As regular readers know, I’ve been pretty preoccupied with the ongoing catastrophe known as the 2016 Republican presidential primary lately. I’ve therefore been remiss in writing about any of the other primaries that Texans will see on their ballots tomorrow.
But I didn’t want to let the season elapse entirely without offering three observations about the Republican primary in Texas House District 121—specifically, Jeff Judson’s challenge to the incumbent, Joe Straus, the speaker of the Texas House. They are as follows: I expect Straus will win. I think that he should. And all Texans—and especially Jeff Judson—should hope that he does.
Let me explain.
First, the challenge Straus faces this year, from Judson and his supporters, is more serious than those he has defeated in the past. And the concurrent presidential primary is slightly ominous for the incumbent, especially with Ted Cruz on the ballot. I certainly wouldn’t dismiss Cruz’s supporters as incorrigible, but it has to be said that, in 2014, a lot of them opted for our wooden nickel of an attorney general, Ken Paxton, currently under felony indictment.
Still, Straus has handily won a decade’s worth of elections in his San Antonio district—primary, general, and special—even while being subject to increasingly deranged criticism since being elected speaker in 2009. That’s telling. His many critics, the most visible of whom being the often factually challenged Michael Quinn Sullivan of EmpowerTexans, would like the Texas grassroots and their donors to believe that Straus enjoys the support of the House’s Democratic legislators, and the esteem of the liberal media in Austin, because he’s secretly a RINO who sympathizes with their worldview and quietly works to help them achieve their leftist goals.
The truth is that Straus’s civility and competence are such that even the liberal Austin media is happy to concede as much, even though his credentials as both a Republican and a conservative are more than satisfactory. His strengths, in fact, help explain why he’s such a tantalizing scapegoat for Texas’s self-appointed purity czars. As long as Straus is the speaker, someone like Sullivan can continue to tell his donors that he’s fighting valiantly for priorities like vouchers or whatever it was Cecil Bell was trying to accomplish with regard to gay people last year, only to be thwarted by the dread liberal Straus. That’s absurd, of course, but how donors Tim Dunn and Steve Hotze waste their money isn’t my concern. The point is that if the media can see Straus’s merits, it’s a safe bet that his constituents can too. I expect him to win his primary because, on the merits, he should.
Meanwhile, his leading opponent, Jeff Judson, should not. Judson’s campaign against Straus has been singularly ugly and dishonest. His most ferocious attacks have centered on sanctuary cities. In Judson’s telling, Straus is personally responsible for the existence of unauthorized immigrants in Texas, and the vicious crime one of them committed in 2011. Or as one of Judson’s campaign emails put it, in a jaunty subject line: “Is Straus to blame for murder? Judson says yes!”
The subject line alone is sufficient to raise questions about Judson’s judgment and his character, and the accusation itself, on examination, is indefensible. On February 19, Bob Garrett of the Dallas Morning News offered a thoroughly researched and even-handed account of the evidence, and came to a conclusion so eminently fair that even a right-wing warrior like Judson would be hard-pressed to declare himself the victim. It might be possible to come up with “a highly qualified and partial ‘yes’” to the question Judson raises, Garrett writes, but only if you make major assumptions about the alternative universe in which Texas did have a blanket prohibition on sanctuary policies in 2011, and only if you’re willing to argue that Straus has sole culpability for the fact that we didn’t.
Judson, apparently, is willing to do all that just to slander a political opponent. Most decent people wouldn’t. Susan Pamerleau, the Bexar County Sheriff, told Garrett that she thought Judson’s attack on Straus was “deplorable and irresponsible.” Brandon Darby, the managing editor of Breitbart Texas, has also disputed Judson’s account of Straus’s guilt, and noted, correctly, that Judson’s decision to present the victim’s grieving father in support of his character assassination is startlingly exploitative. I’ll just add that Darby is not even remotely lackadaisical about border security and immigration, and that he first captured my attention in 2014, by denouncing something I wrote about Dan Branch. So if Darby’s now publicly scoffing at Straus’s critics for having crossed over into “the realm of ridiculous,” they should take that as a warning.
To be honest, I had concerns about Judson’s judgment even prior to his decision to somehow blame Straus for a horrific crime. In January, the San Antonio Express-News’s Brian Chasnoff reported on a “rambling treatise” that Judson had published, entitled “The Biblical Basis for Jeff Judson’s Candidacy for Texas House District 121 in the Republican Primary on Tuesday, March 1, 2016,” which lays out Judson’s theories about “the disconnect between conservative, Christian voters and Joe Straus.” And when Chasnoff called Judson with a few questions about it, Judson pre-emptively warned the reporter that he wasn’t going to stand for any persecution—of himself, obviously: “Now, let’s not be going into this anti-Semitic line of discussion because that’s clearly not what this is.” Judson may not be guilty of bigotry, but he’s clearly guilty of playing the victim, and the last thing we need in the Lege is more inane grievances. I also tend to prefer legislators who aren’t predisposed to embarrass our state in public, and a candidate who issues a rambling treatise about the Biblical basis for his candidacy is a John Oliver segment waiting to happen.
And so, for an abundance of reasons, I hope the voters of HD 121 return Straus to the Lege. We all should, and I include Judson in that, because if anything, frankly, Judson has more at stake than most of us. If he somehow unseats Straus, the House will have to find a new speaker. If so, I’d say that EmpowerTexans et al might be in for a rude awakening. Straus’s critics never acknowledge this, but the fact is that the Speaker treats them, and the handful of legislators who vote according to their scorecards, with the same graciousness that he shows the House’s Democrats.
The same can’t be said of his most likely successor, Ways & Means Chair Dennis Bonnen. Of everyone in the Lege, Bonnen is probably the least easy to intimidate, and the least likely to suffer fools. If anything, he seems to take a wolfish pleasure in eviscerating them. If this singularly ugly and dishonest campaign prevails, in other words, Judson can count on kicking off the session with a conversation with the chairman that he will likely find unpleasant. He should pray that he doesn’t also find himself serving under a speaker who treats liars and bullies with exactly the contempt they deserve.