From 2009 to 2017, San Antonio Republican Joe Straus presided over the Texas House as Speaker, with the support of a coalition of mainstream Republicans and Democrats—and the opposition of socially conservative Republicans. Now that Straus is stepping down, the Legislature that convenes in January will elect a new Speaker. For months, Republican groups had been pushing to have that leader chosen solely by the Republican caucus, which makes up the majority of the body.
But after Republicans lost twelve seats in the House in last month’s elections, the party’s attempt to go it alone seemed unlikely to succeed. Which is why, the day after the election, some Republicans were once again looking to cut a deal with Democrats. And no group among House Democrats is more cohesive or holds more influence than the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. Founded in 1973, MALC—the oldest Latino caucus in the country—has in recent years turned itself into a substantial presence. During the 2017 legislative session, 39 of the 55 Democrats in the House were members of MALC. (Two Republicans were also part of the caucus; membership isn’t limited to Hispanics or to any political party, though most of its members are Hispanic and Democrat.) There won’t be a precise count of the caucus’s numbers until the next Legislature convenes, but it’s widely believed that MALC will once again have at least 40 members—more than half the votes needed by a prospective Speaker. In short, there’s likely no path to the job without MALC’s support. Which is one reason why, the morning after the election, two of the three names being bandied around for Speaker were people that MALC had indicated a willingness to consider.
That sort of muscle-flexing makes Representatives Rafael Anchia, of Dallas, and Mary González, of Clint—the chairman and vice chair, respectively, of MALC—two of the most powerful lawmakers in the Texas Legislature. And they have clear opinions on what positions the next Speaker should take. “Our consistent narrative to Speaker candidates has been ‘You must be pro–public education and anti-vouchers,’ ” Anchia said. “A majority of public school children in Texas are Hispanic. So if you’re looking to siphon off money from public schools to the private projects, that is a nonstarter for us.”
Immigration, unsurprisingly, is also high on MALC’s agenda. “Since it has been taken over by Republicans, the Legislature has really promoted an anti-immigrant agenda,” González said. “Now we have a presidential administration that is literally targeting our communities and putting them in danger. And the domino effect is putting Texas in danger.” During the recent candidate interviews for Speaker, MALC asked applicants point-blank: “Do you have the political courage, strength, and leadership to do things that would be considered by your Republican colleagues as pro-immigrant?”
Both Anchia and González supported Straus in his previous elections, but this time they plan to hold out for someone more sensitive to their concerns. “Straus’s record on Latino issues was not great,” Anchia said. As a state representative, Straus failed to use his power to stop gerrymandering bills that were discriminatory to Latinos, as well as a “papers, please” bill that would allow law enforcement officials to ask for a person’s immigration status. “I consider him a friend,” Anchia said of Straus. “But we need to do better.”
MALC may not get everything it wants from a new Speaker, but it’ll almost surely get something, if only because the future seems to be on its side: the Hispanic delegation’s numbers will likely continue to grow as the state’s Hispanic population increases. “It’s not like leadership opportunities for Latinos are a long-standing phenomenon—they’re relatively new,” Anchia said. ”Mary and I are part of that pipeline. MALC seeks to open up that funnel even further.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Standing Up for Hispanic Interests at the Capitol” Subscribe today.