Joe Straus

Notwithstanding 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)