked for Vice President Bush’s presidential campaign and he worked for Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher.

Straus did not really have the political bug then, and it is not at all obvious that he has it today—or at least it wasn’t in the two long conversations I had with him. The first, informal, was in December, following the funeral of a longtime Republican activist at the Trinity University chapel; the second was an on-the-record sit-down in late January, after he had become Speaker. The consistent impression I took away from both meetings was that he is completely comfortable with who he is. He enjoys telling stories and punctuates them with a wry smile, but when he gets serious—as he was in December about his certainty that Craddick would not be reelected—there is no mistaking the steely force of his conviction.

When Joe and Julie moved home to San Antonio in 1989, he started a financial-planning business: life insurance, estate planning, executive benefits, financial services. He did not abandon politics entirely—he served as precinct chairman for six years—but seeking office was far from his mind. “I would never have run against a Republican incumbent,” he told me. His legislative district was represented by Elizabeth Ames Jones, who appeared to be headed for a long career in office. Then fortune smiled on him. A seat opened up on the Texas Railroad Commission, and Governor Perry appointed Ames Jones to fill it. A special election would be held to replace her.

“I didn’t have much time to think about the race,” Straus told me. “If it wasn’t going to be me, who would it be?” He called Carroll Schubert, a longtime local Republican stalwart who was running for the nonpartisan office of mayor. “I won’t run if you want it,” Straus told him. Schubert said he was committed to the mayor’s race, and Straus entered the special election for the House seat. He faced Rose Spector, a former Democratic Texas Supreme Court justice, and two lesser opponents. In the lopsidedly Republican district, Straus won with 61.93 percent of the vote to Spector’s 33.58.

He served the remainder of Ames Jones’s term, going through a 2005 session that was mostly uneventful, but then came the shock of election night 2006, when the GOP lost five seats (on top of one they had lost a few months earlier in a special election). The drubbing meant Craddick might well face a Speaker’s race, and he did. McCall filed against Craddick, then stepped aside in favor of Pitts. The anti-Craddick faction wanted to elect the Speaker by secret ballot, to make it harder for Craddick to retaliate against his enemies if  he won. The secret ballot proved to be the test vote in the Speaker’s race. Straus supported it, which seemed to suggest that he had thrown in with the ABCs, but he hadn’t. Straus believed philosophically in the secret ballot, and he voted for it after consulting with Craddick and pledging to vote to reelect the Speaker. “Nobody had done anything to offend me,” Straus told me later. Craddick won the test vote by a thin margin, 80—68, and retained his post. The tumult and shouting of the 2007 session had begun.

As another election night approached, this one in 2008, “it was apparent,” Straus told me, “that things were going rapidly in the wrong direction.” The Republicans lost three more seats and were fortunate that the Democrats did not seriously contest a race in Irving that they could have easily won. For a time it seemed that the House in 2009 would be divided, 75—75, but a recount in the Irving race went the Republicans’ way, and they claimed the narrowest possible majority. Straus never signed an ABC pledge that he would not vote for Craddick, but the defining moment for him was the result of a race in El Paso, in which Democrat Joe Moody defeated Republican Dee Margo. Margo had been recruited by Craddick to run against longtime incumbent Pat Haggerty, a Craddick nemesis and one of the ABCs from 2007. Straus had met Haggerty during a 1982 trip to El Paso for the Customs Service, and the two struck up a friendship. “He was fighting the battle when it was tough,” Straus said of Haggerty. “Fast-forward to 2008, and the Speaker is saying, ‘We don’t want that seat if Haggerty is in it.’ ” To Republican-to-the-core Joe Straus, it was unthinkable that Craddick would put his party’s majority at risk for personal revenge.

Straus’s first challenge was committee appointments. This is the hardest job a Speaker has, especially a rookie Speaker, and Straus made it even harder for himself by promising that he would not engage in retribution. Because he had accumulated the pledges of 73 Democrats and just 30 or so Republicans (although eventually he ended up with the nominal support of all the members), he had to demonstrate to anxious Republicans that he wasn’t turning over the store to the Democrats. At the same time, he didn’t want to favor Republicans to the extent that the Democrats would form a united opposition.

For close to a month, Straus and his inner circle lived in what the new Speaker described to me as “committee hell.” When he released his appointments on February 12, there were some unhappy campers, Republican and Democrat alike. Democrats felt betrayed when Straus stacked the Elections Committee with Republican supporters of the Voter ID bill, and their anger could—depending on the fate of the bill—threaten his speakership. Straus’s appointments signal what he wants his House to be. The first thing he wants it to be is Republican. Even though Democrats outnumbered Republicans in his coalition by more than three to one, Republicans hold most of the key chairmanships. The chairs of Appropriations (Pitts), State Affairs (Solomons), and Calendars (McCall) are all ABCs, meaning that the budget, the major issues, and the flow of legislation will be controlled by victorious insurgents. The only major committee chaired by a Democrat, Ways and Means, has a solid Republican majority. The apportionment of chairmanships was eighteen Republicans and sixteen Democrats, but some chairmanships are better than others, and the Republicans got most of those too—including Elections.

The second thing he wants his House to be is different from Craddick’s. The main combatants of the Craddick years have been pushed to the edges. On the Democratic side, the floor leaders who fought Craddick for three sessions—Jim Dunnam, of  Waco; Pete Gallego, of Alpine; and Garnet Coleman, of Houston—have chairmanships, but not in areas where they can have a major impact on policy. On the Republican side, the Craddick inner circle—Warren Chisum, of  Pampa; Phil King, of Weatherford; and Sylvester Turner, of Houston, the leader of the pro-Craddick Democrats—likewise have diminished roles (more so, in fact, than the former Democratic leadership). Nine of the sixteen Democratic chairs are first-time chairmen. Most of the hard-right social conservatives have been frozen out too.

The message is loud and clear: The old guard does not have much of a future in the Straus House. It’s time to move on, to leave the partisan battles behind, to think about governing instead of fighting. If Joe Straus can accomplish that, he will change not only the Texas House. He will change the Republican party. His Republican party.

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