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 lean on you almost physically. They quickly learned that the harder they leaned on me, the less likely I was to help.
SMITH: Have you pledged similarly not to find primary opponents for [apostate] members of your party, another thing that was often alleged of Speaker Craddick?
STRAUS: I have said that it’s the job of the Speaker to protect all the members, and that after the elections in November we have public service to do. Clearly you can’t ignore politics and you can’t be naïve enough to think that politics isn’t going to play a role in what we do, but you can do a better job of minimizing the turmoil related to it. I’ve also promised to do what I can—and not having ever held a gavel, I can’t be very specific about how we do this—to bring civility to the proceedings.
BURKA: You remember that horrible debate between Sid Miller and [Marc] Veazey and Senfronia [Thompson] over the Confederate [monuments] bill. Sid just kept going and going and going. Why didn’t Craddick break it? I found out that Sid said to Craddick, “Do you want me to stop?” and Craddick said, “No, keep going.” Because he wanted the division. The turmoil is what he used to keep the Republicans united against the Democrats.
STRAUS: My view of building the Republican party is not to be meaner and tougher than the Democrats, not to win through these divisive wedge issues—it’s to address issues in a more optimistic, hopeful way. Honest people can have differences on those things, and that’s completely appropriate. If that’s a part of the process, so be it. But it shouldn’t be used just to tear people apart for no real public policy accomplishment.
SMITH: Do you think of yourself as a Republican Speaker or a Speaker who happens to be a Republican?
STRAUS: I’m Republican to the core. I talk to Republican members who are reluctant to publicly support me. I mean, almost all of them are going to play a supportive role, but some are reluctant to put their name on a list because they see these e-mails that grassroots groups send out saying this about me, or where I fall on the spectrum, or whatever label they’re putting out that day.
SMITH: Your point of view [on issues] has been mischaracterized?
STRAUS: Yeah. I’m as solid as a Republican as there is in Austin.
SMITH: You understand that the line of attack against you has come from the social conservatives in your party, and it’s come primarily on the abortion question, where you are perceived to be pro-choice. The statement I saw you put out last week did not read like a statement by a pro-choice Republican.
STRAUS: I don’t consider myself to be a can with a label on it. What I’ve said is, existing laws are acceptable to me. I voted for parental consent. Have I been involved in social issue movements? No, but I don’t go out of my way to stick my finger in the eyes of people who are. What I reject is this type of vile, ill-informed, inflammatory politics. It’s tearing the Republican party apart. It’s nothing but Republican primary politics. Wake up, Republicans! We win Republican primaries regardless of which candidate comes out. It’s November we have to focus on.
SMITH: Let me just stick with this issue for a second because it’s important to get some clarity for everybody out there as to what exactly you believe. You support, to the degree that the law provides it now, a legal right to abortion?
STRAUS: The law of land is federal law, and it’s not going to get changed by Obama for sure. As the Speaker, my agenda isn’t the House’s agenda. The presiding officer, Speaker of the House, should be there to facilitate the will of the House. The last part of that statement [on abortion] said if members feel differently or have an approach on this that they can convince other members to support, game on.
BURKA: What did you mean when you said that your view of building the Republican party is not to be meaner and tougher than the Democrats but to address issues in more optimistic ways?
STRAUS: I think we ought to stress issues that effect everybody, especially in an economy that’s a little cloudy. People’s anxieties within their own families are really not about social issues. Theyre about their economic future, education, opportunities for their kids, healthcare issues—things that affect people everyday. The old playbook is just tired. I’d like to see a fresh approach to Republican campaign politics.
SMITH: The question, though, is whether the House has gotten a new playbook or a new quarterback. Because, as you say, there are issues that directly affect the people of Texas that the Legislature can choose to take up, but at various points, over various sessions, bills have come up that go completely in the opposite direction of what you’re describing. You voted on such a bill, a controversial bill, the bill to ban gay foster parents, which you opposed.
STRAUS: That was one of the first “oh, here we go” issues. I’m not supportive of adoption by homosexual couples, but the whole issue of government with a fiscal note attached and government employees investigating people’s private lives caused me a great deal of heartburn. I remember looking at the expenditure of taxpayer money for that and it was a lot. And it required what? Going into people’s homes? Watching the way people dress or the way they talk? I have some pretty strong libertarian leanings, and sometimes that causes a conflict. What gave me confidence to hit the button I hit was that I was very certain that Barry Goldwater would have done the same thing.
SMITH: Of course, these are the kinds of things that will come up. Can you, as Speaker, do anything about the business of the House being taken up with stuff like this, which, as you say, doesn’t directly affect the lives of Texans?
STRAUS: I intend to. This is really the first day that I’ve felt it was appropriate to go even this far into what I’m going to do next week, in the six-day transition or whatever it is. I want to find talented, experienced, capable committee chairmen and empower them to do what they think’s right, to trust them and delegate. I’m aware that I’ve only been here for not even four years. This isn’t about me. It’s about letting the House work and improving morale and giving people something to do. Let them do what they want to do.
SMITH: Will there be Democratic chairman?
STRAUS: Of course. There are 74 Democrats
SMITH: Have you made a promise that there will be a certain number of Democratic chairmen?
STRAUS: I haven’t made any promises to anybody, whether I get them or not. I’ve had this discussion with a lot of members: “If you’re not on my list, so what?” There’s no retaliation. What I told everybody is that once I pass 76, no pressure, no punishment, no more of the old rules. I’d love to have your name on the list, but it’s not everything to me. If not being on my list helps you, then I’m already doing my job as Speaker.” . . . When I hear someone calling to say, “Am I so much in the doghouse that I shouldn’t even call Joe?” or “Why hadn’t Joe called me? Am I in the doghouse?”—they don’t know what it’s going to be like yet, but they know what it has been like. All I can say is, it could be better.