Paul Burka and I just returned from a 25-minute sit-down with the next Speaker of the Texas House. It took place at the offices of his public relations consultants, Russ Keene and Scott Dunaway—where he’s met over the past few days with several of the members who are clamoring for time with their future leader. Here is the (slightly edited) transcript of our conversation. E.S.
EVAN SMITH: When you were driving to that meeting Friday night, were you thinking to yourself that it was at all possible that the outcome would be what it was? Did you go in thinking you were a candidate for Speaker?
JOE STRAUS: I went up to the meeting wondering whether or not I would allow my name to be on a ballot. We hadn’t discussed before the meeting or agreed to any kind of method for choosing. We just had committed that one of us would come out, and that the other ten would be united and supportive.
SMITH: The speculation going in was not about you. The speculation was that others were candidates, but you were not.
STRAUS: I wasn’t even certain that I wanted or would allow my name to be on the list.
PAUL BURKA: Someone said to me that you had said you might actually wind up being [Speaker] because you were the only one who hadn’t been there through these fights. The inexperience would be your benefit.
STRAUS: Well, no. Some members had talked to me, as I’m sure they talked to every Republican—we all have friends, and we all have phone numbers. Early on, people had suggested [becoming Speaker] to me, and I sort of laughed it off. However, I had been outspoken after the election about the way the Republican majority had been shrinking in recent cycles and some of the reasons for it that I felt strongly about. And that turned into, “Oh, maybe he might do it. He hadn’t been involved in these things before. He wasn’t involved in the fiasco at the end of the session in ’07.” It really wasn’t serious. I never said to anyone anything other than, “That’s not really my ambition.” But I never said no. I wanted to see who else might be doing it and who might have the best chance.
SMITH: You were not an ABC.
STRAUS: No. I never signed anything that said I wouldn’t vote for Tom Craddick. I don’t sign anti-tax pledges. I don’t sign anything negative—I won’t do this, I won’t vote for this.
BURKA: Actually, Brian [McCall] told me that he signed a pledge [that he would never vote for Craddick] and then he heard that Phil King might run and Brian told me, “I might have to break my pledge.”
SMITH: I went back and looked at the transcript of our conversation in December of ’07, in advance of our putting you on that list of 35 in February, and you had talked at the time about the need for compromise, about the need to rethink how the House was run, about the need to do the public good. It sounded, in retrospect, as if you were advocating for an alternative to the existing order.
STRAUS: I think that maybe what I was suggesting when we talked was a feeling that, in the two terms I’ve been here, it hasn’t been an experience where I could go home and say with pride that I was serving in the Legislature. There were a lot of reasons for it and lot of places to place blame for that. I have never singled out Tom Craddick for criticism alone.
SMITH: You don’t believe he’s blameless, though, in the way the House was run.
STRAUS: I think we have been in a really unfortunate situation.
SMITH: Talk about that.
STRAUS: Well, some of the leadership will tell you about not having authority and operating control of committees and all the things you know so well. I couldn’t directly relate to that because I’d had a pretty smooth, somewhat effective—you know, in my first full session I passed some significant bills, with bipartisan support, making sure that Ms. Thomson was my joint author on a bill that was important to her that she had filed, too, a major energy efficiency bill. I did it quietly. That’s sort of my M.O. But a lot of members who are my closest friends, the ones who I respect very much, were speaking out more and more about problems. If they say they had them, I trusted them. And the morale in the House was so bad that if even half of the stories were true, we should take some corrective action to improve it. One of the promises I’ve made this week is that every member should come to work in the House feeling energized, feeling like they have a chance, feeling like they’re going to be empowered to work on whatever it is they want to work on, to represent their districts and, if possible, to bring something home for the people who sent them there.
BURKA: I’ve talked to really good people like Dianne Delissi, and I think she left because of that. She just couldn’t bear to walk in the Capitol in the morning. There were so many people who said that—it was just dreadful.
STRAUS: It wasn’t satisfying.
SMITH: When you talk about giving members the opportunity to represent their districts, it’s hard not to hear that as a reaction to what was alleged to be Speaker Craddick’s approach to running the House. The criticism was that he made you represent the party’s interest as opposed to the district you represented.
STRAUS: I never, with few exceptions, felt any unusual pressure or inappropriate pressure—maybe on one occasion or two early when I was there, when I was a freshmen and the team would come around and